If there is one word that could sum up last week’s National Organic Standards Board meeting in Pittsburgh, it is unease.
That was the prevailing sentiment in the room and in my conversations with many industry stakeholders, including a select number of National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) members.
Without question, the biggest topic of the meeting was gene editing. And rightly so.
After all, it was only a few months ago when Greg Ibach, the USDA’s Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, told a House Agriculture Subcommittee meeting,
“There is the opportunity to open the discussion to consider whether it is appropriate for some of these new technologies, including gene editing, to be eligible to be used to enhance organic production.”
With gene editing posing an existential risk to organic, all NOSB meeting attendees wanted to know where official representatives from the USDA’s National Organic Program stood on this matter.
When Jenny Tucker, who oversees the National Organic Program for the USDA, put up her slide about this issue, it seemed to provide conflicting signals. On one hand, it declared that gene editing is prohibited in organic and that changing the definition of Excluded Methods is not on the USDA regulatory agenda. On the other hand, it said that there should be a robust dialogue about new technologies.
The “robust dialogue” part of the presentation caught many people off guard, especially since the NOSB already voted in 2016 that gene editing — a new technology — was an excluded method.
“This issue has already been discussed at length and needs no further discussion given the strong opposition to genetic engineering from consumers and the NOSB’s unanimous recommendation to prohibit it,” said Abby Youngblood, Executive Director of the National Organic Coalition.
Even if the USDA declared that changing the definition of Excluded Methods (i.e., allowing gene editing) is not on the current regulatory agenda, Greg Ibach’s comments precluded it from being a closed case issue in the minds of many in the organic industry. But there is another wild card in play.
Within the next year or so, the revolving 5-year terms of many current NOSB members will have expired. By that point, the current administration will have appointed a majority of the NOSB members and could potentially have much greater control over the NOSB’s agenda than it does now. And Greg Ibach is acutely aware of this.
At the same House subcommittee hearing in July, he said,
“We’re looking forward to making some new appointments as terms expire this coming year….we’re looking forward to be able to create a more diverse organic standards board to be able to provide us input across the board.”
The NOSB is already a reasonably diverse group and has representatives from different minority groups, with women holding 6 of the 15 board seats. By no means is the NOSB currently comprised of a homogeneous set of members.
Whether these new members will vote to allow gene editing in organic is uncertain, but Greg Ibach has already indicated that he is eager for a more diverse board — something that could be interpreted as people who may be open to discussing this gene-editing matter again.
ADD-ON LABELS MAY CHANGE THE STATUS QUO
While the notion of gene editing in organic is antithetical to everything that organic is meant to represent, it is merely part of a continuing trend that is undermining the integrity of our industry.
Hydroponics is being allowed, which is a complete violation of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, and the USDA is turning a blind eye to “organic factory farms.”
At this latest NOSB meeting in Pittsburgh, conventional celery powder was voted to stay on the National List of approved substances for another five years. This is yet another example that bolsters the case that once an ingredient gets on the National List — originally intended to be a one-time, five-year exemption — it has become next to impossible to remove it.
Instead of improving or enhancing the value of the organic brand, the USDA is weakening it through poor enforcement and oversight.
“We are in the age of non-compliance,” said Jay Feldman, Executive Director of Beyond Pesticides and a member of the standards board of The Real Organic Project.
“If the USDA and NOSB do not meet consumer expectations and maintain the highest standards, consumers will drive the integrity issue in the marketplace with the help of add-on labels. It is difficult for consumers to make informed choices if they don’t have transparent labels in regards to production practices, such as hydroponics. The current law does not miss the mark. Our add-on label will simply force the USDA and the NOSB to meet the true standards under this law.”
As we witnessed in Pittsburgh, the direction of organic is creating tremendous concern among many industry stakeholders.
Soon, with the emergence of two new add-on labels, the USDA may be compelled into a course correction that they otherwise would not have taken.
Max Goldberg, Founder
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