Statement of Support for Migrant Justice Lawsuit

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From the Northeast Organic Farming Association Interstate Council

November 20, 2018

Over the past two years, NOFA members have observed with indignation the series of arrests in Vermont and New York of dairy farmworkers who have the courage to take action to improve working and living conditions on farms in these states. NOFA stands in solidarity with Migrant Justice in taking peaceful, legal actions that should be protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

The American Civil Liberties Union in Vermont, the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice and the National Immigration Law Center have filed a federal lawsuit claiming that immigration agents are targeting undocumented organizers for their activism in Vermont. The suit accuses Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security and the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles of carrying out a multiyear campaign of political retaliation against members of the group Migrant Justice. According to the lawsuit, Migrant Justice was infiltrated by an informant, and its members were repeatedly subjected to electronic surveillance. At least 20 active members of Migrant Justice have been arrested and detained by ICE. The lawsuit seeks an injunction, asking a judge to put an end to ICE’s targeted campaign of retaliation against Migrant Justice and its membership.

Enrique Balcazar, a former dairy farmworker who became an organizer with Migrant Justice, has been a speaker at several NOFA conferences. In filing the suit he stated: “But as we stand up and fight for our rights, we are hunted down and targeted by ICE. And that’s why we are here today, to stand up for our rights and file this lawsuit against ICE and the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles. In the past two years alone, there have been over 40 community members associated with Migrant Justice who have been arrested by federal immigration authorities. Many of them have since been deported. And in nine of these cases, we have clear evidence that these arrests were retaliatory, targeting people because of their involvement in Migrant Justice. ICE has been persecuting us. They’ve been surveilling Migrant Justice and its membership, with the objective to repress our voice, to keep us quiet, to stop us from organizing for our rights and to take retaliation against us for the way that we express ourselves and when we expose their abuses of power.”

Background on Migrant Justice

Migrant Justice was key to passing a law in Vermont in 2013 allowing for the creation of the driver’s privilege card, a driver’s license available to anybody regardless of immigration status. Most immigrant farm workers in Vermont live in isolation on rural farms with no access to public transportation, and many were spending years at a time on those farms without the freedom to go anywhere because of lack of access to transportation.

In October of 2017, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream signed an agreement with Migrant Justice, becoming the first dairy company to join Migrant Justice’s Milk with Dignity program, a binding commitment that requires their suppliers to uphold a farmworker-authored code of conduct, guaranteeing rights and wages, housing, health and safety, scheduling, and to be able to organize free from retaliation and discrimination. So far, 300 dairy farmworkers on 72 farms are covered under this program. Ben & Jerry’s pays a premium to the farms in order to redistribute profits down the supply chain enabling the farmers to make improvements and pay increased wages to their employees.

2018 Farm Bill Update:

Because our dysfunctional Congress did not pass or extend the Farm Bill by the Sept 30th deadline, the 2014 bill has expired. Most programs will cease to operate sooner or later but the details of each program’s termination depends on how they are funded:

  • The two programs that make up nearly 90% of all farm bill spending – SNAP (food stamps) and Crop Insurance – will not expire because they have permanent budget authorization funded through the separate appropriations process.
  • Most of the core programs with mandatory funding in the 2014 Farm Bill are funded through all of 2018 but without a new farm bill or an extension of the current one many of those programs would cease to operate on December 31st.
  • the discretionary programs without mandatory funding (the so-called orphaned programs) lose their authority to operate­ and terminate immediately unless there’s an extension, a new farm bill is passed or supplemental funding is found via USDA or Congress. These include the expiration of most of our supportive organic and sustainable ag programs. Expiring baseline means conferees will need to find $2.85 billion from farm bill programs to reauthorize those programs important to our members including organic certification cost-share, organic research and extension, collection of organic data, beginning farm programs and necessary updates for National Organic Program (NOP).
  • If the Farm Bill is not passed or extended in 2018 the Commodity title would automatically revert to the original 1938 and 1949 permanent authorization levels when many of the commodities (including soybeans, oilseeds, peanuts, and wool) were not covered and therefore would not receive funding. And because the Dairy Product Price Support Program’s reversion to permanent law would require USDA to buy manufactured dairy products under 1930’s parity pricing formulas at today’s (very expensive) prices these fall back provisions provide a major incentive for Congress to vote for an extension or come up with a new farm bill.

Lame Duck session action expected

The Republican strategy is to ignore an extension and let the orphan programs expire – and take up the 2018 Farm Bill negotiations to authorize future program funding in mid-November, after the elections, during the “lame duck” session when the current Members are still in power (even if a “Blue Wave” of Democrats has been voted into office – starting in 2019).

Meanwhile, there does not seem to be a way forward to come up with the $2.85 billion in supplemental funds from current farm bill programs to reauthorize the 40 orphaned programs that do not have baseline funding – a situation similar to the 2012 farm Bill, which was finally passed in 2014.

