OFRF Gives Comments at NOSB Spring Meeting


OFRF’s Policy Associate, Jane Shey, attended and gave comments to the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) spring meeting in Washington, D.C. on April 25th. The NOSB typically meets twice per year. During meetings, the NOSB listens to public comments, discusses its agenda items, and then votes in a public forum.

In her testimony, Shey presented findings from OFRF's 2015 National Survey of Organic Farmers and recommended increased investment in organic agriculture research based on the priorities identified in this survey: soil health, weed management, pollinator health protection, and water management during drought and flooding.

Prior to the meeting, the National Organic Coalition (NOC) met to discuss the issues on the NOSB agenda, and other areas of concern in the organic community. This is Jane’s summary of the issues discussed at that meeting.

Animal Welfare
Animal welfare is seen as the next frontier for organic agriculture and certification. It is possible that consumer expectations of how animals and chickens are treated in an organic system exceed current USDA guidelines. This was a topic highlighted by presenters with further discussion at future meetings.

FDA’s comment period for the use of the word “natural"
The word “natural” is seen on many products. Studies show that consumers equate natural with organic or better than organic. Currently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has an informal policy on natural but no regulations on the use of the word, and it seems they do not enforce their policy. FDA considers “natural” to mean there are no synthetic ingredients or colors in the product.

OFRF submitted comments to the FDA on May 10th.

NOC made the following suggestions at the meeting:

1) The existing FDA policy should be codified into regulations.

2) The FDA/FSIS (Food Safety Inspection Service) should ban the use of the term “natural”. If the term continues to be used, these agencies should use the regulations for certified organic as a baseline, which means no GMOs, pesticides, irradiation, etc.

3) Products labeled "natural" should not include artificial and synthetic ingredients.

There was general agreement in the meeting that the use of the term “natural” in consumer food products is confusing to consumers, does not have a clear enforceable definition, and does not match the consumer perceptions of the term. Therefore, most in the meeting do not want the word “natural” used on food products.

One state that does provide a definition of natural is Vermont in their legislation to label genetically modified organisms (GMOs). As of July 1, 2016, there will be a “natural” definition in this law that food companies will also need to adhere to.

Fracking and the impact on organic land
Fracking for natural gas is occurring within reach of organic land in several states. States will use eminent domain to take the land. In some cases, the water used in fracking is then used for irrigation. The issue raised was whether or not there should be testing of irrigation water for substances prior to being used on farmland (organic land in particular). Should the NOP require testing if they think water might be contaminated?

There was a discussion of strategies to keep fracking sites away from organic land. One suggestion was to create organic districts where fracking could be banned. Another suggestion was that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) could require permanent irrevocable bonds before a permit is issued, to ensure that funding is available if there is a spill. Often a large bond will dissuade a company from drilling a well or installing a pipeline.

Transitioning farmers to organic
Oregon Tilth surveyed 1800 self-identified transitioning farmers with a 34% response rate on the farmers barriers to transition, needs, etc. Cost to certification is the #1 barrier to transition. Many conventional agriculture communities don’t even know where to start. It is important for farmers considering transition to see the demand for organics. There also needs to be more education and resources for farmers transitioning to organic. Finally, for the transition to organic grains, one of the big barriers is infrastructure.

The NOP, NRCS and Oregon Tilth https://tilth.org/resources/transitioning-to-organic/ have resources to help organic farmers. Minnesota provides $750 a year to pay for the transition. Farms are inspected every year, which is educational and prepares farmers for the final USDA inspection.

There was also discussion on challenges related to access to land. Most land is owned by family members and leased to others. Farmers seeking land to transition to organic should contact conservation-minded organizations. Many conservation-minded land owners that want organic farmers, will accept lower and/or deferred payments. 

Public cultivar development

There was discussion of utility patents, which govern how a farmer can use seeds. Farmers cannot save seed. They are renting the seed. They can grow for grain but can’t use it for anything else, and it cannot be used for research. One of the results is that public universities cannot test claims made by the companies producing the seed. It is a license between the seller and buyer, the buyer gives up all their rights and cannot use the seed for anything.

One problem is the uniformity of seed genetics. Bill Tracy, from the University of Wisconsin, talked about the uniformity of corn in the U.S. (Tracy received a research grant from OFRF). Internationally there is a lot of variation in corn. In the U.S., there are 90 million acres of corn and the uniformity of the corn is extreme. There are two pools of germplasm: the public sector, which is in decline; and the one developed by Pioneer. Everyone uses the same genetics from this breed. Many of the hybrids are the same product, but sold under different names by the seed companies. We have three significant disease outbreaks in the U.S. in corn because of this uniformity. Once the seed is genetically modified, the germplasm is no longer available.

A revenue stream for plant breeders is okay, but the germplasm should remain in the public domain. It needs to be clear what the rules are and what farmers are buying. NOSB could define these rules.

Creation of an IFOAM – Organics International North America group

IFOAM - Organics International has established a group in North America. They are moving ahead and looking at holding the first general assembly in the Spring of 2017, around MOSES or an NOSB meeting. They will establish a BOD, how to finance the group, etc.

Current issues include defining the criteria for NA IFOAM membership and determining whether there will be a vetting and approval process. 

Additional information and presentations from the NOSB meeting are available here

Photo: USDA, Keith Weller