Organic Broadcaster

 

By the numbers: What it’s like to serve on board that shapes Organic standards

By Steve Ela, National Organic Standards Board

5, 4, 3, 2, 1… That’s the countdown many members of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) follow as they work toward the end of their five-year appointed term. Some members love the position and wish they could stay longer; others are ready for their terms to end. Why? The NOSB is one of the most active USDA advisory boards. Subcommittee calls, semiannual 3-day board meetings, reading public comments, and writing proposals add up in terms of time. On the other hand, being in a position to hear from a wide range of organic stakeholders on a wide variety of topics is stimulating, rare, and fascinating.

Our organic program is based on recommendations from the NOSB. The Board has the chance to shape the nature of “organic” for future years. Our organic stakeholders are stunningly intelligent, provide insights I would never have thought of, and give freely of their time to provide input to the NOSB. It is wonderful to not have to be “the expert,” but instead to be able to ask the full organic community for input into decisions. The time needed is balanced by the education this service offers, the contact with others who care deeply about Organic, and the insight into how our organic program works.

I have enjoyed my time on the board. I have found it stimulating and a welcome change to my other life as an orchardist. I will be sad to leave next year, but glad that others will have a chance to provide their insights.

1, 2, 3…1,000, 1,001, 1,002… That is the count as Board members read the 1,000-3,500 pages of public comments we receive for our spring and fall board meetings. Those comments are mostly about topics the Board is reviewing, but also include topics on which our community thinks we should be working. These comments are critical to the Board’s decision-making. We give our best thoughts, but you, as stakeholders, may have different ideas or different perspectives.

For example, Harriet Behar started working on the petition to allow paper pots, a tool that small farmers have repeatedly let us know is critical for their organic operations. She worked on the topic for a year, and I took over when she left the Board. For each of the last three meetings, we have made proposals to allow their use. In each of those meetings, stakeholders have noted missing parts, asked for wording changes, and predicted future ramifications. While I might think the proposal I have written is the best thing since sliced bread, the critical eyes of all of you say otherwise. Each following write-up takes into account your thoughts and ideas and improves the proposal. Hopefully, the proposal presented this spring will be acceptable and will reflect your will and input as to how our organic system should work.

For the Board, the write-ups open for public comments are the culmination of four months of work. The lead-up to each meeting starts at the end of the prior meeting and ends about a month and a half before the next meeting. The time before the meeting is needed to process our recommendations, publish them for public access, allow at least 30 days for comment submissions, and then give the Board several weeks to read and digest the comments. As such, each subcommittee of the Board only has 3-7 meetings to give recommendations on up to 54 material reviews for items already on the National List (should they be relisted or delisted?), and provide recommendations on petitions for new materials or for changes in current rules.

Some have suggested we should have more or fewer meetings or that we should change the dates of the meetings to allow more access to farmers. Fewer meetings would mean fewer chances for stakeholders to give input to the Board and longer time frames for the Board to review petitions and recommend if materials should remain on the National List. More meetings would leave even less time for the Board to perform necessary reviews.

We recognize that meeting dates are difficult for many farmers. But, changing the dates makes them difficult for other farmers with different seasons. Changes also affect the time the Board has to perform the needed work. Our goal, now that meetings have been virtual, is to find a way for future meetings to be live-streamed so that you can watch parts that have meaning to you without having to travel or spend three days at a meeting. We already have public comment webinars so that anyone can give us comments without being present in person. We take to heart the idea that the Board should be accessible to everyone, not just those with funds to travel. We will continue to listen to ideas that are workable for all.

Fall NOSB Meeting
9­–The number of proposals the Board reviewed.

41–The number of material reviews (sunsets) the Board conducted and found the material was still critical for organic use and should remain on the National List for five more years.

11–The number of materials that the Board recommended should be removed from the List since organic and natural materials have become available. These include kelp, sweet potato starch, Turkish bay leaves, a handful of colors, and whey protein concentrate—all materials we believe are now available in organic form. The organic world continues to evolve, and more and more organic alternatives exist to replace synthetic materials that have been allowed.

At the fall meeting, the Board debated how to approach the conservation of marine ecosystems and the allowance of fenbendazole. We all believe that marine systems should not be compromised to subsidize land-based organic farms. However, the best way to protect our marine systems is hotly debated. The Board ultimately passed a proposal delimiting where and how marine materials should be harvested in order to prevent over-harvesting and degradation of the environments that affect all our lives.

The petition to allow fenbendazole use in organic poultry was also controversial. We voted to deny that use. While there is limited allowance for use in other animals, the Board determined fenbendazole use in poultry is not necessary; residues might remain in products that go directly to consumers.

National Organic Program
Finally, there has always been concern about NOSB recommendations that are not acted on by the National Organic Program. While I can’t defend the program, I do want to say that at this time, the Board and Program work well with each other. And, we must remember the Board is strictly advisory. Our decisions advise the Program but are not binding. For our recommendations to become official, they must go through rulemaking. This is an onerous process that includes review by federal attorneys, budget officers, additional public comment, and other agencies. In some cases, our recommendations would be very difficult to put into rulemaking language. In others, opposing public comments might derail the process. It also might be a matter of priority, moving some proposals through the process might be of greater importance than others.

That being said, the NOSB passes proposals with the intent they will be implemented. We do our best to have them reflect the will of our stakeholders. A recommendation that doesn’t become a rule still can have an effect on future Boards. We commonly look back at votes from previous Boards to inform our decisions. While a proposal may not have an immediate effect, in time it might be incorporated in future rulemaking or subtly influence certifiers’ interpretations of the rules.

Board Membership
One last number: 15. That’s the number of members serving on the NOSB. Five new members recently were appointed to the Board with terms starting this month. Three Board positions, including mine, end in January 2022. The USDA will put out a call for nominations this spring for those positions.

While the time needed can dissuade people from applying, the opportunity to make a difference to all of us is important. The Board is composed of a diverse set of individuals, yet it can always use more diversity. We hope to represent the wide range of the organic industry. I encourage you to apply. We welcome and encourage your input to the Board. The diversity on the Board is a chance to interact and learn from others, to put your input into our system, and to understand how our organic system has come to be.

Steve Ela chairs the National Organic Standards Board. He has a certified organic farm and orchard in Colorado. 

 

From the January | February 2021 Issue

 

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