With the House on recess until after the Nov 6th Elections and the Senate expected to leave for campaigning soon the Chairs and Ranking Members of the House and Senate Ag committees and staff are continuing negotiations to get the Farm Bill done before the end of the year. They claim to be close on to agreement on the energy, credit and trade sections of the bill. Great differences remain on farm subsidies and SNAP, as well as other parts of the massive farm bill, which ranges from international food aid to ag research and rural economic development.

>>>Current Strategy (from NSAC)

“With prospects for a short-term extension of the 2014 Farm Bill gone and Congress unlikely to return to Washington, D.C. before the November elections, the focus of advocates must now shift to trying to help pass a good, bipartisan 2018 Farm Bill later this year. To minimize the negative impacts of letting the 2014 Farm Bill expire without an extension and to get the programs farmers, researchers and consumers rely on up and running in the new year, we must keep the pressure on Congress to finalize a bill ASAP – but only if it is a good bill, one based largely on the bipartisan bill passed by the Senate with the most votes for a farm bill in history. Indeed, even a farm bill extension, while depressing, would still be better than adopting a bad bill. Now is the time to rally around adopting a new bill, this year; one that adopts the non-ideological and bipartisan path put forward by the Senate.”

But meantime the House and Senate versions are still not reconciled by the conference committee. Here’s the high (and low) points:

House: Along with major cuts to most organic and soil conservation programs key features also include onerous and expensive SNAP (food stamps) reform; increasing subsidy payments to farmers via making extended family members eligible and unnecessary statutory NOSB “reforms”.

Senate: The Senate bill was a bi-partisan approach from the beginning with many positive features for organic and sustainable agriculture. It has no new SNAP requirements and somewhat reduces farm subsidies. Wins for organic and sustainable agriculture include;

  • Provisions and support for organic trade enforcement
  • a big increase in funding for Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI)– and like the House bill it adds “soil health” as a priority
  • National Organic Certification Cost Share Program is fully funded, with $11.5 million annually in mandatory funding. Cost Share was zeroed out in the House bill.
  • Organic Data Initiative – like the House, includes $5 million in one-time mandatory funding
  • Conservation Program: makes a specific allocation for organic within EQIP but doesn’t fix the lower payment limit discrepancy. Overall it cuts needed funds out of CSP and EQIP to support other programs in the Title.
  • Included is a provision to improve soil health, in a way that helps agriculture and addresses climate change that would establish a pilot project managed by USDA to promote the use of advanced farming practices to capture carbon in soil to improve soil health and crop resilience while lowering the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
  • Combines the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and theOutreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program to create the new Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach Program (FOTOP) with a permanent baseline funding of $50 million a year. The failed House bill supported FOTOP but did not increase funding and did not establish permanent baseline funding.

Attacks on Organic Integrity. Where Do We Go From Here?

By the Organic Trade Association’s statistics the continuing growth in organic sales is so bright you gotta wear shades. Now over 5% of the food industry, organic has left any purported fad status far behind. While the food industry limps along with annual 0.6 increases, organic continues to post gains over 8% year after year. Carried by Walmart, Target and other Big Box stores total US sales have reached around $50 billion now – and some estimates are putting the organic market at $320 billion by 2025. With sales generated by consumer demand, minor and major companies are fearful not to have a stake in the accelerating market.

But by ignoring the dark, threatening clouds gathering on the horizon are those business-boosters really wearing blinders instead? Led by declines in organic milk and eggs the latest OTA statistics show a significant slowing of the growth rate. Thanks to a spate of negative publicity about watered down standards and fraud in the organic industry consumers are growing wary. The organic label has become a ripe target for co-option by conventional entities looking to acquire a fat piece of the pie, while the list of US Department of Agriculture (USDA) preemptions and enforcement failures is getting longer. And for the first time a Congressionally abetted statutory takeover attempt of the Standards is in the works. It was not always thus, however.

Back in the early days, organic’s primary battles were against conventional forces trying to stamp out or at least severely marginalize the upstart label whose very presence in the marketplace indicates that other food and farming methods are lesser. For farmers, nascent businesses and advocates it was a painful fit housed in USDA, long regarded as a Big Ag lapdog and described by organic stalwarts as “residing in the belly of the beast”.

But that was the trade-off for uniting the 60-some separate certification programs around the country and securing governmental legal protections against fraudulent operations. Adding insult to injury USDA then “owned” the use of the word “organic” in food and farming as producers cannot use the term legally without certification. But then again USDA has to contend with the definitive Organic Food Production Act of 1990 (OFPA) and a vociferous Movement scrutinizing their every move.

OFPA
Championed by Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, OFPA was enacted as part of the 1990 Farm Bill, passed by the slim Democrat majorities in both the House and Senate and landing in the Agriculture Marketing Service division of USDA for implementation. Creating comprehensive standards for organic certification, it required the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a National Organic Program (NOP) as manager to administer the accreditation of certifiers and govern the use of the official USDA label along with overseeing and enforcing the National List of approved and prohibited substances.

