It’s not shocking that this Congress is attempting to roll back yet another regulation that protects our health and the environment. But the sneak attack on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic standards unfolding in the Farm Bill process is surprising because organic is much more than a solution for public health and the planet. Organic farming is a bright spot in the U.S. rural economy. Data shows that it is more profitable for farmers, and that rural counties with many organic farms and businesses have higher household incomes and reduced poverty rates by as much as 1.35 percent, even more than major anti-poverty programs.
Because of its promise for rural America, organic agriculture has growing support from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. So why is there language in the Farm Bill that would weaken the organic standards?
Republican Sen. Pat Roberts—who is supported heavily by agrichemical and conventional agriculture industries—is pushing a rollback that could open up the organic standards to allow toxic pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
This could end organic agriculture as we know it.
The top reason consumers buy organic food is to avoid toxic pesticides and GMOs. Allowing these materials in the standard will destroy consumer confidence in the organic seal. And with it, the livelihoods of thousands of organic farmers and businesses across the country.
Right now, the Senate Committee on Agriculture, under the leadership of Chairman Roberts, is writing the Senate version of the Farm Bill, expected for release in late May.
In a July 2017 Senate Agriculture Committee hearing, Roberts slammed the organic regulatory process. This alerted the organic community that he could use the Farm Bill process to weaken the standards.
No one has seen written Farm Bill language from Roberts yet, but we can guess what he’s planning based on language in the House version of the Farm Bill released in April, the Agriculture and Nutrition Act (HR2). The target of the House language and Roberts’ comments is the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). To understand the nature of this threat, it’s important to understand why the NOSB matters.
The National Organic Standards Board
The booming growth of the organic industry rests on consumer trust in the organic seal. And although consumers don’t know it, their trust depends on the role of the NOSB in governing the organic standards.
The NOSB exists because of the foresight of the early leaders of the organic movement. They knew that when they enshrined the organic standards at the USDA, they were dropping their baby off on the doorstep of a hostile home. And so, in the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act, they gave gatekeeping authority over what types of fertilizers, pest control agents, and other inputs could be used in organic production to a group of citizens who could listen to the public and act with the best interests of organic farmers and consumers in mind. To add anything to what is called the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, the USDA would have to first get the okay from the NOSB.
No other part of our food system is governed by such a transparent and democratic process. The NOSB consists of 15 dedicated citizen volunteers from across the organic community. They meet twice annually at hotels and conference centers across the U.S., from Jacksonville, Florida to Tucson, Arizona. The meetings are open to the public, and hundreds of people show up each time, including farmers, businesses, consumers, scientists, environmentalists, animal welfare advocates, and many others with a stake in organic agriculture.
The NOSB members read hundreds of written public comments and listen to hours and hours of testimony. They deliberate on all of this public input and then advise the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture on a wide variety of topics related to organic standards.
The purpose of the NOSB is to allow the organic standards to continually improve over time. But the USDA has increasingly failed to enact key recommendations from the board. Most recently, the agency killed a proposed rule 10 years in the making to enact comprehensive animal welfare guidelines on certified organic farms.
If regulators have it in for the NOSB, why not just continue to ignore the board rather than expend the effort to try to change the law through the Farm Bill? Here is the crux: on issues other than the National List, the NOSB has the authority to recommend improvements to the organic standards. But in the case of the National List, the board has statutory responsibility as a gatekeeper for what may be added to the list.
What Roberts aims to cripple is this striking example of democracy in action—a volunteer citizen board that engages directly with the community to make decisions that shape a federally-regulated standard.
Roberts’ assertion that the NOSB process needs to be reformed to help the growth of the organic industry is built on a lie. Statistics on the booming growth of the organic sector prove it. Organic remains the fastest-growing sector of the food industry, blowing past the stagnant 0.6 percent growth rate in the overall food market with 8.4 percent growth in sales from 2016 to 2017.
In March, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) sent a letter to Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Pat Roberts and ranking member Debbie Stabenow signed by 138 heavy weights in the organic industry opposing any changes to the NOSB. According to OTA’s Megan DeBates, the majority of the association’s 9,500 members “oppose making changes to the NOSB.”
Roberts is acting in the interest of companies that want to make it easier to cash in on the organic market by watering down the standards and companies that want to peddle their pesticides and other synthetic inputs to organic farmers.
For over two decades, the NOSB process has safeguarded the organic standards from the influence of political and special interests. Weakening the NOSB means opening the organic standards to the dictates of those interests. In the words of an industry leader, we are on the brink of an organic crisis.
On the brink of an organic crisis
A major blow to the NOSB’s authority was embedded in the House version of the Farm Bill, but an eleventh hour amendment from a Republican representative from Illinois, Rodney Davis, curtailed the force of the hit. Roberts is expected to be more aggressive, and as the Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, is unlikely to allow amendments that temper his attack.
The House Farm Bill attempted to shift authority over the National List from the NOSB to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture through the loophole of “emergency exemptions.” It stated that in the case of a crop or public health emergency, the Secretary of Agriculture could greenlight a new “crop protection substance” (aka pesticides) for a year of use. For nearly 20 years, organic farmers have succeeded without emergency exemptions. And the history of the emergency exemption loophole in conventional agriculture has resulted in thousands of pounds of previously restricted or banned toxic pesticides being applied to the environment and crops the public consumed.
