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Organic On The Hill

Next Generation Genetic Engineering Techniques Have No Place in Organic: NOC Supports the NOSB Proposal to Update the Excluded Methods Definition

Abby Youngblood - Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The use of genetic engineering (GE), or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), is prohibited in organic regulations as an “excluded method”. National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) recommendations to prohibit GMOs date back to 1995, as the NOSB grappled with a way to exclude genetically engineered crops and processing inputs such as herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans, Bt cotton, and genetically engineered yeasts. 

In April of 2013, the NOSB embarked on a process to update the excluded methods definition. Many new GE technologies have emerged since 1995. While the NOP definition of excluded methods is strong and provides a description that encompasses a broad swath of new and emerging technologies, more clarity is needed for purposes of interpretation and enforcement.

Adopting the NOSB Proposal this Fall is Important

NOC strongly supports the proposal that the NOSB has put forward on excluded methods and we appreciate the significant work that has gone into this proposal over a period of several years. We believe the timely adoption of the proposal is critical for the following reasons:

  • The next wave of genetic engineering is already upon us. Now is our best opportunity to clarify that organic excludes these GMO 2.0 technologies, before broad adoption makes this much more difficult. Biotechnology companies are already using synthetic biology and new gene-editing techniques, such as CRISPR and TALEN, to cut DNA to make small genetic changes or insert genetic material. These methods are more precise compared to older GE methods, but there can still be off-target and unintended effects. Thorough and independent evaluations to assess the health, safety, socio-economic, and environmental impacts have not yet been done. Some GMO 2.0 foods are already on the market, such as non-browning apples and synthetic biology vanilla flavor and stevia. Companies are not telling consumers that these products are GMO and they may even be labeled as “natural.” Furthermore, many of these technologies rely on restrictive utility patents that prevent farmers from saving seeds and breeders from sharing or improving such seeds. 
  • The new GMO labeling law may put the GMO prohibition in organic at risk. The definition of “bioengineering” in the newly passed GMO Labeling Bill (“The National Bioengineering Food Disclosure Standard”) is much weaker than other definitions of genetically engineered foods. Furthermore, the bill has a provision that calls on the Secretary of Agriculture to consider harmonizing organic regulations and the new “bioengineering” definition. One of the lead Senate champions of the bill gave assurances that it is not the intent to require the USDA to harmonize organic regulations with the bill, but the other lead Senate champion declined to do so for the record.  Because of NOC's concerns about this, we asked USDA to make a formal statement on this matter.  Therefore, we were pleased when USDA issued a policy statement saying that the new labeling law will not impact the organic regulations.  However, we remain concerned that the change of administration could impact this policy.

So where does that leave us? We believe that the organic community will be in a far better position after adopting a clear recommendation from the NOSB that further clarifies the excluded methods definition.

The NOSB Proposal

The NOSB proposal includes a set of definitions to be adopted by the NOSB as excluded methods. The NOSB is proposing multiple definitions rather than trying to create one comprehensive definition that would have to encompass all future technologies. NOC agrees with this strategy and we have thoroughly vetted these definitions. We believe they are appropriate, necessary, clearly defined, and aligned with FDA definitions. We believe that the overarching term “modern biotechnology,” developed by the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC), is the most important definition, since documents and standards developed by the CAC are referenced by the World Trade Organization in trade disputes involving food and constitute a globally accepted standard. The definition of classical/traditional breeding is also important to have spelled out since it hasn’t been explicitly defined before.

The Principles and Criteria section of the proposal clearly explains how techniques should be evaluated to determine if they should be allowed in organic. Organic regulations are process-based and so too is this proposed system for determining excluded genetic engineering techniques. We know that new techniques will be continuously developed so this set of principles and criteria are essential for providing clarity on not-yet-developed methods. We applaud the NOSB’s efforts to protect farmers’ and breeders’ rights to improve and save seeds used in organic production.

Finally, we support the Terminology Chart, which makes clear the specific techniques that are allowed in organic production and can be updated on a regular basis as new technologies come online.

In summary, NOC urges the NOSB to adopt this proposal in full. We encourage others in the organic community to provide public comments in support of the proposal and to convey the importance of adopting this path forward at this point in time. This update represents our collective best attempt at a comprehensive framework and list that will not place undue burdens on the NOSB or allow unintended breaches or market confusion regarding organic’s positions on these very novel, un-tested, un-regulated new genetic techniques. 

NOC calls on NOP to strengthen and move forward with organic animal welfare standards

Abby Youngblood - Wednesday, July 20, 2016
Organic regulations currently require year-round outdoor access for all livestock raised in organic systems. Despite this requirement, not all organic producers are providing true outdoor access. This lack of consistency in the organic standards hurts both consumer and producer trust in the organic label. And organic livestock and poultry operations that already adhere to high standards are being undercut economically because of loopholes that allow a few very large operations to deny meaningful outdoor access.     

The National Organic Coalition (NOC) has long advocated for regulatory action by USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) to address animal welfare standards for organic poultry and livestock operations. We strongly support the passage of new rules to create clarity and consistency in the standards and to facilitate level enforcement.

Because the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and organic community have consistently called for meaningful outdoor access for poultry dating back to 1998, it is disingenuous for poultry operations that do not meet these requirements to claim that they have been taken by surprise. Furthermore, the proposed rule provides ample time to comply. NOC is urging the USDA to move expeditiously with the rulemaking process and implement the much-needed changes to the organic standards that will assure consumers and producers alike that farms meet basic animal welfare standards, including meaningful outdoor access for organic poultry.

In our detailed comments, we suggest significant changes to strengthen the proposed rule and also list parts of the proposed rule that we support.

For poultry:
NOC urges the NOP to require that at least 50 percent of outdoor areas are covered with vegetation, rather than bare soil. The NOSB recommendation for outdoor space requirements for poultry was developed in concert with their belief that the area would also be vegetated.  This vegetation is a cornerstone of providing a healthy, beneficial environment for the birds.  
Pasture-based systems of poultry production provide a high level of animal welfare because birds have access to vegetative cover, are moved frequently to new pasture, and there is no ammonia build up. These systems are distinct in several key ways from poultry production that relies on stationary houses. The NOP must put forward a separate set of requirements for pasture-based operations pertaining to space, perches, and dust baths, and we have provided specific language and suggestions in our draft comments. 
We support the clarification in the proposed rule that porches cannot be considered outdoor space (§ 205.241(c)(6)), that outdoor areas must include enrichment (§ 205.241(c)(1)), that producers are required to introduce birds to outdoor spaces early in life (§ 205.241(c)(1)), and that forced molting is prohibited (205.238(c)(10)). 
We urge the NOP to require more outdoor space for laying hens in systems that rely on stationary poultry houses. 2.25 pounds of hen per square foot of outdoor space is simply not enough space to allow for freedom of movement and living conditions that accommodate the natural behaviors of laying hens. 