OFPA also mandated the creation of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) – a Federal Advisory Board with atypical statutory power to determine which materials are allowed on the National List as well as to advise the Secretary on aspects of the NOP. The NOSB, composed of 15 members representing the food processing industry, farmers, consumers, and environmental organizations, was directed to meet twice a year with proceedings fully open to the public.

Passing the OFPA statute was just a first step – but no one supposed that this would turn into a10 year process. Although annual appropriations were authorized to support the program no monies were voted into existence until 1994. And as for the federal comment rule-making phase required to create the program’s regulations, the proposed rule that finally emerged in 1998 had Big Ag’s fingerprints all over it. The regs hit like a brick with the infamous allowance of GMOs, sludge and irradiation along with an additional “64 points of darkness”. NOFA was part of a huge public outcry that raised holy hell to send it back to the drawing board – but it wasn’t until 2000 that the revamped NOP Final Rule was instituted at last.

Tarnishing the Gold Standard
In markets replete with non-regulated claims like “natural” – the transparent and verifiable high standards built into the organic seal became respected as the gold standard of food labels, gathering solid consumer acceptance. Mounting challenges began to cloud its dominion, however. While NOFA’s organic and sustainable agriculture coalition partners have had a good share of policy wins, this current Congress and Administration is fixated on undoing as many as they can.

Several of these interloper incursions have morphed into serious attacks on organic integrity – with repercussions for the authenticity of the label. The short list includes overturning Biotech labeling by Congress; the reversal of Sunset Review regulations governing the National List, restriction of the NOSB work plan, allowance of hydroponics and carrageenan along with failure of certification enforcement for grain, dairy, the pasture rule and origin of livestock by the NOP and ongoing appointments of Big Ag insiders to the NOSB and the overturning of the organic animal welfare law by USDA.

Grave New Threats
But right now there’s a major new threat in the offing – the protective OFPA legal foundation itself is under fire. This being a Farm Bill year Congress is working to authorize farm and food legislation for the next five year period. Pushed by Big Ag lobbyists, the Republican Chairs of both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees are including language to open up OFPA to make statutory changes that would fundamentally alter the structure and process for NOSB – along with other machinations still to be announced. The House markup (which still needs to be passed on the Floor) already includes provisions to allow corporate employees to fill the owner-operator farmer representative positions and an expedited process for adding synthetic materials to the National List. Threats to “reforming” OFPA by Senate Chair Roberts are even more dire, however – although we won’t see the full extent until the Senate mark-up later this Spring.

From all reports we’re going to need All Hands On Deck to thwart this unconscionable takeover attempt with a national campaign that once again raises holy hell to try and stop it.

“Where Do We Go From Here?”
In response to these diverse attacks on organic integrity “Where Do We Go From Here?” has emerged as a major concern for the Interstate NOFA Policy Committee and charting the course ahead was the main agenda item at the NOFA-IC Retreat in late March.

Although some of these transgressions are being dealt with in a number of ways, including pressure on the NOP and USDA lawsuits, there are further calls by new players on the scene for separate add-on labels to designate authentic organic inputs and practices in the marketplace.

Over the past year two major initiatives have emerged: the Regenerative Agriculture Certification (ROC) put forth by Rodale, Patagonia and Dr Bronners and the Real Organic Project (ROP) that has come via the “Keep the Soil in Organic” movement by grassroots farmers. Initial pilot projects to test the efficacy for both are scheduled for this summer.

Policy Funding Needed!
Interstate NOFA Policy is funded by donor support. Food policy is everyone’s business and our genuine grassroots food and farming voice is now more important than ever!

Tax-deductible donations, made out to NOFA Interstate Council, may be sent to Julie Rawson, IC Treasurer, 411 Sheldon Road, Barre, MA 01005 or via the Donate button at “Support us” under the Advocacy link at www.nofa.org/support.php
Thank you!!

To the Board of the Real Organic Project and to Jeff Moyer, David Bronner and Phil Graves of Regenerative Organic Certification

We, the members of the Northeast Organic Farming Association Interstate Council (NOFA-IC), are writing to you knowing that you share our dedication to organic farming and to the principles of ecology, health, care, and fairness on which it is based. The NOFA-IC has been coordinating the seven state chapters of NOFA since the 1980’s when NOFA expanded from its beginnings in Vermont and New Hampshire in 1971 to encompass seven state chapters with over 5000 members, most of them organic farmers and homesteaders. We are all part of a movement that is concerned for the carrying capacity of our shared and beloved world. We are confronted with these hard moments today because of the attractiveness to the public of what we have to offer: if money can be made, some will try to make it by lowering our high standards. How we respond, that is the means to our ends, is every bit as important as what we say-process and content are inextricably linked. We are grateful to have many partners in these commitments and we believe it is critical to the ultimate success of any labeling initiatives that they be grounded in authentic community processes including diverse stakeholders.

