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.