For cattle:
Requiring that 50 percent of outdoor access be on soil is not appropriate during much of the non-grazing season and would create permanent conditions that threaten soil and water quality. This issue was grappled with and ultimately addressed via the “pasture rule”. We suggest changes to ensure that this proposed rule does not conflict with the “pasture rule.” 
We also ask for clarification through the regulatory language that bedded packs, compost packs, tie-stalls, free-stalls and stanchion barns are all acceptable as housing systems for dairy cattle.

For swine:
The proposed rule is inadequate in addressing the range of production systems for swine in a holistic way.
While NOC supports the parts of the rule that do address animal welfare for swine, including sections 205.239(a)(8 - 11) and 205.239(a)(4)(i), we believe the NOP must more fully address stocking densities and minimum space requirements, swine production in hoop houses, wallowing, types of bedding, pasture farrowing, and issues around soil and water quality. 
The NOP must provide further opportunities for public debate and input to ensure that the regulations provide high animal welfare for swine and are tailored to the multiple systems of production in use. 
We support the clarification provided by this proposed rule that swine in organic operations must have access to the soil, though we would like to see a three-year implementation period to ensure the producers who do not currently meet this requirement have time to comply.

Avian Influenza
We are aware of arguments that chickens should be confined continually indoors in order to protect food safety and animal health. These arguments seem to be primarily from producers whose poultry houses would not be able to accommodate the outdoor space requirements for all chickens. We do not agree with these arguments, as scientific studies indicate that indoor confinement is a risk factor, and therefore not part of the solution, for food safety and animal health problems. 

In July of 2015, NOC published a policy paper summarizing scientific research that demonstrates that confinement increases the risk that low pathogenic Avian Influenza (AI) will mutate into highly pathogenic AI (HPAI) because confinement decreases access to fresh air and because the birds are sitting on top of contaminated feces and dead bird carcasses. 

NOC asserts that organic systems that require that birds exhibit “natural behaviors” and require true outdoor access contribute to good animal health and food safety. Preventing future outbreaks of HPAI, salmonella, and other diseases and food borne illnesses should involve addressing the root of the problem, by building a system of poultry farming with low densities, outdoor access, and healthy birds with strong immune systems. 

Read NOC’s detailed comments on the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices Rule and our policy paper on avian influenza.

Statement in Opposition to the Roberts-Stabenow GMO labeling bill

Lea Kone - Monday, July 11, 2016
National Organic Coalition’s Statement 
in Opposition to the Roberts-Stabenow GMO labeling bill, which passed the Senate last week, and is heading to the House for action this week

The members of the National Organic Coalition are unanimously opposed to the Senate-passed version of GMO labeling legislation.   

The Senate GMO Labeling “compromise” bill championed by Senators Roberts and Stabenow falls far short:

The bill allows companies to use “quick response” or QR codes (a machine-readable code that can be read by a smartphone camera), 1-800 numbers and websites rather than fully transparent, on-package labels. Many consumers do not have access to smartphones or the ability to call multiple 1-800 numbers while shopping in search of information.

The bill has huge loopholes and exempts most GE foods from any labeling: the definition of “bioengineering” in the bill is much weaker than other definitions of genetically engineered foods, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) definition; as a result, this proposal runs the risk that soy and canola oil, sugar from GE beets, glyphosate-resistant crops, and most Bt crops would be exempt from labeling requirements. In response to concerns raised by FDA about the definitions in the bill, USDA issued a statement saying that the bill gives the agency the “authority” to require labeling for all of these products, but it stopped short of saying that the bill would require the agency to do so. When asked to clarify the vague definitions in the bill to ensure that the new definition does not result in exclusion of all of a broad list of GE products from labeling requirements, Senators Stabenow and Roberts declined to do so. This only confirms our concerns about the intent of these new definitions, and leaves USDA and the courts in the driver’s seat in deciphering Congress’ intent.    

There are no enforcement provisions: companies that do not comply face no penalties.

This bill is unnecessary. Many companies, including Kellogg’s, Frito Lay, General Mills, Mars, ConAgra, Dannon, and Campbell’s are already labeling genetically engineered products in response to the Vermont labeling law, which went into effect on July 1. This bill blocks Vermont’s law and gives the USDA two additional years to set labeling rules under this weak and meaningless framework. 

Unfortunately, the organic community is split with regard to this bill.

Some organic organizations have expressed qualified support for the Senate-passed bill because of the last-minute inclusion of provisions to make it easier for certified organic products to be labeled as non-GMO, and to ensure that meat and dairy products derived from animals fed GMO feed cannot be automatically labeled non-GMO, even though they are exempt for the “bioengineered” labeling requirements of the bill.    

While NOC members believe these non-GMO labeling clarifications are important, they are modest in comparison to the many problems of the bill. These problems include major concerns about the direct impact of the bill on organic farms, businesses and consumers: 

1) The bill could undermine GMO prohibitions in organic. A provision suggests that the new definition of genetic engineering (renamed  “bioengineering”) in the bill should be harmonized with the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) rules and regulations. Specifically, the bill says that the Secretary of Agriculture must “consider establishing consistency” between the new bioengineered disclosure standard in the bill and OFPA regulations and rules. We all know that organic is non-GMO and so much more.  But if USDA were to change existing definitions of genetic engineering to align with the new definitions of bioengineering in the bill, it could significantly undermine the role of organic as the gold standard for consumers seeking to purchase non-GMO products. The champions of the Senate GMO bill have given verbal assurances that USDA will not seek to harmonize the two standards based on this bill, but they declined make that clarification for the record. Because of the uncertainty created by this provision for organic farmers, businesses and consumers, USDA will be in the driver’s seat to clarify their intentions with regard to this provision.   