At this critical moment when trust in the organic label in the US is at stake, we think it is important to reaffirm that the National Organic Program, despite its flaws and shortcomings, has allowed many organic farms to stay in business and new ones to be created. Many farmers have adopted the National Organic Program and invested in good faith efforts to comply with its standards. We want to be sure that whatever we do does not harm those efforts. The NOFA Interstate Council supports the use of add-ons to the USDA Organic label — labels such as “100% grass-fed,” “food justice certified,” “soil grown,” “certified humane,” “non-gmo,” etc. — for those individuals who believe in and practice such farming methods and seek market recognition for these practices. But we do not support organizations promoting those add-on labels doing so in ways which disparage the USDA Organic label itself.

Organic agriculture is a living process and we are committed to continually improve both our own practices and the National Organic Program. Continual innovation is essential. In these lively debates, it is vital that we not lose sight of what we are discussing-that is, how our farming and food production practices can become as ecologically sound as possible. Indeed, we celebrate a teeming proliferation of responses to the current crisis regarding the organic label. Living systems are highly diverse and complex-so too can be our responses to the current predicament in which we find ourselves. Our public discourse and democratic institutions must be able to embrace a myriad of perspectives, all taking rooted, place-based, context-dependent stands on what is in the interest of all of us and of life itself.

For these reasons we welcome add-ons to the USDA organic label and urge those engaged in creating such add-ons to move forward with a collaborative, rather than competitive, approach. We want to be sure that whatever we endorse contributes to moving us towards our vision of interconnected healthy and diverse communities living in ecological balance deeply rooted in a sense of place, grounded in organic care of the land.

Signed by the members of the NOFA Interstate Council: Enid Wonnacott, Jack Mastrianni, Andrianna Natsoulas, Bill Duesing, Elizabeth Henderson, Steve Gilman, Julie Rawson, Jack Kittredge, Sarah Laeng-Gilliatt, Maddie Kempner, Al Johnson, Laura Davis, Jeff Cordulack, Louis Battalen, Jan Martin-Trounson, John Martin, Liana Hoodes, Cali Alexander, Adrian Hyde, Jason Valcourt, David Pontius, Mark Hengen

Comments Opposing the Withdrawal of the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) rule

Founded in 1971, the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) is one of the oldest organic farming education and advocacy groups in the country. NOFA is a grassroots, regional federation of seven independent state Chapters in NY, VT, NH, MA, CT, RI and NJ. Beyond their work on state initiatives, the Chapters work together regionally, nationally and internationally via the NOFA Interstate Council (NOFA-IC).

The Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) rule, which has been under consideration for more than ten years, was approved as a final rulemaking action by the executive branch at the beginning of 2017 with overwhelming support from the expanding organic farm and food movement. So too have NOFA’s 6,000+ farmer and consumer members overwhelmingly supported the OLPP rule from its inception all the way through the final rule-making process.

We are extremely dismayed at the Agricultural Marketing Service’s decision to unilaterally withdraw the rule and we strongly advise the USDA to permit the OLPP rule to become effective immediately. At stake is consumer confidence in the organic seal – which USDA/AMA is mandated by Congress to uphold and further. These new rules are necessary to ensure consistency and uniformity of the organic standards and to advance organic production in the marketplace.

Read more

Organic at a Crossroads

Impacts on Organic Integrity and Departing Comments from Francis Thicke

The integrity of the USDA Organic label has been taking some major hits lately. In November, prompted by farm-state Members of Congress and agrochemical/biotech corporations, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the withdrawal of the GMO labeling rule (as weak as it was) put in place under the Obama Administration. A little later in the month the Department of Agriculture also announced a decision to further delay the implementation of the final rule for the long-awaited standards on animal welfare for organic livestock operations.

And despite rallies around the country and testimony from a national contingent of pioneering organic farmers at the November meeting in Jacksonville, Florida to “keep the soil in organic” — the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) voted to allow hydroponic and aquaponic farming operations to continue to use the organic seal.

Below are comments on recent impacts on organic integrity from departing NOSB member, Francis Thicke, at the end of his 5 year term.

Steve Gilman
Interstate NOFA Policy Coordinator

Farewell Comments by Francis Thicke, NOSB member:
“There are two important things that I have learned during my five years on the NOSB. First, I learned that the NOSB review process for materials petitioned for inclusion on the National List is quite rigorous, with Technical Reviews of petitioned materials and careful scrutiny by both NOSB subcommittees and the full board.

The second thing I learned, over time, is that industry has an outsized and growing influence on USDA-and on the NOSB (including through NOSB appointments)-compared to the influence of organic farmers, who started this organic farming movement. Perhaps that is not surprising, given the growing value of organic sales. As organic is becoming a $50 billion business, the industry not only wants a bigger piece of the pie, they seem to want the whole pie.

We now have “organic” chicken CAFOs with 200,000 birds crammed into a building with no real access to the outdoors, and a chicken industry working behind the scenes to make sure that the animal welfare standards-weak as they were-never see the light of day, just like their chickens. The image consumers have of organic chickens ranging outside has been relegated to pictures on egg cartoons.

