Out-Going NOSB Member Calls Out Corporate Agribusiness and Organic Fraud

Francis Thicke November 6, 2017

A proposed poultry inspection privatization plan isn't good for workers or consumers, advocates say. (USDAgov / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Editor’s Note: Estab­lished by the Organ­ic Foods Pro­duc­tion Act (OFPA), the Nation­al Organ­ic Stan­dards Board (NOSB) is a Fed­er­al Advi­so­ry Board made up of 15 pub­lic vol­un­teers from with­in the organ­ic com­mu­ni­ty. Each NOSB mem­ber is appoint­ed by the U.S. Sec­re­tary of Agri­cul­ture for a five-year term. Mem­bers include: four who own or oper­ate an organ­ic farm­ing oper­a­tion; two who own or oper­ate an organ­ic han­dling oper­a­tion; one who owns or oper­ates a retail estab­lish­ment with sig­nif­i­cant trade in organ­ic prod­ucts; three with exper­tise in areas of envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion and resource con­ser­va­tion; three who rep­re­sent pub­lic inter­est or con­sumer inter­est groups; one with exper­tise in the fields of tox­i­col­o­gy, ecol­o­gy or bio­chem­istry; and one who is a U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture (USDA) accred­it­ed cer­ti­fy­ing agent. The board con­sid­ers and makes rec­om­men­da­tions on a wide range of issues involv­ing the pro­duc­tion, han­dling and pro­cess­ing of organ­ic prod­ucts. Thicke, an organ­ic farmer and soil sci­en­tist, served on the NOSB as an envi­ron­men­tal representative. 

There are two impor­tant things that I have learned dur­ing my five years on the Nation­al Organ­ic Stan­dards Board (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 (con­cen­trat­ed ani­mal feed­ing oper­a­tions) 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 Unit­ed States 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 Unit­ed States 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 per­cent 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 U.S. 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 Nation­al Organ­ic Pro­gram (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.

(Clos­ing Com­ments of Fran­cis Thicke at End of NOSB Term“ was first pub­lished on The Cor­nu­copia Insti­tute’s web­site and is repost­ed by Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times with per­mis­sion.)

Fran­cis Thicke has been an organ­ic farmer for over 30 years and cur­rent­ly oper­ates a cer­ti­fied 80-cow dairy in Fair­field, Iowa. He earned a Ph.D. in Agronomy/​Soil Fer­til­i­ty from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois in 1988 and a Master’s degree in Soil Sci­ence from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta in 1984. For­mal­ly a soil sci­en­tist for the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, Thicke has been active in numer­ous organ­ic and envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions includ­ing the Iowa Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Com­mis­sion, the Leopold Group, Sier­ra Club in South­east Iowa, Food Democ­ra­cy Now, the Organ­ic Farm­ing Research Foun­da­tion and the Mid­west Organ­ic and Sus­tain­able Edu­ca­tion Service.
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