Inside Organics Blog

Coalition works to ensure organic integrity

By Abby Youngblood, National Organic Coalition

The National Organic Coalition (NOC) convened nearly 100 farmers and organic leaders (including a large cadre of MOSES board members) in St. Paul, Minn., to discuss some of the most pressing challenges we face as an organic community. This meeting was a precursor to the three-day meeting of National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a citizen-stakeholder board that advises the U.S. Department of Agriculture on organic standards.

NOC has been attending NOSB meetings for a very long time now. In fact, one of our members, Michael Sligh from the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) was the Chairperson of the very first NOSB when it formed in 1992.

The NOC ‘Pre-NOSB’ meeting has become a longstanding tradition—it has been taking place two times annually for nearly 20 years alongside the semi-annual NOSB meetings. During the NOSB meeting, the board hears oral testimony from public stakeholders and deliberates on materials and petitions that are being considered for use on organic farms and in organic foods. The NOC meeting, by contrast, provides a space for round table discussions across the many different sectors and stakeholder groups within organic with the aim of increasing dialogue on issues that are at the forefront more broadly in organic.

For example, NOC raised the issue of import fraud at its meeting in the fall of 2016 before the issue had garnered widespread attention from the USDA, the NOSB, the media, or industry members. Since that time, a Washington Post article from May of 2017 and a report from the USDA Office of Inspector General have thrust the issue into the limelight by exposing flaws in oversight and enforcement for organic imports. NOC is now being joined by many other groups in efforts to address import fraud through Farm Bill legislation and new regulations.

NOC is equally concerned about uneven enforcement domestically, especially in the poultry and dairy sectors. This is a topic we’ve raised repeatedly with members of Congress and with leadership at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In May of 2018, NOC joined with the Center for Food Safety and other nonprofit public interest organizations in a lawsuit to challenge a decision on March 13, 2018 from the USDA and Secretary Sonny Perdue to withdraw the organic regulations for animals on certified organic farms, called the “Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices” rule. NOC has long advocated for this new regulation to bring clarity and consistency to the organic standards and to level the playing field for organic livestock producers, the vast majority of whom are already in compliance with the new regulations.

In a victory for NOC and organic stakeholders everywhere, on August 21, the federal court for the North District of California rejected arguments from USDA that NOC and other plaintiffs do not have legal standing to challenge the withdrawal decision. The Court held that the withdrawal of the rule that set organic animal welfare standards injures the organizations’ members because it “undermines the organic label” for consumers. We are thrilled to see this legal challenge move forward.

Additionally, NOC has been beating the drum with both Congress and USDA leadership about the lack of consistent enforcement for dairy pasture requirements and rules regarding how organic dairy livestock are transitioned into organic production (“Origin of Livestock”). We believe that this lack of consistent enforcement and level playing field has contributed to the oversupply of milk in the marketplace, with devastating effects on pay prices to organic dairy farmers.

These dairy sector enforcement issues have been a major theme of the past two NOC meetings in Tucson and St. Paul. In St. Paul, NOC convened a panel to consider how we create a strong and unified call for consistency in dairy sector enforcement, especially regarding origin of livestock. In a Q&A session with the top official for the National Organic Program, Deputy Administrator Jenny Tucker, we urged the USDA to take action to bring about consistency and fairness for organic dairy producers.

In a victory for NOC, the NOSB also took up this issue by passing a unanimous resolution urging USDA Secretary Perdue to issue new regulations on origin of livestock that reflect the will of public stakeholders and the organic community. The NOSB has done its part by communicating about this issue to the highest levels at the USDA. NOC will now be working with dairy farmers and other partners in the organic community to step up efforts to achieve a greater level of fairness for organic dairy producers.

One of the reasons that NOC continues to engage deeply with the NOSB is because we believe the NOSB is at the heart of the transparent, democratic process that upholds the integrity of the organic seal. The role of the NOSB is important to the organic sector to ensure that all stakeholders with an interest in organic agriculture and food have access and input into the USDA process for setting organic standards.

When the USDA National Organic Program was first created, there was a great deal of apprehension about turning over the keys of the grassroots organic movement to the federal government, for fear organic would lose its connection to farmers and consumers. The compromise was the creation of the NOSB as a citizen-stakeholder advisory committee to allow for a formalized process to ensure grassroots organic input into standard-setting and decision-making processes at USDA. The board also has statutory authority to keep toxic substances out of organic production.

For these reasons, NOC is engaged in the NOSB process both to ensure that toxic substances that have no place in organic stay out and to draw attention to issues critical to the organic sector, like the Origin of Livestock issue.

NOC draws on the strength of our diverse membership to serve as a unified voice for the integrity of the USDA organic seal. The work of the National Organic Coalition is essential, especially at a time of increasing marginalization of family-scale farmer, consumer, and environmental voices.

NOC has been a leading voice with members of Congress, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the National Organic Standards Board since 2003. We represent more than 1 million citizens, farms, and businesses through our 14 member organizations: MOSES, Beyond Pesticides, Center for Food Safety, Consumers Union, Equal Exchange, Food & Water Watch, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners, National Co+op Grocers, Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, Northeast Organic Farming Association, Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, Organic Seed Alliance, Puget Consumers Co-op, and RAFI.

Abby Youngblood is the executive director of the National Organic Coalition.


From the November | December 2018 Issue

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