We have “organic” dairy CAFOs with 15,000 cows in a feedlot in a desert, with compelling evidence by an investigative reporter that the CAFO is not meeting the grazing rule-by a long shot. But when USDA does its obligatory “investigation,” instead of a surprise visit to the facility, USDA gives them a heads up by making an appointment, so the CAFO can move cows from feedlots to pasture on the day of inspection. This gives a green light to that dairy CAFO owner to move forward with its plans to establish a 30,000-cow facility in the Midwest.

We have large grain shipments coming into the US that are being sold as organic but that lack organic documentation. Some shipments have been proven to be fraudulent. The USDA has been slow to take action to stop this, and organic crop farmers in the US are suffering financially as a result. I spoke with the reporter who broke the story on fraudulent “organic” grain imports. I asked him how he was able to document the fraud of grain shipments when USDA said it was very difficult to do so. He replied “it was easy.”

We have a rapidly growing percentage of the organic fruits and vegetables on grocery store shelves being produced hydroponically, without soil, and mostly in huge industrial-scale facilities. And we have a hydroponics industry that has deceptively renamed “hydroponic” production-even with 100% liquid feeding-as “container” production. With their clever deception they have been able to bamboozle even the majority of NOSB members into complicity with their goal of taking over the organic fruit and vegetable market with their hydroponic products.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find that big business is taking over the USDA organic program because the influence of money is corroding all levels of our government. At this point, I can see only one way to bring the organic label back in line with the original vision of organic farmers and consumers. We need an add-on organic label for organic farmers who are willing to meet the expectations of discerning consumers who are demanding real organic food.

A year ago I wouldn’t have supported the idea of an add-on organic label because I, like many others, had seen the USDA organic label as the gold standard, and had hoped that through our vision of the process of continuous improvement we could really make it into that gold standard. Now I can see that the influence of big business is not going to let that happen. The USDA is increasingly exerting control over the NOSB, and big business is tightening its grip on the USDA and Congress. Recently industry representatives have publicly called on the US Senate to weaken the NOSB and give industry a stronger role in the National Organic Program. And sympathetic Senators promised to do just that.

I now support the establishment of an add-on organic label that will enable real organic farmers and discerning organic consumers to support one another through a label that represents real organic food. I support the creation of a label, such as the proposed Regenerative Organic Certification, that will ensure organic integrity; for example, that animals have real access to the outdoors to be able to express their natural behaviors, and that food is grown in soil. My hopes are that this add-on certification can be seamlessly integrated with the NOP certification, so that a single farm organic system plan and inspection can serve to verify both NOP and the higher level organic certification, by certifiers that are accredited by both certification systems.

I also am pleased that organic farmers have recently organized themselves into the Organic Farmers Association (OFA), to better represent themselves in the arena of public policy. Too often in the past the interests of big business have overruled the interests of organic farmers-and consumers-when organic policies are being established in Washington. I hope this will allow organic farmers to gain equal footing with industry on issues that affect the organic community.

In summary, organic is at a crossroads. Either we can continue to allow industry interests to bend and dilute the organic rules to their benefit, or organic farmers-working with organic consumers–can step up and take action to ensure organic integrity into the future.”

Major Attack on Organic in Congress

At a recent Congressional Farm Bill Hearing, the powerful Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman, Pat Roberts from Kansas, put forth unprecedented derogatory opening statements and featured testimony that strike at the very core of organic integrity – the National Organic Standards Board. This unique citizen’s review board is a legal entity constituted to ensure that all organic stakeholders have equal access and input into the process for setting and maintaining high organic standards.

However, in concert with agribusiness lobbyists behind the scenes, Senator Roberts declared that the standards board is dysfunctional, fails to represent large scale growers and needs to be altered by opening the formative Organic Food Production Act of 1990 to make statutory changes. Opening the law would subject organic’s tough standards to numerous weakening amendments that would allow industrialized farms to easily qualify for the organic label.

This Hostile Takeover attempt is a BIG DEAL and we need to get All Hands On Deck to help defend and strengthen organic.

Step One is already in gear. Numerous longtime organic organizations, coalitions and businesses from all around the country are participating in a forceful letter of solidarity addressed to the Senate and House Agriculture Committees, speaking in one voice to prevent the gutting of the Law and Standards Board that protects organic integrity.

Coming soon, Step Two is for grassroots groups to orchestrate a HUGE and LOUD retort to our Congressional delegations. Look for Alerts from your state’s NOFA Chapter; get active and help spread the word. All of NOFA Nation’s 14 Senators and 53 Representatives have to hear directly from a large number of constituents that this attempted Takeover is unacceptable – and they need to help support and strengthen organic instead.

