Why We Shut Down the USDA Organic Meeting and Why We Would Do It Again

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It’s easy to take for granted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are hopelessly bent toward the interests of agribusinesses like Monsanto, Tyson Foods and General Mills. 

But there’s one place in our regulatory system that retains a shred of democracy, where, if the consumer demand is strong enough, the will of the people can actually trump corporate interests and influence government action.

It’s the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), where the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a citizens’ review board, has statutory authority to help write the rules on which substances are allowed or prohibited in organic food and farming. Not only does this citizens’ review board play an important role in writing the organic rules, but it does it in public, at open meetings that anyone can attend and participate in.

The result is the most comprehensive regulatory program the U.S. food system has ever known. In the U.S., the organic program is the only place where every single substance, from pesticides to preservatives, whether used on the farm, or to process food, or as an ingredient in food, is actually investigated, reviewed and vetted. 

USDA Organic is as good as it gets, and it’s all we’ve got. But recent rule changes, and increasing infiltration and pressure from corporations, is jeopardizing the program. Which is all the more reason consumers, and consumer advocacy groups like the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), must step up the battle to protect the integrity of organic standards.

USDA Organic is worth fighting for

In May 2014, OCA members disrupted an NOSB meeting in San Antonio, Tex. At issue were changes made by NOP Director Miles McEvoy to something called the Sunset Rule. The changes, made behind closed doors, make it more difficult to get synthetic and other non-organic materials out of organics after they’ve been approved for short-term use, supposedly until suitable alternatives are available.

The police officer who handcuffed OCA’s political director, Alexis Baden-Mayer and removed her from the meeting asked her to explain the reason behind shutting down the meeting. 

“Do you eat organic food,” Baden-Mayer asked?

“Sure,” the officer replied.

“Do you think synthetic ingredients should be allowed in organic,” asked Baden-Mayer?

“Well, it wouldn’t be organic, then, would it,” replied the officer?

He got it. It’s a simple message. Synthetic ingredients don’t belong in organic food. 

It’s not just organics, it’s democracy, too

When NOP Director Miles McEvoy, changed the way the NOSB makes decisions on synthetic ingredients allowed in organic food, he didn’t just weaken organic standards, he weakened democracy. He tipped the scales in favor of profit-at-any-cost corporate interests—and against consumer demand.

When organic standards were first federalized, under the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA), the OCA didn’t fully support the decision. We believed strong organic standards were more likely to come from state laws and organizations like Oregon Tilth, California Certified Organic Farmers and Pennsylvania Certified Organic. We worried that big corporations would hijack the federal process and create a bottom-of-the-barrel standard.  

Once a federal standard was inevitable, we had to work hard to protect organic standards as they were being developed, a process that took 12 years before they were finalized in 2002. We had to show that consumer demand for strong organic standards was powerful enough to influence a government that is largely beholden to corporate interests. OCA and the Organic Movement, in a furious battle in 1998, were able to keep GMOs, irradiated food, sewage sludge, and toxic pesticides out of organic. But we’ve had to struggle for strong standards and organic integrity every step of the way.

After final federal organic standards were put in place in 2002, we had to fight even harder. Battles included the launch a boycott of bogus organic products, to stop factory-farmed dairies from undermining organic integrity. We had to sue companies and pressure the NOP to stop bodycare, cosmetic and pet food brands from fraudulently labeling their products as organic, when they did not meet organic standards, and were not certified. We had to fight even harder in 2010-11 to keep a self-appointed organic elite from striking a compromise deal behind closed doors with Monsanto and the USDA to allow “co-existence” between GMO crops and organic crops.

We’ve been able to make the voices of consumers heard on organic standards because the OFPA created a uniquely democratic process. The USDA wasn’t given the same power over organic standards that the agency has over genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Instead of letting the USDA write the organic rules by fiat, the OFPA required the USDA to take recommendations from the 15-member NOSB. A special duty of the NOSB is to review every non-organic or synthetic substance allowed in organic food and farming, every five years.

One catch is that, while the USDA-appointed NOSB includes stakeholders from across the organic community, industry representatives now command a clear majority and public interest slots are in the minority. 

