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Key Outcomes from Jacksonville NOSB Meeting

Posted: November 7, 2017

Key Outcomes from Jacksonville NOSB Meeting

This past week, members of the National Organic Coalition gathered in Jacksvonville, Florida, for the Fall NOSB meeting and NOC Pre-NOSB meeting. Figuring out how to address enforcement challenges and fraud with organic imports was a major topic of discussion during the Pre-NOSB meeting and on subsequent days. A recent report from the Office of Inspector General (OIG) at the USDA highlights shortcomings in the USDA National Organic Program’s ability to ensure the integrity of imported products. While several non-governmental and non-profit organizations have been sounding the alarm on the imports issue for well over a year, this OIG report, combined with Washington Post stories from the past several months that discuss myriad enforcement challenges, domestic and international, has created a sense of urgency and focused attention from industry, certifiers, and the USDA National Organic Program on finding ways to strengthen enforcement.

NOC and many other partners agree that the USDA is understaffed and does not have the necessary resources to oversee the nearly $50 billion organic industry. We are calling on Congress to allocate additional resources and authorities through the appropriations process and upcoming Farm Bill legislation. A recent bill, put forward by Representative John Faso (D-NY) is one such opportunity to strengthen enforcement. NOC has endorsed this bill and we are asking partners and stakeholders to make calls right now to your Representatives to voice support for this effort and to get additional co-sponsors.

In addition, NOC is calling on the National Organic Standards Board to go beyond the imports issue to strengthen enforcement across the board and to address problems we are seeing in the dairy and poultry sectors, as well as problems with oversight of the National Organic Program’s accreditation process. NOC staff and member organizations discussed this issue at greater length in the oral and written testimony we delivered in Jacksonville.

The Jacksonville meeting was a particularly challenging meeting – the discussion over hydroponic production reveals that we are a community deeply divided over the most appropriate way to regulate these types of operations. NOC has long called on the NOP to establish clear and consistent standards before allowing certifiers to certify hydroponic, aeroponic, and aquaponic operations. We believe this consistency in standards across certifying bodies is fundamental to the integrity of the seal and are dismayed that the USDA has allowed certification of more than fifty hydroponic and aquaponic operations without this clarity.

NOC was in support of the Crops Subcommittee recommendations to prohibit hydroponic, aeroponic, and aquaponic production. And we urged the NOSB to support the Crops Subcommitee recommendation on container production as a compromise solution that allows container growing to continue when it is founded on the principle of feeding the soil, not the crop. We note that highly soluble crop nutrients (which the hydroponics industry and many container systems are heavily reliant on) have been thought of as inappropriate for organic farming right from the start. This is discussed in the preamble to the NOP final rule. The failed Crops Subcommittee proposal on container production would have placed a restriction that is consistent with the intent of the final rule and founding principles of the organic movement and also with how other highly soluble nutrients, such as Chilean nitrate, have been regulated.

With the exception of the proposal to prohibit aeroponic production in organic (which passed with 14 NOSB members in support and 1 abstention), the proposals to prohibit hydroponic and aquaponic, and a proposal to impose limitations on container production failed with only 7 NOSB members in favor and 8 opposing (10 votes, a 2/3 majority was required to pass these proposals).

This vote was accompanied by a strong sense of betrayal from some sectors of the organic community.  

So where do we go from here? In Jacksonville, NOSB members discussed the possibility of a label for “hydroponic organic” products – this is something we might see on the NOSB’s work agenda for the upcoming Tucson meeting. 

Some are turning to Rodale’s Regenerative Organic Certification program as a new “gold standard” that seeks to build on and go beyond the USDA Organic Certification (the Rodale program will not be inclusive of hydroponic operations). However, NOC recognizes the critical importance of continued and sustained efforts to preserve and strengthen integrity to the USDA organic seal – it will serve as the foundation for any “organic plus” certification programs. The fundamentals of the USDA organic program are strong and the NOSB itself is entirely unique in the level of transparency and public participation that it provides to the standards setting process for the organic seal. 

We’ve come too far to relinquish what started as grassroots, movement-led program at the USDA and has turned into a nearly $50 billion industry. We will continue to look to and support the work of the NOSB. The board plays a critical leadership role and their work can lay the foundation to address challenges we are facing within the organic sector on multiple fronts. 

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