Written testimony of Stephen Gilman on 2018 Farm Bill

Written testimony of Stephen Gilman submitted on behalf of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, Interstate Council to the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee for a hearing on “Opportunities in Global and Local Markets, Specialty Crops, and Organics: Perspectives for the 2018 Farm Bill”

Thank you for this opportunity to submit written comments with regard to the perspectives of the Northeast Organic Farming Association – Interstate Council (NOFA-IC) on testimony presented in the Hearing for the 2018 Farm Bill on July 13th.

Founded in 1971, the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) is one of the oldest organic farming education and advocacy groups in the country. Interstate NOFA is a regional federation of seven independent State Chapters in NY, VT, NH, MA, CT, RI and NJ. In addition to their work on state initiatives, the Chapters work together via the NOFA Interstate Council (NOFA-IC), which is a separate non-profit entity. Under the auspices of NOFA-IC the Interstate NOFA Policy Program coordinates and carries out joint regional, national and international initiatives. NOFA is also a founding member of the National Organic Coalition, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the North East Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

While NOFA fully supports the testimony of Abby Youngblood, Executive Director of the National Organic Coalition, citing the needed supports for the entire organic industry in the 2018 Farm Bill, NOFA views with alarm the opening remarks by Chairman Roberts regarding organic regulations and the status of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). Likewise NOFA finds the testimony by Mr. Crisantes, lobbyist for the Coalition of Sustainable Organics, a hydroponics advocacy group and V.P. of operations at of Wholesum Harvest (a hydroponic crop producer with operations in Arizona and Mexico) to be erroneous and expedient. This will be the focus of our comments.

As reported by Politico, “Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts said today that the federal National Organic Standards Board and organic regulations were rife with “uncertainty and dysfunction,” and asked producers for recommendations on how to improve the advisory board.

“These problems create an unreliable regulatory environment and prevent farmers that choose organics from utilizing advancements in technology and operating their businesses in an efficient and effective manner,” Roberts said in his opening statement during a hearing on local and international markets for organic foods and specialty crops. “Simply put, this hurts producers and economies in rural America.”

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB):

In actuality the NOSB citizen review board, as constituted by the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 (OFPA), is the backbone of the National Organic Program (NOP) and the foundation for protecting organic integrity for the thousands of certified family farmers and businesses – as well as the millions of consumers who regularly place their trust in the $50 billion organic marketplace.

 The NOSB was established with a uniquely independent status for a government advisory board, under OFPA. to ensure an open and transparent process for setting and revising organic standards To insure a fully transparent process for setting and revising organic standards OFPA requires USDA to consult with the NOSB in developing the National Organic Program and the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. It requires that the National List be “based on” recommendations of the NOSB and prohibits USDA from adding to the National List synthetic materials that are not recommended by the NOSB.

And as stipulated by OFPA, the 15 NOSB members (with rotating 5 year terms) represent the primary constituents of the organic industry: producers, handlers, retailers, certifiers, consumers, environmentalists, and scientists. Nominations for the various slots are annually put forth from the organic community and the members are appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture. Since a two-thirds majority is required to pass a substantive motion, OFPA insured that these different interest groups have to work together to build consensus. A corollary is that special interest groups find it very difficult to hold sway and get their way under this construct.

In a highly transparent and democratic process the open, public NOSB meetings are held twice a year where any citizen or business is welcome to testify. The NOP recently added a webinar capacity for testifiers not able to attend a meeting. Importantly, the NOSB is not the originator of the items on the agenda. Much of their work is in response to formal petitions from businesses and the organic community, handling technical reviews and reviewing sunset materials to keep or remove items on the National List. Serving on the NOSB is a huge job. NOSB members put in countless hours of dedicated work serving on committees and participating in meetings.

In his testimony Mr.Crisantes, lobbyist for the Coalition of Sustainable Organics expressed displeasure with the purview and statutory actions of the NOSB because of his disagreement with a draft discussion document regarding the role of hydroponic and containerized production in the organic sector that was circulated prior to the Spring 2017 NOSB meeting. That discussion document was the subject of public comment and discussion during the meeting. There was a great deal of oral input to the Board and a massive amount of written feedback on this topic based on the discussion draft shared with the public. Based on that feedback it is expected that the Board will put forward a revised document in the fall for possible action by the Board. But even then, this would be a recommendation made by the Board to USDA’s National Organic Program. The NOP and the Secretary of Agriculture will have the final decision about how to respond to the recommendation. 

However, unable to get his way in the NOSB process, in his testimony Mr.Crisantes proposed a list of major structural changes regarding the statutory role and composition of the NOSB – relying on lobbying clout to seek desired top-down changes via the Senate Agriculture Committee. Further, it is clear that the “Coalition of Sustainable Organics” has gained an inside track as a designated witness where other long-established, legitimate organic groups such as the National Organic Coalition have not been invited to testify. NOFA notes that Mr.Crisantes was previously invited to testify in a secret June 15th Roundtable meeting not open to the public or to other bona fide organic groups. 