2) The bill prohibits States from requiring transparent labeling of GMO seeds. A provision in the preemption section of the Senate GMO labeling bill prohibits states from requiring clear labeling of GE/GMO seeds. It is particularly critical for organic farmers and other farmers selling to non-GMO markets to be able to know what type of seeds they are buying, so they are prohibited from using GE seeds. A couple of states- VA and VT - require clear labeling of GE seeds. This bill would preempt states from requiring that transparency, but does not even attempt to create any federal GMO seed labeling standards. Since the definitions of this bill begins to blur the lines between what is genetic engineering and what is not, the importance of clear seed labeling standards may become even more important. Yet this bill prohibits states from doing so, and fails to establish any federal authority to require such seed labeling transparency. [See Sec. 295(b) of the Senate passed bill]

3) Will the clear GMO food labels already in use in the marketplace be prohibited from use now or in the future? A provision in the Senate-passed bill creates uncertainty about whether or not all the clear, transparent GMO labels currently in the marketplace (as a result of the VT law) will be allowed to continue. Section 293(b)(1) of the Senate passed bill states "IN GENERAL.--- A food may bear a disclosure that the food is bioengineered only in accordance with regulations promulgated by the Secretary in accordance with this subtitle."   

The bill’s sponsors have given verbal assurances that they expect USDA to allow food companies be able to use existing labels until the new USDA regulations are written, and at that time, those regulations will determine if labels will need to be modified. But again the Senate sponsors of the bill declined to make any written assurances to this effect to clarify this matter, so the matter is entirely in the hands of USDA or the courts to clarify.  

The National Organic Coalition has consistently advocated for mandatory, meaningful, on-package labeling to ensure full transparency. 

Read our letter to Senators Roberts and Stabenow this past December, which explains why meaningful GMO labeling is needed and why QR codes do not work.

One of our strengths as a coalition is that we represent a full spectrum of stakeholders within the organic community: farmers and ranchers from all regions and sectors, certifiers, progressive businesses, and environmental and consumer advocacy organizations. It is indicative, then, that NOC is unequivocally opposed to this terrible bill that would use meaningless definitions of “bioengineering” to exempt most GMO ingredients from labeling requirements.

As the Senate bill heads to the House for action, NOC is urging member of the House to reject the unacceptable Senate bill and take the time to insist on a meaningful and transparent GMO labeling bill.  

Big Changes are Needed in the USDA Organic Program: The ‘2017 Sunset List’ must be split

Abby Youngblood - Wednesday, January 13, 2016
by Abby Youngblood

The organic label is one-of-a-kind. Opportunities for public participation are written into the law that created the National Organic Program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The organic law has created a unique partnership between diverse stakeholders in the organic community and the USDA. For this reason, the organic label has a level of transparency found nowhere else in our food system. 

The organic law requires a periodic review process that takes place at public meetings held twice yearly by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). Yes, some synthetic materials are allowed in organic, but the law requires a rigorous review process to determine that these materials are truly necessary and their use will not harm human health or the environment.

Organic is not about perfection, but it is about a transparent path to make our organic food system better and better with time. Every five years, the NOSB must affirm that the materials allowed on the National List for use in organic are still needed and check to make sure new evidence of harm has not emerged. For example, this past October, members of the NOSB removed 11 materials from the National List that they determined were no longer necessary in organic production and processing. 

An Unreasonable Task

The NOSB, however, is faced with an unreasonable task. Every five years, including this past year, the NOSB must review 198 material listings all in a single year. By comparison, most other years, the NOSB reviews somewhere between 10 and 20 material listings. In 2015, members of the NOSB doubled up on conference calls, put in thousands of hours over the year doing review and analysis, and solicited technical reports from the USDA for dozens of materials to complete the review of 198 material listings. 

Despite a herculean effort on the part of the board, the NOSB did not have the time to sufficiently review all of the ‘2017 sunset’ materials. More technical reports (TRs) were needed, but the board did not have the capacity or the resources to source and evaluate additional TRs. And the quality of the Stowe NOSB meeting suffered as a result of being saddled with the review of too many materials in too little time.

To ensure the most effective review possible, the workload needs to be manageable for the NOSB, NOP, and members of the public. The workload can be made more manageable through the use of standardized procedures that ensure detailed summaries/checklists are produced so that NOSB subcommittees can more efficiently share their reviews and conclusions with the full board and the public. In addition, a public docket, as recommended by the NOSB, would enable a greater partnership with the public in generating input that could be incorporated earlier in the process.

Nevertheless, the extremely uneven workload is surely unsustainable and is also inappropriate given that the NOSB is an all-volunteer board. The grouping of so many materials in one year is also unreasonable for other stakeholders in the organic community, who conduct careful analysis alongside the work of the board and provide highly technical comments regarding the necessity of materials and scientific research on their impact on the environment and to human health. 

Splitting the List
The NOSB and the National Organic Program (NOP) must take action now to split the list and ensure that future boards have a sustainable workload. The NOSB and NOP should also consider how to involve all stakeholders, including original petitioners of materials and users of those materials, in coming up with a fair way to divide the list, possibly using a random selection method. 

NOC offers the following ideas for consideration by the NOSB and members of the organic community: A good portion of the ‘2017 sunset’ materials could be reviewed on a shorter timetable. Most of the materials could be re-reviewed in just one, two, three, or four years time rather than five. The list should be divided relatively evenly between the years to provide adequate resources and to allow for the most effective review possible in compliance with the law. Following a one-time re-review on a shorter timetable, all materials would again be on a five-year review, but would be evenly dispersed.

To ensure that splitting the list does not pose an unreasonable burden on organic farmers and processors, the NOSB could consider the following option: If the NOSB decides to delist or restrict a material after moving the review date ahead of schedule, the change could be implemented on the original five-year timeline. This will give producers and processors the chance to restructure their operations as needed and to find and source alternatives.

If, however, the material is relisted, the future sunset date on that material would be permanently reset to create an enduring solution to the work load challenge posed by having so many materials grouped together as a part of the ‘2017 sunset’ list.

The NOSB and NOP should avoid taking all of the “easy” materials first for re-review, and instead review a mixture of both “controversial” and “easy” materials each year to avoid creating highly contentious and divisive future NOSB meetings. 

This is something that the entire organic community needs to do together and the affected stakeholders should participate in developing an acceptable solution. The periodic review process helps ensure organic integrity and consumer trust in the organic label. Splitting the ‘2017 sunset’ list is a key next step we need to take as an organic community to make the organic label stronger.

NOC asks senate leadership to reject a “rider” that would prevent states from labeling GE foods

Lea Kone - Monday, December 14, 2015
For years, consumer polling data has consistently shown – study after study at the level of 85% or above – that consumers want to know if the food they buy contains ingredients derived from genetic engineering (GE).

