In time of change, step forward to advocate for sustainable, organic farming
By Harriet Behar, MOSES
When the Organic Food Production Act was being debated and developed in 1989, there was much discussion on why the organic community would want to have the government oversee and enforce the organic label. Those who did not want government involvement expressed concern over watering down of the organic standards, misunderstanding or even sabotage of the label due to lobbying by non-organic agribusiness, and the weight of government bureaucracy that would slow or prevent continuous improvement. Those who supported regulatory oversight cited clarity and trust in the label in the marketplace, consistency among organic certifiers, ease of trade both within the U.S. and globally, and enforcement that punishes willful noncompliance with the law.
I am a supporter of the National Organic Program with a long history of involvement as a certified organic farmer (since 1989), an organic inspector, educator and advocate. Consumer trust in organics and sales of organic products has grown tremendously since the organic law was passed in 1990. The organic program is not perfect; but, I believe that 95 percent of what we have in place is good. We have strong standards and a good system of verification and enforcement. However, there is still a lot of work to be done on that 5 percent.
I now have one year under my belt as a member of the National Organic Standards Board. From the “inside,” I can say that government bureaucracy can be both frustrating and amazing in its complexity and apparent slow movement. I now see that both of these attributes are in place for a good reason, even though they can be infuriating at times. Moving slowly and requiring that many entities within the government weigh in on any changes made to the organic rules allows for there to be more acceptance and fewer issues with regulatory conflicts.
For a farmer, like me, this slowness can be difficult. You make a decision to do something on your farm and then you do it. Typically, you can see results in a few weeks or a season. Farmers are not quite used to making a decision and waiting 10 years to see any result. We understand long-term benefits, but we do like to see results sooner rather than later.
It is not always easy for other governmental agencies to understand why we want a specific change to organic rules, since we approach agricultural production differently from what they are accustomed to seeing. Typically, we want our regulations to be stricter over time—the pending organic animal welfare regulations are a good example. It is important to us as organic producers to have a high standard, maintain consumer trust, and to continually improve our production activities to produce healthy soil, healthy ecosystems, healthy livestock and healthy food and fiber for people. As we learn more about natural systems, it makes sense that we will want to improve our organic regulations. This viewpoint is quite different from other agricultural production areas, where less regulation is usually promoted by producers.
Another foundational aspect of the National Organic Program, is the transparency and openness to working with all stakeholders. The written comments submitted to the NOSB for the November 2016 meeting totaled over 40,000 pages. Granted, many pages were not full text, but it does take quite a bit of commitment to read and absorb the, at times, emotionally charged and personal pleas within those communications. In addition, there were more than 12 hours of verbal public comment at the meeting, with each person saying how our decisions would affect their operation, and their lives, in a positive or negative way. It is a huge responsibility for the NOSB members to listen to and evaluate these comments, review the scientific literature and discuss what should be done. The NOSB also has a wide variety of stakeholder representation, with each member seeing an issue from a different perspective. Believe me, we have lively—and respectful—discussions on just about every topic!
Within the NOSB there is a hierarchy that provides for continuous feedback up and down the chain from the issue subcommittees to the executive subcommittee to the National Organic Program. The various subcommittee meetings are only once or twice per month, and getting feedback can take a month or more as the issue is moved up and down the chain. At first, this seemed cumbersome, but now I can see that this allows for input at all stages of development, whether it is a material that is being reviewed, or a discussion document or final proposal for a change to our regulations.
Change is never an easy thing. The recent election surely will bring change to many federal, state and even local policies. As I write this article, we do not know who will be the nominee for the next USDA secretary. It is difficult to assess what the impact of last November’s elections will be. Will the National Organic Program continue on course, or will it be stifled by administrative maneuvers or by reduced funding? Will natural resource conservation and environmental health be considered a worthy area for funding and research? Will beginning farmers have access to educational programs and financial options to help them be successful in a farming career? What can we all do to make sure that organic farming remains a viable and expanding production method?
To preserve what we’ve worked for in the organic standards and continue the expansion of organic production in this country, we need to continue to be strong advocates. Don’t underestimate the power a few focused, passionate people can have on congressional representatives. One phone call or handwritten personal letter has more power than thousands of signatures on a petition or a form letter.
