Texas Two-Step: Organic Standards Board Meeting One to Watch

Mark Keating's picture

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) will convene in San Antonio, Texas this week for its first meeting in more than a year.  Authorized by the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990, the NOSB’s origins make for a fascinating chapter in the history of the organic movement.  While the beginning of the story is well worth knowing, it’s the NOSB’s ongoing responsibility for establishing organic standards that will make this week’s meeting especially important.

            How many emerging businesses can you name which stepped forward and asked the federal government to regulate them?  If such a request sounds counterintuitive, it may not surprise you that the organic community – encompassing farmers, food handlers, certifying agents and consumer interests – did exactly that in the late 1980s. (We’re known for being un-conventional!)  With demand for certified organic food booming, a majority of the community concluded that a single, consistent federal standard would better protect the integrity of the certification process than the dozens of independent and state programs – each with their own standards – then in place.  Working closely with then Senate Agriculture Committee staffer (and later Deputy Secretary of Agriculture) Kathleen Merrigan, the community crafted the OFPA and saw it enacted as part of the 1990 Farm Bill.

            While the organic community saw potential benefits in a federally-managed certification program, they wanted a secure seat at the table for providing input.  Therefore, the OFPA included language creating a fifteen member NOSB appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture to assist in the development of organic standards and to provide advice on related programs such as research.  The OFPA also authorized the NOSB to determine which synthetic substances may be used in organic production or handling without– a remarkable delegation of responsibility to a body of private citizens serving their government.  Reflecting the inclusive instincts of the organic community, by law the NOSB comprises diverse representatives consisting of farmers (four members); environmentalists (three); consumer representatives (three); food handlers (two); and a scientist, retailer and certifying agent member (one each). 

          The NOSB’s responsibility for reviewing synthetic substances promises to generate some heated discussion in San Antonio this week. The hot topic will be changes to the review procedures which USDA imposed last September, but the larger issue is as old as organic certification itself: what is the appropriate role for synthetic substance in organic production?  Farmers and consumers have always been drawn to organic food because it is the premier independently-verified labeling program which rigorously screens out potentially toxic synthetic substances.  At the same time, organic farming is not viable in the absence of some synthetic inputs – any certified farmer, regardless of scale, will confirm this.  Striking an appropriate balance between these divergent tensions has been a long standing challenge which the organic community and the USDA must continue to address responsibly and transparently. 

            We’ve hit bumps in the road before when it seemed that the public/private partnership between the organic community and the USDA wouldn’t endure.  For example, there was ample friction back in 1997 when the USDA issued its first, wildly unpopular proposal for organic standards.  Instead of walking away, the organic community with the NOSB in the lead patiently worked the process which led to the widely-respected standards which became law in 2002.  We can work through any controversy that arises in San Antonio, and we must – organic certification is simply too important.  


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