So why are we still so far from a federal comprehensive labeling bill?  In fact, we are currently working hard to hold the line on labeling as the Senate toys with the idea of a federal bill that would pre-empt states’ rights to label while paying lip service to labeling with a “technological fix” that replaces on-package labeling with a QR code – accessible with an app on your smart phone. The House has already passed a bill pre-empting state labeling and offering a “voluntary” labeling scheme, which we’ve had for the past 20 years and it hasn’t been used.

NOC recently wrote to Senate leaders to add our voice to those calling for mandatory GE labeling.

The arguments against labeling suggest that it is in some way inappropriate for consumers to want this information and that placing GE information on the label will disparage GE technology. This is wrong on so many levels.

FDA already requires food labels to contain information about many different ingredients and food production methods, such as:
Orange juice made from concentrate must be labeled as such.
Foods that have been irradiated must contain a symbol on the label.

A clear statement on a package stating “contains genetically engineered ingredients” would relay factual information without disparaging the technology, letting the consumer decide.  

Why Transparency?

The organic food system is by far the most transparent food labeling and production system we have.  Well-advertised and easily accessible label definitions as well as public involvement in the standard-setting process are just some of the reasons that consumer demand for organic continues to grow.

So it is no mystery that consumers want food labeling for GE ingredients. There are many valid reasons that consumers want this information, including:
Environmental and health implications of the herbicide and pesticide used with GE crops; the majority of GE crops today are either engineered to be resistant to herbicides, or contain pesticides within the plant’s DNA;
The connection between genetic engineering of crops and the concentration of food production in the hands of a few large companies, through the use of utility patents that restrict farmers’ rights to save seeds;
The connection between genetic engineering and narrowing of biodiversity, and the related implications for food security;
Genetic drift of GE traits into crops planted to serve organic and other non-GE markets; 
Concerns about farmers’ ability to make their own choices about their farming systems, and on consumers’ choices for the food they buy;
And yes, there are serious concerns that the FDA process for reviewing the safety of GE-based food is not rigorous enough, because it relies entirely on data provided and analyzed by companies owning the technology in question.

Despite these oft-cited concerns, FDA continues to argue that it would be inappropriate for the agency to require food labels to include information about GE ingredients because there is no material difference between genetically engineered foods and non-genetically engineered foods. Yet astoundingly, the US Patent Office grants patents on GE seeds precisely because these products are materially different than their conventional counterparts.

It is unscientific and poor public policy for one federal agency to grant billions of dollars of utility patent rights for GE technology based on a demonstration of material difference, and for another federal agency to be simultaneously denying consumers basic information about the use of that technology in their food, based on that agency’s claim of no materials difference.

Cost

The nation’s food companies have launched a well-coordinated campaign to argue that the costs of mandatory labeling would be prohibitive.  Some of these claims revolve around the assumption that all 50 states would pass their own GE labeling laws requiring food companies to label to 50 different standards. Clearly that would not be true with the creation of one federal, uniform standard for GE labeling.

Many of these same food companies who oppose federal mandatory GE labeling in the US are already complying with GE labeling in 64 other countries, where they sell identical products to those sold in the U.S. – and add the GE ingredient label.  Costs of labeling and label changes are an ongoing cost of doing business for food companies.

It is time for Congress to listen to their voters. It is time for a comprehensive and mandatory, on-package federal GE labeling law.

What’s wrong with QR codes?  Isn’t that Labeling?


There has been much discussion around the use QR codes – the alternative to on-package labeling that both the USDA Secretary of Agriculture, as well as the biotech and food industries, are now supporting.

There are many reasons QR codes are an inappropriate replacement for simple, mandatory, on-package labeling.  Specifically, QR codes require shoppers to have a smart phone – yet only about 64% of all Americans, and only about 50% of rural and low-income Americans actually have this technology.  Even with a smart phone, access to QR codes requires good cell or data service – often a problem in rural areas or concrete jungles, and often expensive.  

And imagine the shopping trip for the busy mother where each item must be scanned, in contrast to the simplicity of looking for a “contains genetically engineered ingredients” on the food label itself.  

Substituting clear and accessible on-package labeling with QR codes would be a form of discrimination against the poor, the rural, the elderly and many other groups. In the end, a substantial majority of Americans would be deprived of their right to know

Lastly, requiring shoppers to use their personal cell phones to access a company’s website would allow those companies to gather personal data from shoppers, raising serious privacy concerns.




NOC advocates for increased funding for organic research

Abby Youngblood - Tuesday, November 24, 2015

November 24, 2015

At the end of last month, the White House and members of Congress struck a deal that will increase overall discretionary spending by $30 billion in fiscal year 2016. To prevent a government shutdown, congress must determine how to appropriate those additional funds and pass an omnibus spending bill by December 11.

NOC would like to see more of that money used for organic research. Organic continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Organic sales now make up nearly 5% of total food sales, and a much higher percentage for certain products.

Federal Funding for Organic Research is Miniscule

Funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s flagship competitive research grant program, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative or AFRI, is on the rise. But according to the USDA’s own data, the percentage of AFRI funding dedicated to organic research is only about one-tenth of one percent (0.1 percent) annually.

Similarly, the Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) has received significant increases in funding in recent years. This should be good news for organic research, because about 12 percent of U.S. fruit and vegetable sales are for organic products.  But according to USDA’s own data, only about 2 percent of the SCRI program was spent on organic research over the 2010-2014 timeframe.

There are two very important organic-specific research programs: the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension (OREI) Program and the Organic Transitions Program (ORG). But unfortunately funding for these two programs has been stagnant in recent years.

NOC meets with more than 80 members of congress and staffers

Over the summer, members of NOC met with more than 80 members of congress and their staffers to advocate for organic. During these meetings, we asked our senators and representatives to introduce “report language” through the appropriations process to draw attention to the need for more organic research funding.

Though consumer demand for organic is strong, we recognize that some of that demand will be met with imports unless we increase domestic production. Research is an important part of the solution to increase domestic organic production because research topics often relate to challenges faced by organic farmers. In fact, the National Organic Standards Board, USDA’s advisory committee for organic agriculture, regularly issues a list of unmet organic research needs and priorities.  In many cases, the benefits of organic research can accrue to conventional farmers as well. 

As a result of our advocacy, we were thrilled to see report language included in both the senate and house agriculture appropriations subcommittees encouraging the USDA to ensure that the needs of the U.S. organic sector are more fully addressed through AFRI and highlighting the key research needs identified by the National Organic Standards Board.

NOC is continuing our advocacy this fall by urging key senators and representatives to allocate some of the additional resources that are available as a result of the budget deal to the Organic Transition Program. Funding for this program was cut by 20% in recent years, while consumer demand for organic products is skyrocketing and the ability of the U.S. organic farming sector to keep pace with that demand is dwindling. 