NOP dysfunction:

The “uncertainty and dysfunction”referred to in theChairman’s opening remarks targeting the NOSB as the source of problems appearing in the organic industry is clearly misplaced and misinformed. Reports targeting the NOP have become front page news recently. Negative stories about repeated non-compliances with established pasture standards by a Colorado mega-dairy and fraudulent organic grain imports channeled through Turkey have justly invited greater NOP scrutiny – although these and other problems have repeatedly been brought to the table by organic and consumer groups for years – to no avail. However, these problems are directly traceable to regulatory oversight and enforcement failures within the National Organic Program and USDA – not the NOSB. 

In fairness, some of these oversight setbacks are due to ongoing federal funding problems that hamper NOP’s management and oversight capacity. Further, effective oversight of traceable certified organic grain imports is splintered by the lack of organic tracking by the Global Agricultural Trade System (GATs) operated by USDA’s Foreign Agriculture Service. Updating the U.S Customs and Border Protection’s import/export tracking system (the Automated Commercial Environment) would provide USDA and the organic sector with more standardized and detailed information about imports. And requiring imported products to carry electronic import certificates would help prevent fraudulent labeling of conventional products as organic.

Hydroponic not legally organic

However, even though the NOP has unilaterally allowed a number of Certifiers to certify some hydroponic operations as organic – under OFPA this designation is illegal – as the use of the word “organic” on products that do not comply with the OFPA and the NOP Final Rule is fraudulent and against the law. This lack of legitimacy is further underscored by the fact that neither OFPA nor the NOP have been amended to allow for the products of soilless production systems being labeled as organic and there has not been any Federal notice, comment or rulemaking process in place to create and issue organic hydroponic standards. This places the accreditation of the Certifying agents who certify soilless production systems as “organic” in jeopardy as they are subject to the loss of their USDA accreditation.

Contrary to Mr. Crisantes assertions in his testimony, there are no allowances for soluble, liquid-based, soilless, hydroponic-type growing systems in OFPA – but there are numerous references to soil-based processes in the OFPA law and the Final Rule (constituting the NOP) that are very clear about the ecological, whole-systems role of soil and soil organic matter as the very foundation of organic certification.

Comments [in brackets] on these rules enumerated below are from testimony by Jim Riddle, longtime organic policy specialist and producer and former NOSB member as presented at the Spring 2017 NOSB Meeting in Denver, CO. titled Hydroponic “Organic” is Illegal.

Under the NOP CFR Regulatory Text, 7 CFR Part 205, Subpart A — Definitions. § 205.2  “Organic Production” is defined as a “production system that is managed in accordance with the Act and regulations in this part to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.”

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OFPA Section 6513 “Organic Plan” states:

“(b)(1) Soil Fertility. An organic plan shall contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility, primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil through proper tillage, crop rotation, and manuring.

(g) Limitation on Content of Plan. An organic plan shall not include any production or handling practices that are inconsistent with this chapter.”

[Soilless production systems do not foster soil fertility or build soil organic matter content, as required by OFPA. Organic plans for soilless operations, by definition, include production practices that are inconsistent with OFPA since they are based solely on input use instead of implementing an soil fertility program that builds soil organic matter.]

The NOP Final Rule, Section 205.200 “General” states:

“The producer or handler of a production or handling operation intending to sell, label, or represent agricultural products as “100 percent organic,” “organic,” or “made with organic (specified ingredients or food group(s))” must comply with the applicable provisions of this subpart. Production practices implemented in accordance with this subpart must maintain or improve the natural resources of the operation, including soil and water quality.”

[Soilless production systems do not comply with NOP 205.200, since they do not maintain or improve the natural resources of the operation including soil quality.]

The NOP Final Rule, Section 205.203 “Soil fertility and crop nutrient management” states:

“(a) The producer must select and implement tillage and cultivation practices that maintain or improve the physical, chemical, and biological condition of soil and minimize soil erosion.

(b) The producer must manage crop nutrients and soil fertility through rotations, cover crops, and the application of plant and animal materials.

(c) The producer must manage plant and animal materials to maintain or improve soil organic matter content”

[Soilless production systems do not comply with NOP 205.203(a-c) because tillage and cultivation practices do not maintain or improve the physical, chemical or biological condition of soil. Soilless operations do not manage fertility through the use of crop rotations or cover crops, and they do not maintain or improve soil organic matter content.]

The NOP Final Rule, 205.205 “Crop rotation” states:

“The producer must implement a crop rotation including but not limited to sod, cover crops, green manure crops, and catch crops that provide the following functions that are applicable to the operation:

(a) Maintain or improve soil organic matter content;

(b) Provide for pest management in annual and perennial crops;

(c) Manage deficient or excess plant nutrients; and

(d) Provide erosion control.”

[Soilless production systems do not comply with NOP 205.205, because they do not implement crop rotations to maintain or improve soil organic matter content; provide pest management; manage deficient or excess plant nutrients; or provide erosion control. Soilless systems do not comply with the crop rotation requirement, which is a cornerstone of organic production.]

