Year One of the National Organic Program, and Thoughts on Conservation
October 2003 marks the first anniversary of full implementation of the National Organic Program (NOP). At the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, the Organic Committee has been hard at work carefully monitoring the NOP, and defending the integrity of the program both in Congress, and with the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). After a year of wrestling with varied problems that have sprung up through loopholes in the process, our Organic Committee is reviewing the NOP's first year. Has it worked? Has it hurt? What is its future?
The National Campaign's Organic Committee, coordinated with the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, has a unique role that lends itself to effective monitoring of NOP, and the pursuit of solutions, not just of problems. We convene the many different interest groups involved, and help them participate in the program. The Committee gives a voice to farmers, as well as consumers, environmentalists, scientists, and the full range of people directly involved in the production and consumption of organic food. Our overall goal is to protect the integrity of the organic label, and preserve its roots in the holistic organic production system developed by farmers.
A brief look back
When the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 was passed, America already had an extensive and rapidly growing network of organic farmers, processors, handlers, and retailers-people who were applying a system of production they had conceived to preserve soil quality and the natural systems on which farming depends while producing cleaner food for the public. The role envisioned for OFPA was to create a regulatory program that would uphold, and even increase, the integrity of the organic label in the marketplace. OFPA was to achieve this by creating clear standards for organic production that would be verified by independent certifiers who, in turn, would be accredited in a fair and transparent process.
OFPA's statutory mandate laid out four essential components for an effective National Organic Program:
1. A partnership between government, farmers, consumers, and industry
2. Implementation of a consistent national definition of organic
3. Enforcement activities that would carry the force of law
4. Facilitation of trade
The Act was written to shape a federal program that would be unique in its degree of partnering with the existing organic community (farmers, industry and consumers). Its intent was to acknowledge the expertise of organic farmers and existing oversight programs, and to ensure a true partnership. This was to be achieved first by creation of the National Organic Standards Board, which would be responsible for citizen participation in the standard setting process, development of the "National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances," and development of new standards, including those required for livestock. Another essential component was creation of a peer review panel made up of people with expertise in organic farming and processing who would oversee the NOP's decisions on accrediting certifiers.
In addition, a consistent definition of organic was to be supported by the development of national standards governing the marketing of organic products, and the accreditation of certification programs to assure consumers that organic products meet these standards. The process for developing the national standards was to involve the public through the National Organic Standards Board, whose work would be given serious consideration by USDA and NOP.
Where are we now?
Unfortunately, USDA actions in implementing national organic standards in the first year already threaten to undermine the four essential components of the OFPA.
To date, National Organic Program communication with NOSB has been sporadic at best, with some of the most important standards interpretations still undecided, or NOP interpretations in actual contradiction with the NOSB's recommendations.
A program manual and/or regularly and formally issued guidance documents would help a consistent interpretation of organic-and none of these exists.
OFPA provides legislative authority for USDA to accredit certifying agents, not to do the certifying. Yet, USDA has consistently blurred the line between certification and accreditation, and without transparent review has actually overridden decisions made by certifiers in a documented process.
A year into the Program, USDA continues to ignore steady urging by the National Campaign's Organic Committee and others to establish the peer review program mandated by law.
Accreditation and certification gone awry
One specific case sheds light on the problems our Organic Committee believes must-and can-be addressed. A Massachusetts egg producer, The Country Hen, applied to the NOFA/Mass Organic Certification Program, operated by Massachusetts Independent Certification, Inc. (MICI), for organic certification in July 2002. In October 2002, MICI denied certification based upon its determination that the producer failed to provide access to the outdoors for organic livestock as required by the regulations (at the time of application no outdoor access whatsoever was provided, and none was proposed). The day after MICI issued its formal denial of certification, its decision was overturned by the Administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) within the USDA. This reversal came at the request of the Country Hen, and without review, or even contact, with the certifier.
This case has many implications for the entire organic community, from interpretations of standards (outdoor access) to compliance with international norms (ISO 61 requires a program manual for certifiers and accreditation oversight), as well as an assortment of issues that relate to consumer confidence in the organic label. Ultimately, however, it is the per-formance of the National Organic Program of USDA that is called into question over these issues. What is at stake here is significant: How are certifiers to protect the integrity of organic, the NOP, and their own reputations, if the certifier's decisions may be overturned instantly, arbitrarily, and without recourse to an appeal?
Highlights and low points
The best-publicized problem of the Program's first year came back in February, when politics and market manipulation threatened a serious derailment of organic standards. At that time a last-minute rider was added to the Omnibus 2003 Appropriations bill in Congress that would have permitted organic livestock producers to feed their "organic" animals conventional feed, and still label their products-meat, dairy, and eggs-as organic. While the National Campaign and our partners ensured that this rider was struck down, we have heard from the NOP that the corporate interests behind it are continuing to look for ways to gain exemption from this fundamental standard.
A positive result of the organic feed exemption debate was the formation of an Organic Caucus in the House of Representatives and of an Organic Working Group in the Senate. The existence of these groups promises more careful Congressional oversight of USDA's management of the NOP in the future. Many other significant issues have come up over the past year in the process of NOP's implementation, often clustered around the release of NOP policy proposals, and periodic meetings of the NOSB. For example: The National Organic Program has more than once issued a Federal Register notice, requesting feedback with 10-day public comment period. This in essence restricts participation to people with computers and Internet access. We have requested that NOP institute a policy of 30-day absolute minimum for all public comment periods (including Federal Register notices as well as other policy proposals).
The alarming bottleneck of NOSB recommendations, including materials decisions which are mandated by the law. Despite the fact that NOSB has been hard at work making recommendations, few have been moved to regulation by the Department. This leaves certifiers, producers and processors with no clear understanding of what is approved and what isn't.
The issues outlined in this article may not arouse as much passion as the prospect of "organic" food that is irradiated, genetically modified, or grown with sewage sludge did when the organic rule was first released. With implementation of the NOP, organic issues have moved to an arcane and highly technical level beyond the capacity of most people to analyze and act on. Fortunately, we have diverse, expert and committed partners involved in the National Campaign Organic Committee giving voice to the interests of producers, consumers, and the broader public for a USDA organic label with well-defined, well-enforced, and high standards, achieved through publicly accountable processes. For organic updates and detailed information on issues raised in this article, go to www.sustainableagriculture.net/Organic.php.