Ramping up domestic production and meeting the challenges of our changing climate is dependent on our ability to continuously innovate. Organic farmers need seeds that are adapted to regional conditions, organic management, and changing weather patterns. And we need new ways to control pests and diseases that are compatible with the principles of organic production.

We are encouraged to see that members of congress are joining us in advocating for the necessary funding to ensure that organic production systems in the United States remain competitive and cutting edge.

Oral Comments to NOSB- Steve Etka, NOC

Lea Kone - Wednesday, November 12, 2014

As many of you know, NOC has been very vocal about our concerns with the unilateral changes in the sunset process made by the National Organic Program on September 16, 2013. The Department’s action is a significant reinterpretation of the law, which essentially turns OFPA on its head and re-defines the word “sunset,” to mean exactly the opposite.

Let me say that one thing that we do like is that the new process of sunset review is that the process of review starts earlier, which we hope will give the Board time needed to get through the process, which has been a problem in the past.  

Our concerns about the sunset policy change have been many, but let me highlight the main three concerns:

1) Process:  This is a major change in the interpretation of OPFA, and its highly controversial.   At the very least, USDA should have proposed this change as part of a public notice and comment process.  

2) Who makes the decisions?  The new “sunset” process has created a great deal of confusion regarding the role of NOSB Subcommittees versus the full Board in making materials listing decisions.  While the Subcommittees should be doing a lot of the groundwork for considering materials, the full Board should make the final decisions about listing or re-listing a material.   To their credit, NOP staff has spent a lot of time in recent months to clarify that the full Board will vote on and make all materials listing decisions. We are concerned however that the mechanism used to make that happen within the context of the new sunset process is much more tortured and confusing than it needs to be.   Having all Subcommittees vote to remove all materials up for sunset review, and then having the Subcommittees take an additional vote on the same material to be on record about what they really think about the material, is too confusing.   And that leads to our final concern about the new sunset review policy.

3) What is the Board actually voting on?  Re-Listing or De-Listing

We strongly believe that OFPA is very clear in its presumption of no-synthetics as the standard for organic, and that the law intentionally establishes a high hurdle of a super majority NOSB vote in order to allow a synthetic to be used for 5 years, and the same high hurdle for it be renewed or relisted.  And if that standard is not met, the law is clear that the material goes off the List.  Historically, most materials on the List have met this high hurdle to be re-listed at sunset.   When the sunset vote is on the question of whether or not to re-list the material after 5 years, the process is much more transparent, simple and direct.

We agree that there are some process changes needed in order to make sunset work in a more transparent and efficient manner. In that context, the National Organic Coalition put together a white paper on this subject.  In short, we argue that the sunset process will be much better if there is a clear and easily accessible record of decision for materials up for sunset review, so that the NOSB members and the public has access to all past decisions on that material and all past technical reviews or TAP reviews, so that any past issues of concern can be debated and that any gaps in that record can be resolved. I realize that we are preaching to a very large choir on this, and that NOP and the NOSB have been working toward this goal.  Prioritizing this task within the agency now, will make everything work much more smoothly in the future.

In closing, I wanted to thank the Board for putting together a list of research priorities, and to thank NOP staff for relaying these priorities to the research branch at USDA—NIFA.     This direct communication between AMS and NIFA is critical as the Board and NOP confront challenging issues that relate to organic standards.

Thank you.   


Oral Comments to NOSB-Liana Hoodes, NOC

Lea Kone - Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The National Organic Coalition is a national alliance of organizations working to provide a "Washington voice" for farmers, ranchers, environmentalists, consumers and industry members involved in organic agriculture.  NOC seeks to advance organic food and agriculture and ensure a united voice for organic integrity, which means strong, enforceable, and continuously improved standards to maximize the multiple health, environmental, and economic benefits that only organic agriculture affords. The coalition works to assure that policies are fair, equitable, and encourage diversity of participation and access.

Thanks to the NOP and to the NOSB for all your work, and specifically to Joe Dickson, Jay Feldman, John Foster and Wendy Fulwider, for their tenure on this board during these past five years.

First, from NOC’s dairy farmers to USDA:  Please make the Origin of Livestock Rule happen –   make it  a NOP priority and actively shepherd the regulation through the various levels of approval as you do with other rules – it has languished long enough.

I begin my oral comments by making a significant correction to NOC’s written comments submitted to the docket on October 7.

You have just heard from Steve Etka regarding our concerns with the Sept. 2013 NOP Sunset Policy.  Despite the fact that we have been vocal and detailed in our concerns for over a year now, I apparently got confused in our comments.

For the materials:   L-Malic Acid, and Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, we used the phrase – “allow to sunset”.  As per the details of our comments, we were implying that these materials should come off the list.  Yet, I have since been corrected that “allow to sunset” now means “allow to stay on the list”.  Is that true?

I get  – and object – that the default vote is now to keep a material on this list.  But under what usage of the word sunset, does ‘sunsetting’ a substance lead to it remaining status quo?  This is clearly NOT the intent of the framers of OFPA.

I have often gotten up here to remind us  – advocates, industry, NOSB and USDA – that we are not just working for the green marketing label and increased sales, but  to advance those added values that organic offers our entire society –    health and environment.  Truthfully,  you all haven’t needed reminding – these are values inherent to the very definition of organic that you work hard at all the time.

Yet, organic as the alternative food and agriculture system includes more than just health and environment.    Whether or not USDA’s label includes it, organic worldwide means social justice and fairness to all who work in the food and agriculture system.

In addition, there is yet another value that recent USDA actions don’t acknowledge  – the added value  of transparency.  Both in the law and the intent of the authors of the law, there is a place for the entire organic community to publicly voice their opinions – and have them listened to by USDA –  during public NOSB meetings.  This has been inherent in how this program has functioned.

Transparency is clearly what consumers want – what both the GMO labeling movement and the non-GMO label are about.  The common refrain is that “we have a right to know what is in our food.”

Organic provides that transparency much more comprehensively than any other label

Organic prohibits GMOSs AND toxic pesticides,

there are   twice a year very public NOSB meetings, 

a website that notes every synthetic (and more) allowed or being proposed in organic,

and there is ongoing  Notice and Comment Rulemaking.

Organic is and should be awash in public transparency.

So let’s stop saying that lound and public criticism is hurting organic. This is a democracy and we should embrace the publicity.