Further comments on the  “Coalition for Sustainable Organics” testimony:

Politico reported “Among the companies who testified today included Theojary Crisantes Jr., vice president of operations at Wholesum Harvest, a firm that is using greenhouses and container systems to grow tomatoes and other vegetables on 600 acres. He told senators that there was a disconnect between the organic industry’s priorities and those of the organic standards board. Wholesum Harvest’s plan to expand its business has slowed because the NOSB is considering whether containerized and hydroponic growing methods should be considered organic – even though those systems have qualified for the certification since the inception of the program, Crisantes said.

Crisantes recommended that the board should add to its 15-person membership so that it represents a wider range of organic farms, including larger operations. He also supported giving the USDA National Organic Program, which NOSB advises, a bigger role in policy making.”

Contrary to Mr. Crisantes assertion that the “Coalition for Sustainable Organics” represents a broad sector of the organic community, it is actually an Orwellian-type moniker used by a small group of hydroponic growers seeking full organic certification status in direct violation of OFPA.

As has been pointed out by others they are not sustainable, as hydroponic systems require continued use of outside inputs and they are not organic because they are not soil-based.

Mr. Crisantes describes  and enters into the record a survey conducted by the “Coalition for Sustainable Organics” which was presented at the Spring 2017 NOSB meeting in Denver.

However, NOSB members at the meeting pointed out that the self-serving survey methodology was flawed and not acceptable as evidence due to format, misinformation and leading questions.

Mr.Crisantes testified: “Specifically, over the last few years, the NOSB has drafted and considered proposals to eliminate containerized and hydroponic growing methods from organic certification. These growing methods, which have been certified by USDA since the inception of the organic program, are crucial to meeting the rising consumer demand for organic produce.

Here he conflates greenhouse, container and hydroponic systems as interchangeable terms but in fact they are defined and considered separately with different designations and regulations by USDA, NOP and NOSB. Container grown and hydroponics are not the same thing.

Mr.Crisantes is also misinformed: the NOSB does not “draft or consider proposals” unilaterally. Proposals must first be submitted by organic stakeholders via an established petitioning process that provides a fully transparent pathway to address concerns, proposes improvements and answers policy questions. NOSB’s function is to compile and prioritize theses stakeholder inputs, commission technical data on the issues, analyze the issue within the parameters of the OFPA statute and NOSB advisory board rules and then present a comprehensive review of the issue back to the community for discussion and debate. The question of soil-less growing systems has undergone this process on multiple occasions – and has not been accepted. There is an ample track record on these NOSB actions: over many years of NOSB review hydroponic growing systems have been questioned, studied, white papered, analyzed, debated, considered — and voted down.

Mr.Crisantes testified: “While this issue may be the one in the hot seat currently, other issues and topics may be coming down the pipe. I am concerned that—without some change to the status quo—the organic industry will continue to face unnecessary regulatory uncertainties that will prevent it from meeting rising consumer demand.”

Mr.Crisantes depictions of “regulatory uncertainty” is actually a contrived response to the fact that soilless hydroponics has been turned down as an acceptable method over many years of NOSB and organic community debate and is not organic under OFPA. The only “uncertainty” is caused by the dragged-out actions and refusal of the well-funded but minuscule hydroponics coalition to acknowledge the law.

Mr.Crisantes testimony proposed several structural changes to the NOSB because “after 27 years, the NOSB structure is showing its weaknesses.” These remedies included increasing the 15 member seats on the NOSB board; increasing the representation of retailers and large farms; extending comment deadlines and making changes to the NOSB processes of how standards are to be developed “to create some stability in the regulatory and business environment for organic farmers and producers.”

What Mr.Crisantes and the hydroponic coalition don’t seem to understand is that the NOSB is firmly codified and set by law under OFPA and that’s where any changes would have to be instituted. His depictions of NOSB dysfunction are well off the mark as well – more a product of the hydroponic coalition not getting their way than any perceived representational problems. The fact is the hydroponics lobby have monopolized the NOSB’s precious time by dragged on a debate that has long been answered: soilless growing methods do not qualify as organic under OFPA.

Organic remains the fastest growing segment of the food system because of the integrity behind the label – and as such represents the most effective federal government program today that is in place to revitalize U.S. agriculture. Rather than suffering under a top-down regulatory edict, certified organic producers and handlers voluntarily accept the governing rules in exchange for a price premium in the marketplace with USDA fraud protection and likewise, concerned consumers are protected by the integrity of the codified organic standards and standards board processes.

Finally, these continuing hydroponic coalition actions to game the system are putting the integrity of the organic seal at risk — causing distrust and aiding self-serving detractors who profit by the demise of organic. Hydroponic growers should be proud to stand under their own brand – not hide in the shadows with a spurious organic designation to illegitimately cash in on the well-earned the organic label.

Thank you for this opportunity to comment on the Senate Hearing.