A letter to the editor of a regional farm paper or local paper describing how organic farming has helped protect your farm’s natural resources, for example, can go a long way to help others understand that organic is not a threat to them, but a viable opportunity. Members of Congress are always paying attention to what they may need to do to get elected next time. Let them know you are a voter and you are paying attention to what they are doing. Visit their in-district office, or attend a local event when they return home from Washington. A simple statement asking them to support organic agriculture, can make a positive difference. Nudge them when they are leaning the wrong way, and praise them when they do something positive for organic and sustainable agriculture.
You can count on MOSES to support you by providing talking points when needed. Watch for updates in the Organic Link (our monthly enews), check the policy page on our website, and take action when we notify you of a pending critical vote.
We may be farming a small percentage of all working acres in the U.S., but we still have the right to farm as we choose with our own land, free from unwanted chemicals and GMOs. This protection of our farming choice is something any American can understand, no matter what their political leanings are. As one politician said to me, “No one complains when an organic farmer moves in next door.”
Organic farming is always a “good” story—tell your story. We may be a small group, but we can be powerful. Don’t let the future of organics be driven by those who do not want us to succeed. I encourage you to be the change you want to see.
Harriet Behar is the Senior Organic Specialist for MOSES & a member of the National Organic Standards Board.
From the January | February 2017 Issue
January 16, 2017
Everything you say is spot on! What you did not say bothers me. The International Harmonization and acceptance of the certifications of foreign certifiers, led by AMS has resulted in huge increases of certified “USDA Organic” imports, which may or may not be what they purport. Turkey is now claiming almost all of their grain production is “organic”. Con Agra is buying their grains and shunning US grains to make most everything in their processed foods “organic”. I see much more “USDA Organic” labeled items from foreign sources at COSTCO, but very few folks in the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association are buying from domestic producers. Since there is no testing as these imports swamp our domestic market, I think we are being our own worst enemy. Agricultural Marketing Service created this and we need to stop it and replace it with Ronald Reagan’s admonition “Trust, but Verify”. AMS is dominated by the big Ag, Big Grocery and Big Retail interests, so to further organic production at home requires moving from AMS to another structure, which is honest and not dominated by those who heap on extra regulation at home, to disadvantage us and advantage cheaper international imports of questionably certified materials.
I greatly appreciate your opinions and especially that you give thought to policy issues. It is so important to be engaged and knowledgeable of the history of where we have come from, in order to make better choices on where should go.
It does seem at times that the NOP is more reactive to problems, rather than proactive in preventing them. The European Union has required “import certificates” on all incoming organic products from outside the EU for many years. This certificate comes directly from the certification agency, requested by their certified client. It verifies the organic status of what is part of that shipment. Certifiers then review the production capabilities of the certified organic client and they stand behind the organic integrity of the product. The NOP has not required this of any imports, until last month where they started requiring it of incoming Mexican organic products. The NOP is now talking about requiring this import certificate from EU, and perhaps Canada as well, I am not sure. It is my understanding that much of the organic grain coming from Turkey, was actually grown in other countries, some EU and some not and is being consolidated in Turkey and certified by an accredited NOP certifier located in Turkey. The audit trail is very sketchy, which the import certificates would go a long way to improving. The accreditation of the organic certifiers in the EU may also be another place where the NOP should have more oversight, rather than just accepting all certifiers under our EU equivalency agreement. Lastly, accreditation of certifiers by the NOP directly, who are located outside our borders, has always been an area that needs more attention.
This integrity of imported organic grain, especially in these large quantities, is a huge issue, especially for the organic producers in the Upper Midwest. MOSES is putting together a meeting at our conference on this topic. At this time, we are hoping that NOP and other USDA reps will be there, as well as organic grain farmers and marketers to discuss this issue, with the audience. I believe it is scheduled for Friday afternoon, but all of this is still in development. Once this meeting, and one on the newly USDA released proposal on the organic checkoff, are finalized, we will be sending out information, since these were not listed in the original MOSES Organic Farming Conference registration guide.