So let’s stop accusing advocates of hurting organic because they dare to be loud about keeping organic as the highest bar. This is a democracy and we should make a public fuss.

The response in a democracy should not be to silence the publicity, but to embrace it.  Organic should be the most democratic part of our food supply.  The message from USDA, from Industry, and from Advocates should be that “Organic is not about perfection – it’s about a transparent  path to getting better and better at it (that’s continuous improvement).  Are synthetics an exception in organic?  Yes they are, but they are specifically allowed to exist in a robust ongoing review process.  Nowhere else in our food supply can we know precisely what is in our food.

Yet the fights that have happened over the years have sought to limit this transparency.

For instance, regarding NOC’s comments on materials in this docket may seem as though  we are saying no to so many products, but we are mostly saying no to the incomplete process here.  If the public is going to have this significant extra time far out to comment on list materials, then we need the information to comment with.  We endorse the NOSB’s new CBI policy and believe that it needs to apply to all materials.  If it takes some time to remove CBI from old petitions, so be it, but give the public the time and information to comment.

For instance,  many basic terms are still not clear or defined, such as fermentation, ancillary substances, microorganisms.  Our review of materials is limited for lack of clarity of these terms

Fermentation:  Evaluating fermentation processes and products of these processes.  For instance, new synthetic biology has been characterized as ‘natural fermentation’.  Synthetic Biology has also been characterized as “extreme genetic engineering”.

Ancillary substances :  Identification and evaluation of all ancillary substances in each review.

Microorganisms:  Definition of scope of the term “microorganisms” and evaluation of their manufacturing process  (see fermentation, above).

Comprehensive sunset review of hundreds of old materials is necessary. Yes, it will be massive work, but once done will set a precedent for the future that no other part of our food supply will be able to duplicate.   We must as a community support NOP in finding the resources to accomplish this task  – not support USDA’s attempt to shortcut this process.

NOC is very disappointed that the Department did not move forward with review of any inerts during the tenure of Jay Feldman, a nationally renowned expert on inerts.  Years ago, he proposed an efficient pathway for comprehensive review of all inerts currently allowed in organic,  and it is a shame that this did not advance.

We are however thankful to the NOSB that you are now embarking on figuring out what the organic world considers Genetic Engineering to be – refining the definition of excluded methods.  This will be very difficult – let’s embrace the controversy and march organic ahead of the curve of GE labeling.

You are also leading the way in examining contamination in organic – yes, it exists, and is likely to increase.  By facing it head on, we can say to the world that organic in the US will work to limit this contamination from all sources – without tying the hands of farmers – and that we demand shared responsibility from the rest of agriculture.

Organic labeling can continue to be the gold standard in agriculture, food and democracy, if we can all agree to have open conversations and embrace the process as well as our imperfections.


Building Organic Bridges: Report from the IFOAM Organic World Congress 2014

Lea Kone - Thursday, November 06, 2014

By Elizabeth Henderson 


Aware of the rumbles of violence on Turkey’s borders and the urgent pressures of global warming, mounting social inequality, hunger and fear, the IFOAM Organic World Congress (OWC) assembled in Istanbul to consciously lay out a vision of hope, cooperation and justice. 

“We, the organic-minded people of the world, have come together to assist society with innovative ways to manifest the Principles of Organic Agriculture to help humanity sustain itself on Earth. Committed to showcase how we can meet the challenge of sustainability, we extend ourselves to build bridges to other people, organizations, and institutions. During the 18th Organic World Congress we have come together to make a step in developing Organic 3.0, a new concept for how we define our agriculture system, how we design our lives, and how we strategize our future.” (OWC Declaration on Building the Bridge to Organic 3.0)

At the opening plenary, the lovely and modest Gunesin Aydemir, one of the leaders of the Turkish Bugday Association that organized the OWC and widow of its beloved founder Victor Ananias to whose memory the Congress was dedicated, sketched a broad frame for the week of workshops, meetings and networking:
  
Building bridges between:
“The land and the people…
The East and the West…
The consumer and the producer…
The tradition and technology…
The past and the future.”

IFOAM, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, unites over 800 affiliates from 117 countries with the mission of “leading, uniting and assisting the organic movement in its full diversity.” Some of the same people who started the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA)  have been involved since its founding in 1972.  Summarizing what goes on at an OWC is worse than trying to cover all of the workshops at a NOFA summer conference.  There are 16 or 17 choices at almost every slot -  three double or triple tracks (practitioners, scientists and a main track) and a series of specialized sessions all running simultaneously as well as ancillary meetings. Fortunately, the conference organizers provide a CD with proceedings, 2 – 3-page written versions of the hundreds of presentations delivered in person.  Enough for a whole winter of reading.  You can order a copy from the IFOAM head office in Bonn.

I have had the honor and pleasure of representing NOFA at most of the OWCs since 1996.  This time, I was very pleased that Connecticut organic farmer Steve Munno came too, and I hope he got a taste for this level of international dialogue. The next OWC will be in India in 2017. 

Each day, the OWC opens with inspirational talks by keynote speakers. (Video recordings will be available.) Kathleen Merrigan talked about the growth of the US movement for change in the food system. Christian Felber stood on his hands to illustrate the inversion we must effect to turn the economy into a positive force for the common good. Japanese organic farmer Seiji Sugeno, displaced by the Fukushima catastrophe, brought a powerful appeal that nuclear power and organic farming are not compatible.  Cameroon farmer Elisabeth Atangana made a moving case for empowering women and youth. Anna Moore Lappe gave a brilliant summary of all the work being done to spread organic beyond a niche for the affluent. Will Allen dazzled the audience with a lightning slide show of the remarkable accomplishments of Growing Power, recycling an old set of greenhouses into a center for urban agriculture, harnessing worm power, raising fish, training youngsters and selling organic food to the city school system.  