Davis walked the threat back from the edge with an amendment that fully preserved the authority of the NOSB overall additions to the National List. At the hearing (minute 1:48) Davis was clear in his intent:
“Consumer trust in the USDA organic seal is one of the main reasons we continue to see growth in organic agriculture. My amendment protects the role of the National Organic Standards Board in reviewing and establishing the National List of approved and prohibited substances for use in organic production and handling. By protecting this role of the NOSB, we give our consumers continued trust in the USDA seal.”
However, the language on reviewing substances for emergency exemptions remains in the House version of the Farm Bill, and additional concerning language provides more insight on what Roberts might have up his sleeve as he’s writing the Senate version.
There is one paragraph directed at who can serve as an NOSB member. The language states that employees of farms or businesses are eligible, but this is unnecessary to codify, as employees of companies and farming operations already serve on the NOSB. The implication intends to tip the balance of the NOSB’s concern away from farmers and consumers and to ease the ability of larger-scale operations and companies to serve on the board. The make-up of the NOSB was carefully crafted by the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act to balance perspectives from across the organic industry.
Another paragraph creates a new process for reviewing pesticides for inclusion in the organic standards deemed “safe” by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Specifically, it requires the NOSB to create a task force to consult with these agencies on substances that the FDA “has determined to be safe for use” and that the EPA “has determined there is a reasonable certainty that no harm will result from aggregate exposure to the pesticide chemical residue.” Again, it is unnecessary to codify this, as the original organic law already establishes a process for the NOSB to consult with the FDA and EPA on materials, and they routinely do so.
The inclusion of this language is a veiled attempt to undermine the precautionary nature of the organic standards, which excludes most synthetic inputs. Under the Organic Foods Production Act, any additions to the National List require thorough evaluation of ecological and health impacts, availability of alternatives and “compatibility with a system of sustainable agriculture”—standards that go far beyond FDA and EPA guidelines for approval of pesticides.
A precautionary approach to regulating toxic substances uses the weight of the available scientific data to restrict or ban use of that substance without having to wait for definitive proof of harm, whereas the EPA’s approach to pesticides consists of waiting for ever more data to accumulate before taking action. Even when the health of humans and the environment are at stake. The current examples of EPA’s failure to regulate glyphosate and chlorpyrifos are leading examples. The EPA deems a host of pesticides as “safe” that have been banned or restricted in the European Union and other jurisdictions because the weight of the scientific evidence identifies them as harmful to humans and other organisms.
This language could ensnare the NOSB in a lengthy process of engagement with the FDA and EPA on substances that have never had, and should not have, a place in organic production. And, taking a play from the Big Tobacco playbook, it sets the stage for deceptive claims about the state of the science on pesticides — a tactic long used by toxic industries to block adequate regulations of their products.
It’s time to grow U.S. organic
We need more support for organic agriculture in the Farm Bill, not a sneak attack to water down the standards.
Organic consumers are everywhere and their numbers are growing. Data show that over 80 percent of U.S. households buy organic food, and the demographics of organic consumers matches the diversity of the American population.
Yet along with the assault on the NOSB, the House Farm Bill zeros out funding for the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program and the Agricultural Management Assistance program which help small and mid-size farmers transition to organic and afford organic certification. It eliminates the Conservation Stewardship Program, the nation’s largest conservation program by acreage, and a critically important program that supports organic farmers. And while the bill proposes to increase funding for organic research from $20 million to $30 million, this is short of the $50 million requested by the organic community and a slim shadow of the billions included for research for conventional agriculture. Less than one percent of federal agricultural research dollars go to organic farming. See the National Organic Coalition scorecard for an analysis of how organic fared in the House Farm Bill.
Because our government doesn’t give organic farmers and businesses the tools they need to keep pace with growing consumer demand, the U.S. accounts for 44 percent of global organic sales, but just four percent of global farmland under organic production. That means U.S. farmers are losing out on the chance to feed Americans’ growing appetite for organic food, and our farms, rivers, and rural communities remain soaked in toxic pesticides and overloaded with synthetic nitrogen.
The science is clear that organic farming is key to future food security. To feed the future, we’re going to need a food system that is less reliant on synthetic chemical inputs and fossil fuels, more resilient to the shocks of extreme weather events and one that uses water wisely. Organic farming does all that and more. It has been proven to yield more in times of drought and floods and to use less energy and water, all while protecting pollinators like bees and butterflies, essential to one in three bites of food we eat.
And those on the frontlines of pesticide exposure—farmers and farm workers exposed in the fields, rural communities living in pesticides drift zones, and low-income communities in the shadows of chemical manufacturing plants—need a rapid shift toward an organic future.
While we work to ensure that all people have access to organic food, we need to make sure that the organic standards remain robust. The NOSB is the heart of the transparent, democratic process that upholds the integrity of the organic seal—central to consumer trust that organic farmers and businesses rely on. If the Farm Bill cuts the legs out from under the NOSB, it would spell the beginning of the end for this vital, vibrant part of our food system.
Now is the time to urge your elected officials to immediately halt this attack on organic standards and expand funding for certification cost share, organic research, and conservation agriculture programs in the Farm Bill. Now is the time to expand healthier, more sustainable food and farming systems, not roll them back.