INSIDE ORGANIC: Putting Organic Integrity First at the NOP: Is This New USDA Commitment for Real? (Nov/Dec 09)

by Roger Blobaum · Inside Organics · Nov/Dec 2009

Is it possible organic integrity could become Priority Number One at the U.S. Department of Agriculture after all these years of inattentive oversight, lack of political support, lax and uneven enforcement, stingy appropriations, and poor management?

This could actually happen. The National Organic Program’s problems are being tackled one by one in a coordinated effort at USDA. The focus is on fixing a troubled program that has fallen short in meeting consumer expectations and failed to provide the organic sector benefits promised when the Organic Foods Production Act was passed 19 years ago.

The NOP also has repeatedly failed organic farmers with false starts and delays in issuing regulations needed to fully implement the 1990 law. More than 60 rulemaking and other recommendations produced by the National Organic Standards Board over several years are backed up at USDA with no schedule for followup. Decisions that need to be made are stalled, delayed, or postponed.

Probably the most serious is failure to complete a standard to guarantee real outdoor access to livestock, including pasture for dairy animals. The need for this standard was one of six priority issues identified in 1998 in the 278,000 public comments that forced USDA to withdraw the first proposed rule and rewrite it. Now, 11 years later, the organic pasture access standard is still not done.

It appears help is on the way. Important moves made over the last few months include agreeing to permit independent continuous outside oversight of the NOP, hiring an experienced organic program manager qualified to whip the NOP into shape, elevating the NOP to a stand-alone program within USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, and appointing five highly qualified new members to the 15-member NOSB.

NOP Moved Up in USDA Bureaucracy

The NOP also is getting more respect within the USDA bureaucracy. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has informed Congress that the NOP will no longer be stuck at the bottom of the chain of command in the Transportation and Marketiing Program at USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. He said upgrading the NOP to stand-alone program status under the AMS administrator will help support organic agriculture’s growth and ensure proper oversight and enforcement.

“Establishing the NOP as a stand-alone program area illustrates to the organic industry, Congress, and the public that the Department recognizes the importance of organic agriculture, supports its growth, and is committed to protecting the integrity of the organic label,” Vilsack told Congress.

The USDA actions have been accompanied by a strong vote of confidence from Congress, which appropriated more money for the NOP for Fiscal Year 2010 than anyone inside or outside of USDA had asked for. The new level of $6.978 million, more than double the amount provided a year earlier, is $300,000 more than the Administration asked for.

The extra $300,000, which was included in the conference committee report that cleared Congress and was sent to the President, had not been included in either the House or Senate agriculture appropriations bills. It is reported that the conferees took the unusual step of adding the extra funding “to enhance accreditation and oversight capabilities.”

More Important NOP Improvements Promised

More moves to shape up the organic program are promised. Included are writing and publishing a Quality Manual and a Policy Manual for the NOP’s accreditation program, finalizing the pasture rule and reducing the backlog of other delayed or postponed rulemaking recommendations, addressing issues related to organic fish and personal body care products and pet food standards, and stepping up enforcement of OFPA regulations.

All will require adding qualified professionals with organic expertise to the NOP’s staff to increase compliance and enforcement capability, draft regulations, make quality system improvements needed to obtain NIST recognition, and clean up NOP website misinformation and make other website improvements.

The planned changes, as well as those already made, are administrative moves carried out under existing authority. None of the needed improvements under active consideration are expected to require changes in the provisions of the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act or in the final implementation rule that went into effect seven years ago.

Miles McEvoy Named to Head NOP

Leading the new effort to shape up the NOP is Miles McEvoy, who took over as director of the new stand-alone NOP on October 1. He comes to USDA from the Washington State Department of Agriculture, where he has directed its highly-regarded

organic program since it was established more than 20 years ago. Washington’s state program now certifies more than 800 operators.

McEvoy was a founder of the National Association of State Organic Programs and has been serving as its president. He also has experience with global organic issues and opportunities, including serving on the Organic Trade Association’s Canada-U.S. Equivalency Task Force. Under his direction, the Washington State Organic Program has been accredited to IFOAM standards and criteria for several years by the International Organic Accreditation Service.

Most important to organic farmers and consumers and other organic food and farming advocates is McEvoy’s unwavering commitment to organic integrity, to enforcement of organic standards, and to provisions of the public/private partnership built into the 1990 law.

McEvoy will be challenged to help the NOP more fully realize its public/private partnership responsibilities in working with a stressed-out and unappreciated NOSB. Five highly-qualified new members, a new class of appointees named without drama or controversy, will join the NOSB in January. The OTA expressed pleasure with the new appointees and the Organic Consumers Association called them “the best in recent memory.”

New NOSB Members Named

The new members appointed to 5-year terms are environmentalist Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides; retailer Joe Dickson of Whole Foods; Oklahoma organic fruit and vegetable farmer Annette Riherd and Organic Valley livestock specialist Wendy Fulwider, and handler John Foster of Earthbound Farms in California.

Selecting these appointees suggests USDA has given up on appointing industry representatives to NOSB board slots reserved by law for consumer and other public interest representatives. Consumer representatives rebelled recently when Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns appointed industry representatives to fill two consumer slots on the NOSB. This raised troubling questions about USDA’s commitment to follow requirements of the 1990 law and protect the integrity of the NOSB’s decisionmaking process.

Another challenge will be relieving NOSB members of activities they should not be asked to do, such as conducting technical reviews of petitions to add materials to the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. It is assumed that the NOP, under its new management, will no longer attempt to press busy unqualified NOSB members to conduct reviews or handle other tasks outside their job description.

Is the new USDA commitment to put organic integrity first at the NOP for real? There is every indication now that it is. But just as the organic community was feeling good about this likely outcome, it was jarred back to reality by an unexpected sour note:

Vilsack’s announcement that a Monsanto-connected biotechnology heavyweight had been named to head the new National Institute for Food and Agriculture at USDA. As one of his responsibilities In this new position, Robert Beachy, prominent biotechnology researcher and president of a Monsanto-sponsored plant science center, will oversee nearly $500 million in USDA competitive grants and other research funding.

This disappointing development suggests organic advocates will end up with a rehabbed NOP, an organic label that has organic integrity, and an influential industrial agriculture insider at USDA who has been brought in to promote biotechnology here and abroad. This is not the change we were hoping for.

by Roger Blobaum

This article was first printed in the Nov/Dec 2009 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service