T R A N S I T I O N S
on the road in Van Buren County, Iowa
Washington, DC Report
After four days in the nation’s capitol observing the National Organic Program
process, optimism for quality implementation of the Organic Foods Production
Act ( OFPA) was about as hard to find as a weed-free field of 1998 organic
soybeans in Iowa.
A request had been made in the summer by the some National Organic Standards
Board members and other activists for a more open dialogue with USDA while the
revised rule was being created. The result from USDA was a series of Thinking
Papers which were drawn up in a curious form seeking to satisfy all parties,
and therefore disappointing most, except the Office of Management and Budget,
whose editorial demands on USDA helped to create a confusing and misleading
first document. You remember the adage about too many cooks. The Thinking
Papers did not go down well with many folks.
One big problem with these Thinking Papers is that their publication in the
Federal Register initiates a Public Comment Period. Since the rationale behind
the Papers only was based on the original, flawed Proposed Rule of 17
December, 1997, contrasted with the comments received through April, the
information in the Papers is not up to date. Therefore, concerned observers
asked the Agricultural Marketing Service for an addendum to the publication in
order to clarify the omissions. If your are now entirely confused and
aggravated, you have company.
The only idea commonly agreed upon by attendees to the 15th meeting of the
National Organic Standards Board is that we seem to have never been further
from an acceptable Proposed Rule.
We can spread the blame/credit around fairly evenly. Folks claiming to
represent the organic community asked for those Papers, and brokered a deal
with Enrique Figueroa, the Administrator of the Agricultural marketing
Service. They traded the dialogue opportunity for more time in issuing the
second proposed organic rule. In other words, we, or I should say “ they” can
talk, but now taken back is the USDA Secretary’s promise to have the revision
out by the end of the year. This contingent petitioning USDA for dialogue is
the same one working strenuously to not have the OFPA implemented at all. DUH.
For three years this very influential and well-connected ( especially to DC)
organic/sustainable sub-set has been dragging its feet, delaying and
postponing substantive progress, first under the banner of the Private Seal
Use Coalition, and now joined by elements of the National Campaign for
Few if any of these folks, generally the private certification community, want
the OFPA implemented. Up until now their general argument for a certifier’s
ability to certify to higher standards than USDA’s didn’t obtain much traction
within the entire community, including state certification officials and
But when USDA rolled out its potential certification methodology on the 28th
of October, defining certification as an un-interruptable federal license with
certification agencies not capable of decertifying their client producers,
handlers and processors, the wheels started to come off the federal wagon.
Though Keith Jones, the Director of the National Organic Program, was able to
describe the proposed system to the qualified satisfaction of NOSB members
concerned that consumers may not be protected, most attendees were convinced
that the government has taken federal control to a new and unauthorized level.
The fundamental concept of local, chapter control of certification, and
education towards better performance of the standards, is one chip few are
willing to bargain away. Failure to see that education and local improvement
is a key feature in organic certification is akin to so many other flaws in
the federalization process.
Criticism of federal participation in organic agriculture had previously been
confined mostly to the metaphorical and geographical ‘hollers” and wilderness
populated by back-to-the-landers, and other folks generally repulsed by our
hypocritical Big Brother.
But when Eric Kindberg cracked on the 29th, it meant that the government’s
best grassroots ally was ready to come off the mountain. According to recent
research, as many as 40% of all organic farmers are not certified. This group
is rarely represented, often forgotten, but can not be ignored, particularly
when another double digit percentage of certified growers would abandon third
party certification if they could because their marketing is so direct that
independent verification is superfluous. For seven years Kindberg had argued
in favor of OFPA as an innovatively democratic leveler, hoping that government
would provide what self-interest had caused to be ignored in the organic
What is important to note is that advocates like Mr. Kindberg are willing to
support the law while condemning USDA’s position and rationale on national
certification. We now enter a more dangerous period where our homegrown
alternative must mature, one way or the other, as uniform standards are
Organic Agriculture began as a revolution. Revolutions are always difficult to
codify; just ask Marat, or Madison. We are still caught in the dilemma of
having to provide proof that the organic alternative, both in production as
well as in certification, is not just viable, but the best philosophy
available to small farms and individual consumers. If anyone wants to know
what motivates this movement, you can find it in the farm auction sections of
the newspaper, or in Page One stories about synthetic pesticides hidden in
fertilizers, confined feedlot livestock unfit to eat and the rise in incidence
of diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. While it may be possible for
state government to acquire organic principles and promote and protect them,
expecting the DC sausage makers to come up with anything but hamburger is but
a dim possibility.
Enough editorializing. This may happen now:
A new association of producers, certifiers and consumers will take shape as
the National Organic Congress, or the National Organic Union. This new entity
will call for national standards, probably in accordance to the OFPA regarding
materials, and may undertake independent accreditation through the American
National Standards Institute ( ANSI). ANSI may accredit certification systems
according to the International Standards Organization ( ISO). Preliminary
investigation of the ANSI/ISO program indicates that such a private route to
accreditation may be just as expensive as the government program. OFPA, the
federal legislation proving so difficult to implement, may be used by ANSI-
accredited certifiers to the extent necessary to provide for international
equivalency for export and import. We do still have to deal with the rest of
the world, even though are own corner of it is far from fixed. Wherever you
turn there are always more acronyms.
