Last summer, USDA Undersecretary Greg Ibach dropped a bombshell on the organic community.
Testifying at a House Agriculture Subcommittee meeting called “Assessing the Effectiveness of the National Organic Program”, he said,
“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.”
For nearly everyone in our industry, the mere idea of having a discussion about allowing gene editing in organic is nothing short of heresy. It is an absolute non-starter.
And when Jennifer Tucker, who oversees the National Organic Program at the USDA, addressed this issue at last fall’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting in Pittsburgh and attempted to downplay people’s concerns, her words did little to allay the fears of numerous organic stakeholders in attendance. Many people left the meeting still believing that gene editing in organic is on the USDA’s agenda.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE NATIONAL ORGANIC STANDARDS BOARD
Unless the USDA went rogue and unilaterally declared that gene editing would be allowed in organic, the agency would need an affirmative vote on this issue from a majority of the 15-member NOSB, the committee that makes recommendations to the USDA about rules, processes and ingredients.
So far, the current administration has appointed a total of 6 new members, 5 of whom were named last month. Below is a brief overview of their backgrounds:
Nathaniel Powell-Palm (farmer seat) — Operates a 1,000-acre certified organic farm in Montana; first-generation farmer and rancher; experience as an independent organic inspector; developed curriculum and trained for the International Organic Inspectors Association.
Kimberly Huseman (handler seat) — Director of Specialty Ingredients for Pilgrim’s, where she developed and oversees a large-scale organic grains and oilseeds origination program; experience in organic grains handling; third-generation wheat farmer and cattlewoman.
Gerard D’Amore (handler seat) — Currently with Munger Farms, with previous experience at SunnyRidge Farm, Dole Fresh, Driscoll’s, Chiquita Brands and Clear Springs LLC.
Mindee Jeffery (retailer seat) — Grocery Manager of Eastside Food Co-op, a community-owned local and organic food retailer in Minneapolis; experience at the Independent Natural Food Retailers Association and Good Earth Natural Foods in California; former Retailer representative to the California Organic Products Advisory Committee.
Wood Turner (environmental protection and resource conservation seat) — Senior Vice President of Sustainability for Agriculture Capital; former Vice President for Sustainability Innovation at Stonyfield; founding Executive Director of Climate Counts.
Given these people’s backgrounds, it is impossible to know how they would vote on gene editing in organic if it were ever brought before the NOSB. Nevertheless, industry observers are keeping a close eye on this situation.
“We don’t prejudge any of these new board members and expect them to independently and objectively represent all organic stakeholders. That being said, several of these individuals have ties to conventional agribusiness and corporate organic lobbyists,” said Mark Kastel, Director of OrganicEye, an industry watchdog group and the investigative arm of Beyond Pesticides that has just put out a detailed analysis of all five of these new NOSB members.
In addition to the gene-editing issue, the other relevant and important question that remains is how small organic farmers will be represented by these appointees.
“At the moment, we have a USDA that has been overtly hostile toward our industry, and history has not treated family farmers well in organic. Not only did the NOSB fail to recommend that hydroponics be banned in organic, but it has not put adequate pressure on the USDA to eradicate rogue ‘organic factory dairies’ — both of which have had disastrous consequences for small organic farmers in the U.S. We hope that the new and current members understand we will hold them fully accountable for their actions,” said Kastel.
Only time will tell how these new members will serve the organic community, but the stakes are very high. If gene editing were ever to be allowed in organic, it would single-handedly destroy our industry.
That is precisely why all stakeholders must be paying close attention to who is on the NOSB, what they are saying and how they are voting.
Max Goldberg, Founder
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* Please Note: Next week’s Organic Insider newsletter will be coming out on Monday, not Wednesday.
* My friend Liana Werner-Gray of The Earth Diet will be heading back to her native Australia to help feed the first responders fighting the fires in her country. If any organic brand would like to donate product, please feel free to contact her.
* The EPA is proposing to weaken an existing rule protecting farmworkers and their communities from pesticide drift. Please sign the Pesticide Action Network’s e-petition opposing this.
* In the latest email from The Real Organic Project, the organization said it has gotten 175 farm applications in the last two weeks alone. Wow!
* For entrepreneurs in the outdoor and natural products space, adVenturesAcademy is now accepting applications for its Buena Vista, Colorado whitewater rafting trip.
* Alice Waters is teaming up with UC-Davis for a new Institute for Edible Education.
* Organic coffee is set to improve the livelihood of tribal women in Kil Kotagiri, India.