Delivering the week’s top organic food news
11.4.2020
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With the National Organic Standards Board Reapproving Inert Ingredients, Will the Industry Take a Stand?

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The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) has kicked the can down the road once again.

And the time has come for the industry to hold this 15-member board accountable.

Last week, at the fall NOSB meeting, held virtually, the board voted to approve “inert” ingredients for another five years on the National List.

In the organic industry, synthetic pesticides can receive special approval for a five-year period. While the active ingredients in these synthetic pesticides must be disclosed and are reviewed, the non-active ingredients — the powder, liquid, granule or spreader/sticking agents in pesticide formulations, often referred to as “inerts” — do not have to be disclosed and are not being reviewed by the NOSB. 

This is problematic for several reasons.

One, some of these “inerts” can often be much more toxic than the disclosed “active ingredients.”

Two, the “inerts” can comprise up to 98% or more of the approved synthetic pesticide, leaving the active ingredient as a very minor component of the overall product.

Three, consumers and farmers are completely in the dark as to the exact “inerts” in the approved pesticide because the “inerts” do not have to be labeled on the pesticide product.

Four, the NOSB and USDA are using an EPA-approved “inert” list that hasn’t been updated in approximately 14 years and is no longer used by the EPA. Furthermore, the NOSB and USDA are relying on an outdated list that doesn’t necessarily meet the same strict criteria as the National Organic Program would demand today.

Case in point is nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), a widely used “inert” that enhances the absorption and efficacy of a pesticide. NPEs were found to inhibit the growth of young terrestrial and aquatic plants or trees, inhibit or restrict the growth of soil bacteria, and act as xenoestrogens in human cells.

A LONG HISTORY

Removing these “inerts” from the National List is a complicated endeavor and one that the NOSB has been grappling with for many years.

It started in 1995, when the NOSB decided to rely on the EPA and concluded that “inerts” on the EPA List 4 were considered generally “not of toxicological concern” and would be accepted in organic production. However, the NOSB said it would go back and review “inerts” after it dealt with the more pressing issues of the initial recommendations to the USDA regarding the organic program.

This reliance on the EPA list became more troublesome around 2006 when the agency stopped updating its categorized “inerts” lists.

Since that time, the NOSB has made various attempts to create a new list, but it has been unable to develop the political will to do so.

Not only does it require tremendous coordination and agreement between the EPA, USDA, NOSB and the industry, but this difficulty is further compounded by the fact that NOSB members are rotated off the board every five years and the institutional memory of this issue invariably gets lost.

As a result, the NOSB has failed to settle the “inerts” issue for the past decade, and with last week’s vote not to de-list “inerts,” it is a near guarantee that it will remain unresolved for several more years, at a minimum.

Needless to say, organic industry watchdog organizations are furious.

“Many of these NOSB members abrogated their responsibility to consumers, and it is unconscionable. They just re-listed something that equates to nothing — a phantom list that doesn’t really exist any longer,” said Mark Kastel, Director of OrganicEye.

“The whole National List process depends on the NOSB reviewing the materials used in organic production,” said Terry Shistar, PhD, Science Advisor and Director at Beyond Pesticides, who was referring to Section 6518 (l)(3) of the Organic Food Production Act of 1990, which states that the NOSB must evaluate all substances considered for inclusion on the National List.

“By failing to review ‘inert’ ingredients as required by law, some of which are not really inert, the board is failing to review the materials that make up the largest percentage of the pesticides. Organic consumers are not getting the product they expect, and they would never imagine that their fruits and vegetables are being sprayed with something that is not in accordance with organic regulations,” she continued.

THE DANGER THIS DECISION POSES

With “inerts” getting re-listed, the NOSB exposes the organic industry to very serious backlash and criticism.

Namely, we are allowing potentially harmful synthetic ingredients to be sprayed on our crops, which are injurious to the environment, farmworkers and children who live near these farms. Furthermore, critics of our industry will question why organic consumers are paying a premium for foods that are sprayed with dangerous chemicals, some of which are not being evaluated by the people overseeing our industry.

This decision by the NOSB also reveals the severe damage caused by the USDA when it unilaterally changed the Sunset Rule several years ago, something that ended up being codified by Congress in order to nullify a lawsuit seeking to overturn this.

In the past, at the end of the five-year period of having a synthetic or specially-approved ingredient added to the National List, it would come off the list — it would “sunset” off. The ingredient would then require a 2/3rds vote of the board to go back on the list.

With this Sunset Rule change, the ingredient remains on the list in perpetuity and now needs a 2/3rds vote to have it removed. As a result, it has become exceedingly difficult to de-list a synthetic ingredient from the National List, particularly when numerous NOSB members carry a “more tools in the toolbox” mentality or are sympathetic to the needs of industrial organic companies.

Had the original Sunset Rule still been in place, “inerts” would have been de-listed last week, as six people voted to have it removed while nine people wanted it to remain.

MORE OF THE SAME OR SOMETHING NEW?

At a time when organic sales are greater than ever, the integrity of organic is also more vulnerable than ever.

The question we now face is whether the industry wants to hold the NOSB accountable.

With gratitude,

Max Goldberg, Founder

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