The additional Thinking Papers should be trashed. But now that they are in the
official pipeline, the Thinking Papers need to be responded to. They are on
the AMS website <ams.usda.gov>, and appear in the Federal Register. Formerly
cautious organic activists are now willing to work with the independent
accreditation coalition, the Organic Materials Review Institute, and to
strengthen regional certification bodies. It remains to be seen if livestock
producers will begin labeling organic meat products with or without FDA
approval by next summer. If the revised rule is released on January 1, six
months should be ample time for FDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (
FSIS) to begin working with the organic community and allow meat to be labeled
“organically produced” for the first time. It is time for organic farmers to
meet and talk regionally and formally with their certifiers and begin to take
back the entire process.
Organic Livestock Marketing
If organic farmers are going to produce and label organic meat, the first
order of business should have been for the 40 certifiers to agree on uniform
standards of production and handling. The Organic Certifier’s Caucus of the
Organic Trade Association did not agree on uniform standards, according to
Marty Mesh of Florida Organic Growers. The independent accreditation movement
will have to take on that issue if it wants to be legitimate, and up until now
uniform organic meat standards have not been adopted. The formal petition to
FSIS for an interim organic meat label does not include such uniformity, and
consumers as well as organic farmers need such standards. If federal
permission is not granted, such uniformity is even more required in order to
self-defend the product and the producer should producers elect to market
organic meat without approval.
Before we approach that bridge, one option remains: Indicate to the USDA Food
Safety and Inspection Service that the organic community requests immediate
publication in the Federal Register an Advance Notice of Intent to Propose
Rulemaking on organic meat, poultry and processed eggs in order to gather
information as to whether claims relating to the production of food animals,
including the term "organically produced" should be permitted. Appropriate
legal acting should be taken to support this request.
The Face of Future Organic Certification?
Lost amid all the federation talk is the fact that more states are adopting
statutes covering organic production, and new certification associations are
being organized. The federal law ( OFPA) has a lot of language in it that
supports states both in their accreditation and standards and requires that
the USDA Secretary provide assistance to states when setting up certification
CERTIFYING AGENT. The term "certifying agent" means the chief executive
officer of a State or, in the case of a State that provides for the Statewide
election of an official to be responsible solely for the administration of the
agricultural operations of a State, such official, and any person (including
private entities) who is accredited by the Secretary as a certifying agent for
the purpose of certifying a farm or handling operation as a certified organic
farm or handling operation in accordance with this title.
ASSISTANCE TO STATE:
(1) TECHNICAL AND OTHER ASSISTANCE. The Secretary shall provide technical,
administrative, and Extension Service assistance to assist States in the
implementation of an organic certification program under this title.
(2) FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE. The Secretary may provide financial assistance to
any State that implements an organic certification program under this title.
Consequently, Iowa and Indiana are now implementing programs that accredit
private organic certification associations and agencies. Iowa’s program calls
for a state board to review the certifiers as well as their decisions.
Indiana’s Organic Peer Review Panel is focused on accreditation of certifiers,
but does have discretion over individual certification applicants and will
hear consumer complaints and appeals by applicants.
In California, after some initial turbulence between private certifiers and
producers and the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the players
are cooperating a little better. This seems to be pretty much the scenario
being played out in the two dozen states where organic statutes exist. State
involvement, never nearly as thorny as the federal mandate, may be the middle
road towards transparent and legitimate organic certification under government
authority. Perhaps the “public-private partnership” still can survive at the
Some Good News
Ironically, while regulatory issues are at an impasse, organic research and
marketing has never had as much support from other divisions at USDA and EPA.
Mark Lipson formally initiated the Scientific Congress on Organic Agriculture
Research ( SCOAR) at the “Organic Farming and Marketing Workshop: New
Partnerships and Priorities held in Washington on the final day of the NOSB
meeting. We were all ready for some relief. The event was co-sponsored by the
Organic Farming Research Foundation and the Henry A. Wallace Institute for
Alternative Agriculture, boosted in a big way by Jill Auburn of USDA
Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, and was attended by around
fifty government representatives, media representatives and national and
international agricultural policy analysts.
Key presentations were given by Rick Welsh, of the Wallace Institute, on the
“Economics of Organic Grain and Oilseed Production in the Midwest” ; "Meeting
the Data needs of the Emerging Organic Industry" a set of related
presentations by Catherine Greene, Economic Research Service, Norm Bennett,
National Agricultural Statistics Service, and Terry Long, Agricultural
Marketing Service. Presentations were given by scientists from the
Agricultural Research Service, including John Teasdale, Long-Term Cropping
Systems Project Coordinator, Mark Davis, Farming Systems Project Manager,
and national program leader Mike Jawson. Projects of interest to organic
farmers from SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) and other
programs of CSREES (Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension
Service) were discussed by Jill Auburn & others, and "Resources available to
organic farming researchers from the Foreign Agricultural Service" by Janise
Zygmont, USDA Foreign Agricultural Service.
Faith in a Seed
The Farmer Cooperative Genome Project held its first meeting on the 2nd of
November in Oregon. The event brought together organic farmers and alternative
and organic agriculture activists to develop a strategy for cooperating with
the USDA National Plant Germplasm System staff, and personnel from Cooperative
Development Services. An Advisory Council was formed, and participation is
still open to folks concerned about the risks to our common seed heritage.
J.J. Haapala, the Oregon Tilth Research and Education’s chief organizer of the
Project, encourages everyone to become familiar with the National Plant
Germplasm System's "Genetic Information Resource Network" (the GRIN system).
The GRIN system is both a listing of accessions within the NPGS system and a
listing of the descriptors for each crop category. Please refer to the GRIN
system home page at www.ars-grin.gov. For further information on participating
on this international effort to grow and protect open pollinated plant
varieties, please contact Mr. Haapala at <email@example.com> or Oregon Tilth
Research and Education, 30848 Maple Dr. Junction City, OR 97448 For more
information contact: JJ Haapala (540)998-3069.
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