Under the OFPA, the NOSB is always comprised of four individuals who own or operate an organic farming operation, two individuals who own or operate an organic handling operation, one individual who owns or operates a retail establishment with a significant trade in organic products, three individuals with expertise in areas of environmental protection and resource conservation, three individuals who represent public interest or consumer interest groups, one individual with expertise in the fields of toxicology, ecology or biochemistry, and one certifying agent.

Under both Bush and Obama, the USDA has consistently stacked the NOSB with employees of conventional food companies that produce only a small percentage of organic foods. Worse still, the USDA has squeezed industry reps into seats meant for other voices. (For a critique of the most recent round of NOSB appointments, read the Cornucopia Institute’s informative article, “Organic Governance Undermined by Cozy Relationship with Agribusiness Lobbyists.”)

This imbalance is corrected, somewhat, by the requirement that votes reach a two-thirds super-majority to be decisive. If a company wants to start using a non-organic or synthetic material in organic food or farming, it needs to win the support of 10 out of 15 members of the National Organic Standards Board. In other words, it only takes 6 members to block the approval of a new non-organic material.

It used to be the same for “sunset,” OFPA’s phase-out of non-organic materials. After five years, that ingredient would “sunset” unless 10 out of 15 NOSB members agreed to keep it on the National List of allowed non-organic materials.

A two-thirds majority is a high bar, but the most controversial ingredients have managed to hurdle it. Carrageenan, a synthetic emulsifier linked to digestive disease and cancer, DHA, a synthetic nutrient that is derived from a mutated microorganism and has been associated with gastrointestinal problems, and methionine, a synthetic chicken feed supplement that has facilitated the growth of factory-farmed organic egg production, all got the two-thirds votes necessary to stay in organic.

These votes were infuriating, but we took responsibility for the results. We recognized that consumer opposition to carrageenan, DHA and methionine wasn’t yet strong enough to inspire the action we needed from the NOSB. That meant we would have to wait five long years to address these ingredients again. In the meantime, they have saturated the market to the extent that it’s nearly impossible to find synthetic-free organic non-dairy milk, infant formula or eggs. But we we were hopeful that during the five-year period, evidence would surface to back up our argument that these synthetics don’t belong in organic.

Now, thanks to the changes made to the Sunset Rule, it will be much more difficult to get these substances out of organic. McEvoy has all but killed the “sunset” process. It’s hard enough to get six NOSB members to support consumers in taking a non-organic substance off the approved National List. Getting 10 votes to “sunset”, given the current USDA appointees, is nearly impossible.

Maintaining vigilance

New synthetic ingredients are constantly being petitioned for use in organic. From now on we’re going to have to fight harder than ever to keep them off the National List, given how hard it will be to get them off the list, once approved.

We should mention that we have had some victories. In April 2013, prior to the sunset rule changes, the NOSB rejected a petition by organic apple and pear growers to extend the deadline for allowing them to spray their fruit with tetracycline, an antibiotic. Thanks in part to the 32,619 comments submitted by OCA supporters, growers of organic apples and pears will have to stop spraying their fruit with tetracycline after Oct. 21, 2014.

More recently, post the rule change, the NOSB removed nonorganic hops (Humulus lupulus) and unmodified rice starch from the National List, effective Oct. 30, 2014.

If powerful corporate interests, aided and abetted by the USDA, are determined to water down organic standards, a number of our members have asked us the question: Why go to the NOSB meetings at all, except to shut them down?

Our answer is that we will shut down the NOSB meetings if they continue to disregard organic consumers. But on the positive side, the organic Movement is growing stronger every year. By winning the battle to label GMO foods, and driving fraudulently labeled “natural” foods into the margins, we will strengthen our marketplace clout and political power. As we move into the next phase of our right-to-know campaign, to label factory-farmed foods, we will qualitatively broaden our coalition and expand our influence.

We must continue to fight to safeguard not only organic standards, but also to keep a more democratic process fresh in everyone’s mind, so that when we get a new Administration and a new USDA Secretary and a new NOP director, we can press for a return to fairness and equity and full public participation in the organic standards setting process. McEvoy and his cohorts have severely weakened the sunset process. We and our allies will continue to challenge McEvoy, and bring that same challenge to the next NOP director as we push to restore a more democratic process at the NOP.

Alexis Baden-Mayer is political director for the Organic Consumers Association

Ronnie Cummins is international director of the Organic Consumers Association and its Mexico affiliate, Via Organica.

This story was originally published on Organic Consumers Association. 


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