After his talk, I introduced Will to Shi Yan Sina, founder of the first CSA in China (see my article on “The CSA Movement in China,” on the Urgenci.net website). They talked for two hours - I loved hearing the exchange between these two dedicated and creative innovators. Shi Yan and her husband Cunwang Cheng have left their first CSA, Little Donkey, and initiated another with less government support.  Now in its third year, Share the Harvest Farm has grown to 500 shares.  As at Little Donkey, a team of village peasants farms together with Shi Yan, Cheng and 3 other college graduates.  Cheng is production manager while Shi Yan runs the CSA.  The annual Chinese CSA conference that they coordinate has grown to 500 CSAs. Together they are also organizing the next International CSA conference in November 2015. (For more information, see here)

I was particularly moved by a few of these remarkable speakers.  Patrick Mooney, Executive Director of the ETC. Group in Canada, warned that we have one last chance and must have the guts to unite the whole food movement to force governments to take decisive action to stop climate change. A hopeful symbol that governments can listen, the Bhutan Minister of Agriculture and Forests, Lyonpa Yeshey Dorji, explained his country’s decision to be 100% organic by 2020. Closest to my point of view were the words of Gursul Tanbul, a Turkish woman farmer, who laid out the terms of the on-going struggle between ecology and economic globalization. 90% of the world’s people want another economic system, she insisted and, in angry tones, asked “How long will it take for farmers to enjoy the fruits of our work?” In closing, Gursul appealed to the soul of Victor Ananias for help and concluded by wishing good luck to us all in the work that lies ahead.

In final messages, researchers Uygun Aksoy and Gerald Rahmann pleaded for increased contact and cooperation between scientists and practitioners. They explained that research funding for organic is not yet adequate and must be apportioned more evenly around the globe. Andre Leu had the last words, thanking Bhutan for inspiration, asking the critical Rasl Petrev from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) how organic can do better. Summarizing these three intense days, Leu said we’ve looked at climate change, pollution, GMO contamination, the need for social justice. IFOAM wants to continue hearing from the people assembled in Istanbul and hopes we will take home what we have learned.

When there are so many enticing choices, you just have to plunge in and make the most of each moment. I would have liked to have followed the entire seeds and breeds track, but will have to look to the reports from Holli Cederholm of OSGATA, my roommate for the week.  Since I had participated in the Sustainable Organic Agriculture Action Network process (See Winter 2013 TNF for my article on SOAAN), I had the exciting chance to take part in the Main Track. This was a series of discussions and “fish bowl” sessions designed to allow a long list of chosen speakers as well as volunteers from the audience to contribute to creating “Organic 3.0,” the future direction of the organic movement.  With Nadia El-Hage Scialabba, from FAO, Beatte Huber, of the Swiss Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), Matthew John, World Board member from India, Urs Niggli, also of FiBL, and Alan Savory, creator of wholistic management, I was on a panel that discussed “Organic Visions and Trends,” tackling some big questions - “What does the Organic World today look like in a nutshell? How are we to understand sustainability? What are our main achievements? What are the shortcomings of Organic agriculture?” My main points were that the organic world still reflects too closely the inequalities of the larger economy. I asked that a critical indicator of future success be the number of family-scale farms and their prosperity. As in the chant “No Justice, No Peace!,” I said that  “there cannot be a truly sustainable food system without justice for the people who grow, pack, ship, process and sell the food and also those who eat it.” And I concluded by quoting California organic farmer Jim Cochran, “if we are worried about insects and the environment, for God’s sake, what about the people?!” 

At the final Main Track session, “The Roadmap to Sustainability: the Organic World 2017 and 2020,” George Siemon, founder of Organic Valley, argued that feeling a sense of community is just as important as the marketplace as a measure of organic growth.  Roberto Ugas pointed out that in Peru growth has been fastest in non-certified organic and Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS). Former World Board presidents Katherine diMatteo and Gunnar Rundgren both urged that we be more radical. “We sold ourselves to the devil of the marketplace,” Gunnar exclaimed, “We need a new story, the story of food as a human right, and a philosophical shift to managing the planet as common good.” 

Besides the Main Track, I attended sessions on CSA around the world, always trying to keep up with the many new projects in new countries.  I listened to a discussion between the IFOAM Standards Committee (SC) and Will Allen on aquaponics. Unlike the high tech recirculatory systems, Will’s approach involves growing plants in pots of soil fertilized by worm castings together with fish tank effluent. A biosecure method of raising the fingerlings is a critical aspect of his approach and his system can only be used for selected breeds of fish.  The SC did not come to a decision, but concluded that they need to judge and evaluate the entire system.  I gave a paper for the Practitioners’ track – “The IFOAM Principle of Fairness: How to bring it to life on a farm or food business,” and was deeply inspired by Medina Charita’s report on the work of Masipag:  “The Practice of Biodiversity Conservation and Agroecology to Enhance Climate Change Resilience of Organized Small Scale Organic Farmers in the Philippines.”
I was NOFA’s official delegate to the IFOAM General Assembly, the membership meeting that takes place every three years after the OWC. Members guide organizational policies through the election of the World Board and by proposing and voting on motions.  To enable fuller discussion of motions than can take place on the floor of the GA, there is a “motion Bazaar,” where proposers and challengers can hash out controversial issues and specific wording.  This time, the Motion bazaar took place in the evening on a boat that cruised around the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn.  Istanbul really struts its stuff at night, the facades of historic buildings and bridges illuminated with colored lights.  Another advantage of meeting on a boat - no one could leave early.  I wish we could try this process for policy development at NOFA annual meetings! 

By the time motions get to the General Assembly, many of the votes are unanimous.  We voted for  motions favoring a campaign on the importance of Organic Agriculture in building soil health and carbon storage during the 2015 UN International Year of Soils, and for clarification and strengthening of the IFOAM position on GMOs. We voted for IFOAM to be an advocate of nuclear phase outs and their replacement with renewable energy, for the establishment of an international beekeeping group and an animal husbandry alliance.  We also voted to recommend that the World Board strengthen its ties with like-minded movements like CSAs, peasant movements and permaculture, and lead the world debate on “improving the life, welfare and justice for farmers and farm workers.” You can read the full texts of all the motions in the next edition of IFOAM in Action.

Through intentional efforts to achieve diversity, the membership has spread around the globe. Most continents have “self-organized structures” – IFOAM Asia, Africa, and Latin America - and there is also a farmer group – the Intercontinental Network of Organic Farming Organizations (INOFO) which has an IFAD funded project to train more farmer leadership. At the General Assembly that followed the OWC, we elected a World Board that includes one North American (Peggy Miars, of OMRI), three Europeans, an African, two Latin Americans, two Asians and the President, Andre Leu is a farmer from Australia.

IFOAM priorities have shifted over the years from leading the world in creating organic standards, to harmonizing the many different sets of standards for smooth international trade, to the current focus on strengthening and empowering smallholder farmers as the path to ending world hunger and creating a sustainable future. The recent declarations from the UN Rapporteur on World Hunger and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that the best way to feed the world is by improving the organic practices on millions of tiny farms are evidence that IFOAM has been working behind the scenes for decades with other civil society representatives to make the case for this crucial policy focus.

