By Eric Sideman
Director of Technical Services for MOFGA
Just when I started to doubt the USDA and thought that the proposed national rules for organic farm production would never come out for real, they were published. Now what? MOFGA and every other organic certifying organization and everyone else concerned with organic food and fiber are busier than they have ever been – busy reviewing the proposed rules that were published in the Federal Register (Vol. 62, No 241) on Tuesday, December 16, 1997. (You can get your own copy for $8 by calling 202-512-1800, or you can view them and download if you wish at www.ams.usda.gov/nop.)
A 90-day period for public comment ends March 16, 1998, but may be extended another 30 days.* Everyone with interests in organic foods should get their comments to the USDA. Farmers and consumers of organic food, especially, should send in individual comments. The USDA has developed a very fair way of weighting comments, and broad based interests will have great influence. However, I know that numbers alone will mean nothing. Make your comments scientifically based and as well reasoned as possible. Comments can be submitted on the web site above, mailed to Eileen Stommes, Deputy Administrator, USDA-AMS-TM-NOP, Room 4007- So., Ag Stop 0275, P.O. Box 96456, Washington, DC 20090-6456, or faxed to (202) 690-4632. All the comments can be reviewed at the web site.
MOFGA is working with such national organizations as the Organic Trade Association and regionally with the NOFA chapters through our Northeast Interstate Organic Certification Committee to develop comments. We are looking for input from our certified growers and other members. Send comments to me at the office.
Over 30 private and 11 state agencies offer organic certification now. Generally the organic standards are very similar, except for some minor inconsistent and conflicting production guidelines. Members of varying organic industries have experienced problems marketing organic products across states because of differing standards.
In the ’80s, some members of the organic community began to petition the U.S. Congress to establish a mandatory national organic program that would develop a single set of standards and a single list of substances that should be permitted or prohibited for use in organic production and handling. Senator Leahy of Vermont was one of the leaders in Congress, and MOFGA and most other certifying agencies played major roles in developing the law that was later to become part of the 1990 Farm Bill, called the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, section 2102 (7 U.S.C. 6501). The bill is based on what organic certifying agencies, organic farmers, and organic food consumers consider organic, and many people rejoiced when it was passed into law.
The next step was to develop regulations to enforce the law. This was the job of the National Organic Program (NOP), established within the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. The Secretary of Agriculture established the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and appointed the first members in 1992. During 1992-1996 the NOSB met, held hearings and developed recommendations based on what it learned, then submitted them to the USDA for consideration. The NOP at the USDA wrote proposed rules and passed them on to the FDA, EPA, and OMB for their approval. These steps took a very long time, and at times many of us thought the proposed rules would never be published. But they are here.
MOFGA’s Initial Reaction
The USDA did an especially good job in recognizing a unifying basis for organic production that differs greatly from regulations they are used to enforcing: that is, that the requirements of the rules address systems used in production of organic food rather than a physical quality of the final product that could be measured with a probe or thermometer or something like that. The USDA should be commended for that.
On the other hand, the rules have several points of major concern to almost the entire organic community, and the prevalent feeling I sense is disappointment – disappointment to the extent that many folks are sorry they started this effort. I believe that now that the proposed standards are here, we have to deal with them, make our comments and try to change as much as we can to our liking. Then, if the final rule is totally unacceptable, we should take action.
As I write this, it is too early to summarize our comments. The best I can do now is to point out the issues that we are actively discussing.
1. MOFGA recently went to requiring 100% organic feed for livestock. The new rules offer what may be more opportunity for exceptions that would permit, when necessary, up to 20% conventional feed.
2. The proposed rules would allow livestock to be raised with no access to the outdoors, if the animal’s health can be maintained without drugs.
3. Fees for certification would rise significantly to cover the costs of the USDA, and no provision exists for a split scale to serve smaller production systems. Few would be able to afford the new fees. An exemption would permit farms with gross income less than $5,000 to use the word organic without getting certified, i.e., be exempt from the law, but they will not be permitted to display any seal, and their products would not be permitted in processed products unless they got certified. Since MOFGA has spent much effort over the past 10 years trying to convince consumers how important certification is, it is unacceptable to now tell more than half of our presently certified organic growers that they are exempt and do not have to be certified.
4. The NOP is not going to review inert ingredients as I had hoped they would. Inerts of toxicological concern are prohibited, but inerts on the EPA list titled “potential toxic inerts” and “inerts of unknown toxicity” as well as “inerts of minimal toxicity” will be permitted.
5. The NOP raised three issues to which it has not taken a clear stand and seeks comments:
a) Genetically engineered products. MOFGA presently prohibits genetically engineered crops. We review products of genetically engineered organisms on a case by case basis to determine if they meet the goals of MOFGA. No living, genetically engineered organism is permitted anywhere in an organic production system.
b) Biosolids use is not permitted by MOFGA.
c) Food irradiation is prohibited under MOFGA standards.
6. The rules include the use of periodic residue testing. MOFGA has always been opposed to residue testing as a measure of organic. We recommended to the NOSB that residue testing only be done when there is a cause to be suspicious. Periodic testing would be very expensive and would be passed along as higher fees.
7. The rules would allow the use of treated seeds and conventional transplants in many situations.
We are looking at many other points, but this list gives you an idea of the major ones.
The central issue of producing food with as little impact on the environment while improving agricultural land is somewhat intact in these proposed rules, and that makes me more receptive. I can live with some minor differences, but many of the issues mentioned above are not minor. The Certification Committee and I will work to make MOFGA’s comments heard. Please let us know your comments, and send them directly to the USDA at the address above.
* Editor’s note: As we went to press, the deadline for commenting on the Organic Standards had been extended to April 30, and Eric and other members of the NOSB had become increasingly negative about the proposed standards as they studied them further and realized more of their implications. Call the MOFGA office for more information about the guidelines, information about how to comment on them, and a list of some of the “hot” issues involved.