Organic Farmers Upset Over USDA ‘Power Grab’

Organic farmers and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) appear to be at odds once again. The federal agency’s National Organic Program (NOP) has been accused of engaging in a “power grab” that will allegedly alter the decision making process in the organic food and agriculture industry in a fundamental manner.

National Organic Program Administrator Mike McEvoy announced a “dramatic change” to the approval process pertaining to the use of specific non-organic and synthetic materials in food products labeled organic. According to the Cornucopia Institute, certain non-organic materials deemed “limited exceptions” have been itemized and allowed on the “National List” the USDA uses to when setting organic regulations. Every five years, all items approved for the exceptions list are subject to a technical review.

National Organic Standards Board former chair Jim Riddle said, “The use of synthetic substances in organic production and processing is an exception, not an entitlement.” The NOSB was created in the Organic Foods Production Act approved by Congress. The body is supposed to advise the USDA Secretary on guidelines and policies related to the organic agriculture industry.

Excerpt from Cornucopia Institute report on the changes to NOSB policies:

“The NOSB was supposed to be composed of various organic stakeholders with a minority of its members representing corporate agribusiness; other members come from the farm community, environmental, scientific and public interest organizations. And in an attempt to push the oversight of the industry towards consensus, the federal regulations require a two-thirds majority for “decisive” votes on such matters as approving a synthetic material for use in organics. This process is designed to ensure that wide agreement supports the use of the material in organic food and agriculture. The “sunset process” used during the reevaluation states that if a non-organic material is not reapproved, it is removed from the exceptions list.

McEvoy’s recent memo, issued without any public discussion or debate, has arbitrarily changed the rules of the game. Instead of requiring a sunset material to win a two-thirds vote allowing continued use in organics, it would now require a two-thirds vote to remove a material from use. The change was justified as a way to “streamline” the sunset process.”

The Food Safety Modernization Act is viewed by some as a war on organic and small farmers and as an attempt to curtail the local food movement. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is getting an earful. The public comment period for the proposed FDA mandates closed in November and according to the agency received more than 11,500 comments on the produce safety proposal and over 5,200 on the prevent controls for processing foods proposal. Statements from at least one official at the federal agency offered some encouragement for organic and other small farms – but only time will tell.

Congress approved the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011, and the FDA has been working to implement the law. The recently concluded 10-month public comment period offered small and organic farmers, and fresh local food advocacy groups the opportunity to make their voices heard. Those opposed to the government mandates fear that the expensive equipment and upgrades necessary to remain in compliance with the law would put them out of business.

The locally grown food movement (food sovereignty) has increased in popularity, offering Americans the chance to know who grows their food and what is used during the cultivation process. The FDA website calls the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) the “most sweeping reform of food safety laws” in the past seven decades. If FSMA regulations are enacted as written, farmers will be forced to document all wild animals which come into contact with their farms – a tall task for free-range farms.

FDA Deputy Commissioner of Food Michael Taylor said this when meeting with a group of Pennsylvania farmers recently:

“We don’t have the mandate, the intent or desire to turn the produce sector on its head. There are a lot of genuine issues farmers have raised, and some of their comments reflect the need for us to clarify what we intended.”

Before becoming the food safety policy chief at the FDA, Michael Taylor was a Monsanto attorney, a vice president for the biotech giant, and ultimately the chief lobbyist for the largest GMO corporation in the world. Farming is the largest industry in Pennsylvania. The 63,000 farmers who work the ground and raise livestock contribute nearly $70 billion to the state’s economy annually. Taylor went on to state that the Food Modernization Act regulations will call for “common steps” that farmers can easily utilize and will allow government inspectors to prevent instead or respond to illnesses.

“Everyone’s assuming that there will be major revisions to the draft rules as a result of the comments,” David Granatstein, sustainable agriculture specialist at Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources in Washington state, told Food Safety News. “People think there will be a second draft.”

Brian Snyder, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, told Pennsylvania media that the current proposal could be devastating:

“This law could turn the tide and put a cap on the local food movement. We’ll stop seeing new farmers coming in, and those who are struggling will drop out. Some are struggling now and don’t make much money, but they keep doing it because they believe this is the future. They [FDA] had good intentions, but beneath the surface, there are consequences to small farms with thin profit margins. We will find out after this comment period closes just how serious the FDA is about considering stakeholder input.”

How do you feel about the Food Safety Modernization Act?

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