National Organic Standards Board sends open letter to Congress concerning organic label integrity

Candace Krebs
The Ag Journal
A delivery truck parked outside a red barn at Radiance Dairy in Iowa promotes buying local. Owner Francis Thicke has been running the small organic grass dairy and selling products direct to consumers for the past 30 years. He recently penned a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack calling on USDA to enforce stricter organic standards.

Forty former members of the National Organic Standards Board sent an open letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently, which was also circulated to members of the House and Senate agriculture committees, demanding reforms to insure the integrity of the federal organic label.

"We are writing to share with you our concern that the integrity of the National Organic Standards has eroded significantly over the years,” the letter states. “In some cases, the Standards have devolved from the original intention, as in the example of enclosed poultry porches substituting for outdoor access. In other cases, a lack of strong enforcement of existing standards has led to well-documented cases of fraud and an economic burden on organic operators who follow the rules, versus those who do not.”

The letter was written by Francis Thicke, owner of Radiance Dairy in Iowa, who served as a member of the National Organic Standards Board from 2013 to 2018.

Notable co-signers include Robert Quinn, a pioneering organic grain farmer from Montana; Fred Kirschenmann, a distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State; Dave Carter, the Denver-based executive director of the American Bison Association; Chef Ann Cooper, healthy food advocate and former director of food services for Boulder Valley School District; and Jeff Moyer, executive director of the Rodale Institute, headquartered in Pennsylvania.

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The letter is being distributed by the Real Organic Project, which bills itself as a “farmer-led movement created to distinguish soil-grown and pasture-raised products under USDA organic.” It provides producers with its own seal of verification.

The National Organic Standards Board is a 15-member advisory board that reports to the Secretary of Agriculture. Any recommendations it makes must go through the federal rule making process before being adopted by the National Organic Program.

The letter expresses concern that the erosion of organic standards is undermining consumer confidence in the integrity of organic food.

“In the last eleven years, the National Organic Program has failed to successfully bring a number of our key recommendations to rulemaking,” the letter states. “This failure has led to real damage to trust in, and the integrity of, the organic program.”

The letter urges immediate action on several key recommendations that have languished or been thrown out.

One of the biggest controversies within the organic industry involves whether to certify hydroponic production.

"Systems of crop production that eliminate soil from the system, such as hydroponics or aeroponics, can not be considered as examples of acceptable organic farming practices,” the letter states. “Hydroponics, the production of plants in nutrient rich solutions or moist inert material, or aeroponics, a variation in which plant roots are suspended in air and continually misted with nutrient solution, have their place in production agriculture, but certainly cannot be classified as certified organic growing, due to their exclusion of the soil-plant ecology intrinsic to organic farming systems.”

For now, hydroponic products are still being labeled as organic.

Another controversy concerns qualification of organic dairies. In 2015, the advisory board recommended that after completion of a one-time, 12-month transition period of an existing conventional dairy herd (or after a new organic dairy operation is formed), all future dairy animals added must be managed organically from the last third of gestation.

That rule was never finalized.

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The letter also complains about an extensive and detailed animal welfare standard, finalized in 2017 with broad input from businesses, consumers and advocacy groups, which was ultimately rejected by the Trump Administration. Several other groups, including the Organic Trade Association, National Farmers Union, and the American Sustainable Business Council, continue to support having the so-called Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices Final Rule re-instated.

The letter points to two other specific problems as well: pasture compliance and grain fraud. Rules requiring that livestock have access to pasture haven’t been consistently enforced, the authors say, an issue that was scrutinized in a series of articles written by the Washington Post back in 2017.

Likewise, imports of fraudulent organic grain — mostly from the Black Sea region and the Middle East — have also made headlines, leading many farmers to fear fake imports are being used to drive down domestic prices. Some foreign vessels have reportedly been fumigated with chemicals at sea after leaving foreign ports and before arriving in the U.S.