The weekend before the OWC, I participated in three pre-conferences at the Yeditepe University of Istanbul. The first, Building Food Communities was a full day of presentations and discussions of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) in ever more countries. Our goal was to showcase outstanding examples and stimulate more local organizing of primary producers, their customers and communities. The theme attracted 170 people including organizers and farmers from Turkey, the Philippines, Latin America, China and Europe.  In his welcome, Andre Leu reiterated his conviction that empowering small holder farmers all over the world is IFOAM’s most important commitment.  I introduced the CSA theme, laying out the shared values that unite the many different ways it is brought to life. There were presentations on Urgenci and its work spreading CSAs in Eastern Europe and North Africa, and on CSAs in China, the US, Ireland and Croatia. In the breaks, I met the founders of the first CSAs in Turkey, an urban farmer from Bangkok who reviewed the newly published Thai translation of my book Sharing the Harvest, and had lively exchanges with farmers and organizers of CSAs in Australia, Switzerland, and Peru. You can read a full report of Building Food Communities on the Urgenci website.

The meeting of INOFO, the self-organized group of organic farmers, brought together farmer organizations representing hundreds of thousands of small scale farmers from Africa, Latin America, and Asia with only a few Europeans. Once again, I was the only North American.  Andre Leu underlined the official IFOAM position that farmers do not have to be certified organic to be included. His opening speech set the tone for the day – “Production,” Leu stated,”is easy. The hard part is getting paid for our work.  We need to take control of marketing.” By the end of the day, INOFO had selected new “convenors,” responsible for communicating with other farming groups in their part of the world, and set up working groups on such themes as cooperative marketing, farmer training, and farmer-scientist research.  IFAD is providing funding for a 3-year project to build capacity and train more farmer leadership in Asia, Africa and Latin America.  You can read more about this project on the IFOAM website

The third pre-conference was a meeting of the Technology Innovation Platform of IFOAM   (TIPI), a research action network  initiated by the Swiss Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) in collaboration with other research institutions around the world. I was one of five farmers from five continents invited to present farmers’ research needs. At this gathering, we reviewed the first draft of “A Global Vision and Strategy for Organic Farming Research.”  This will be an extraordinarily important statement defining an agenda “to advance organic agriculture through research, development, innovation and technology transfer” that prioritizes farmer-researcher cooperation, whole farm and integrated multi-disciplinary projects that foster rural development, and “provide food for the health and well-being available to all.”  Urs Niggli, a Swiss researcher and one of its main architects,  makes the hopeful argument that organic agriculture has the greatest potential to balance the trade-offs between productivity and the sustainable use of the environment and limited resources as well as the trade-offs between  productivity and the social/ethical aspects of farming, 

By the time this pre-conference ended, the roads to the center of Istanbul where most of us were staying were totally clogged with traffic.  Instead of 3 hours in a bus, the organizers proposed that the buses drop us off on the Asian side of the Golden Horn where we could take a ferry to the dock closest to Taksim Square.  My companion on this adventure was Pascal Gbenou, the African farmer in our team of five.  During our scenic voyage, he told me the story of his farm, SAIN (Solidarites Agricoles Integres) in Kakanitchoe, Benin and later showed me photos. (You can view these on the website)  Born the youngest and only male child to a farming family, his father was determined Pascal should attend a university.  Much to his parents’ displeasure, he wanted to farm.  In their village of 1200, he developed a diversified organic farm with vegetables, fruit, rice, chickens and fish, selling his produce to local people.  Dissatisfied that village children could only attend school if they moved to a city, Pascal went on a campaign to persuade every parent to chip in little money so that they could buy a small piece of land and start a school.  This year, much to Pascal’s delight, the first graduates of the school went off to universities.  On his farm, he has established a more advanced educational center for local youngsters to learn ecological farming; to fund this school, he built cottages on the farm where he welcomes international eco-tourists. The same age as my son, 43, Pascal has never married, devoting his energies to building this successful farm, the schools, organizing other farmers in a national association and also completing university studies.  I was grateful for the traffic jam.
                                                   …

My trip to Istanbul has filled my memory with positive images and leaves me full of hope. The final OW Congress declaration shows that I was not alone in calling for social justice and fairness: “We call on all stakeholders to join with us to affirm our interdependence and assume shared responsibility for the collective health and prosperity of humanity. We call for policy reform that empowers the organic paradigm and supports it with positions, educational campaigns, and tools. We reach out and build bridges to others to reduce farm practices and inputs that have adverse effects, to build diversity, to create fairness, and to improve nutrition and health.”

Now, back to work…

Trends in Organic

Lea Kone - Monday, August 04, 2014

In the dozen years since implementation of the federal Organic Standards, the organic sector has been growing by leaps and bounds driven by, and in many cases outpaced by, strong growth in consumer demand.   But because of the complexity and diversity of the organic sector, there are many things that we don’t actually know about the trends of organic production in the United States. 

One of the policy priorities of the National Organic Coalition has been to secure federal funding for USDA to conduct detailed surveys of U.S. organic farmers on a regular basis to be able to understand the trends that underpin the growth in U.S. organic production.  For the past several months, NOC (along with other organic policy colleagues) has worked closely with USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) to urge them to make significant additions to the survey that is scheduled to be distributed to all U.S. organic farmers at the end of 2014.  

Our primary goal has been to urge the agency to add questions that were asked in the first wide-scale organic production survey administered by USDA in 2008.  In order to analyze trend data about the shape, scale, and characteristics of U.S. organic production between 2008 and 2014, this year’s survey will need to include questions that are as similar as possible to the original questions.  

NASS has listened!  The survey will now include most of the questions that we requested see just a few examples below.    This is a major win for the organic sector.    This decision by NASS, in response to the NOC request, will allow tracking of trends related to:

  • total acreage of cropland, pastureland, and rangeland transitioning to organic;
  • farmers’ organic sales as a percentage of total agricultural sales;
  • changes in productions costs facing organic farmers;
  • the primary challenges that organic farmers face, and how those challenges have changed over time;
  • future production plans for organic farmers over the next 5 years;
  • the prevalence of use of marketing and/or production contracts in the U.S. organic sector, and changes in their usage since 2007.  
  • sales for organic producers, and whether those sales are to local, regional, national or international markets. 
  • net household income from the production and sale of organic products.

The important data that we expect to be gathered as a result of this new survey will be critical to understanding the trends and challenges of the organic sector for years to come.

The bottom line for US organic farmers is that if we can assess how and whether they are benefiting from the incredible growth of the organic marketplace, we can develop policies to assure their continued success.


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