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CONFLICTS OVER ORGANIC STANDARDS Part 2: Organic standards become law

This is the second of three articles published by The Organic Standard (TOS), an international online publication aimed at public and private organic policy makers, certifiers and businesses.  This part appears in the September, 2010 issue (see

Part 1 of this story left off in the late 1980s, as the stage was set for the introduction of the US organic law (OFPA) in 1990. Despite concerted efforts by the nascent trade association to unite it, discord and turf battles were rampant in the organic industry. Part 2 looks at the period starting just before passage of the OFPA through implementation of the National Organic Program in 2002.

Key issues in defining organic standards:

The story begins with two controversies over organic standards that later determined the direction of the OFPA. The newly formed Organic Trade Association (OTA, then known as OFPANA), produced a set of “Guidelines for the Organic Industry” in 1986 (as noted in Part 1). These guidelines were based on three overarching precepts that distinguish organic standards from other types of standards:

1. Organic standards address the process of producing an agricultural product, rather than any measurable quality of the product itself.

2. Organic standards encourage the most environmentally sound farm practices, with flexibility to allow for geographic and site-specific differences, referred to as “agronomic responsibility.”

3. Organic standards require producers to demonstrate continual improvement in the quality of their management system, as evidenced by improved soil and water quality, crop quality, biological diversity and other factors outlined in a farm plan.

The first of these came into question when a laboratory owner argued that the absence of pesticide residues, and possibly also nutritional analysis of a product, should be the primary focus of organic standards. Several OTA/OFPANA members drafted a position paper arguing that the organic nature of a product resulted from a holistic set of attributes and production methods which could not be based on laboratory analysis of product quality. This position was affirmed by the Board of Directors.

The second and more contentious issue turned on the question of whether the use of specific farm inputs should be allowed or prohibited based on their origin from either natural or synthetic sources, or whether the criterion of “agronomic responsibility’ was most important for evaluating farm inputs. This generated a heated debate, with the Board split fairly evenly. Proponents of the “origin of materials” criterion acknowledged that this was neither scientifically valid nor consistent with prevailing norms for organic production methods. However, they argued that consumers had come to expect that organic food was produced without the use of “synthetic chemicals,” and that this expectation should not be violated.

The membership was asked to vote by mail for the position they favored. By a narrow margin the tally resulted in a majority favoring “origin of materials” as the basis for organic standards. The OTA/OFPANA Board then changed the Guidelines to prohibit all synthetic materials, and to establish criteria by which some synthetics (for example, dormant oil for fruit trees) might be considered acceptable on a case by case basis. This approach was later enshrined in the OFPA, with the responsibility for determining which synthetics should be allowed and which “naturals” should be prohibited given to the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).

Pressure mounts for legislation

Although a few members of Congress had previously sponsored organic labeling bills, none were supported by the organic community. Then, early in 1989 a popular television news magazine (60 Minutes) aired an exposé about the dangers of the synthetic growth regulator Alar, widely used on apples to allow harvest of the whole crop at once. Overnight, supermarkets started featuring displays of apples that were claimed to be “organic.”

What came to be known as “Alar Sunday” resulted in a clamor by consumer groups for legislation to protect the public from fraudulent organic claims. It soon became known that Senator Patrick Leahy, a strong supporter of sustainable agriculture, had taken up the task. With the threat of Federal legislation looming, the grassroots organic organizations that had developed and refined the system of organic certification saw the need to band together to help shape the bill to reflect the farmer groups’ understanding of what ‘organic’ really meant.

Under the aegis of OTA/OFPANA, a national meeting of the grassroots organic producer groups was held in December of 1989. Calling itself the Organic Farmers Associations Council (OFAC), representatives from producer groups all over the US met – many for the first time – to agree on common principles and definitions of organic agriculture and to dialogue with Senator Leahy’s staffer, Kathleen Merrigan, about provisions that should be included in the law. This coalition was hardly unanimous in its support for Federal organic legislation, but the leadership helped convince their members that if they didn’t get involved it would be drafted without them – a potentially disastrous situation for organic farmers.

A victory for the grassroots organic producers

As legislative language was being hammered out, OFAC put together a coalition of consumer and environmental groups, along with the organic farm constituency. Other players also got into the act, including a group of organic manufacturers and business people who hired an expensive Washington lobbying firm. Credit for the passage of the law, however, truly belongs to the grassroots organizing effort – phone calls, letters and personal testimony from organic farmers and consumer representatives from all regions of the US put enough pressure on key Congress people to force an unprecedented floor vote in the House of Representatives, despite the opposition of the House Agriculture Committee and the USDA (US Department of Agriculture).

The law that was finally passed includes a blanket prohibition on ‘synthetic’ substances and allowance for ‘natural’ ones, with the possibility of exceptions as discussed previously. It also assigned to USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) the task of implementation, including developing programs to certify organic operations as well as to accredit organizations who could carry out the certification program on its behalf. Despite a number of internal contradictions and errors in the law, no technical corrections were requested by USDA, which had opposed the law and therefore also requested no funding from Congress to implement it.

The law established the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) as a Federal advisory board charged with oversight of the National List of permitted synthetic and prohibited natural substances, as well as offering general guidance to the USDA. The first 15 member NOSB was not appointed until 1992, when the administration changed in Washington. With only one half-time staff person assigned to manage the new program within USDA, the NOSB’s volunteer industry representatives took the initiative to begin drafting regulations—a task normally assumed solely by the agency staff. They circulated drafts of all aspects of the expected regulation and held a series of meetings to receive public comment, resulting in a set of final recommendations that were submitted to USDA in 1994.

Creation of the NOP

With a more sympathetic administration, some resources became available to begin implementation of the National Organic Program (NOP). The first couple of full-time staff members were hired in 1993, and then in 1994 an additional handful were brought on – including one recruited from the organic community who was knowledgeable about organic principles and practices: this author.

The original few NOP staff members were career bureaucrats who had had some previous involvement in organics, and were committed to crafting a regulation that would honor the true spirit of the organic vision and be workable for small farmers, as well as being legally airtight. Not an easy task.

The author’s first assignment was to draft a set of organic principles, which was ultimately approved by the NOSB with minor amendments, and later condensed into a definition of “a System of Organic Farming and Handling” or SOFAH. This definition became the SOFAH on which the entire regulation was designed to rest, a yardstick for determining the compatibility of a given practice with the organic vision.

The first complete draft of the regulation took another three years to finish. In addition to the law itself (which, absent early technical corrections, included significant contradictory and ambiguous language), the NOSB’s recommendations and the OFPANA/OTA Guidelines were key reference documents.

Many battles were fought in the course of drafting the rules. Almost every agency within the USDA, as well as parts of US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and FDA (Food and Drug Administration) was affected by and had to approve the document. In addition to internal struggles, the relationship between the NOP staff and some members of the organic community, including the NOSB, was adversarial from the start. There were many who never wanted the law to begin with, and almost everyone distrusted the USDA to get it right. Ironically, a common accusation was that USDA was trying to “take over” organic standards. This antagonism created more delays and frustration for everyone.

Finally, in June of 1997 a draft was approved by all necessary agencies, including the Secretary of Agriculture. The fight to prohibit both genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and irradiation for organic production – both of which were (and are) actively promoted in other branches of USDA – had been won. Unfortunately, there was one more government hurdle to overcome – the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). They had to approve any new ‘significant’ regulations and were unwilling to accept the prohibitions on GMOs and irradiation, also demanding several other changes that effectively gutted the organic vision embedded in the draft. The only option left to the staff was to make the changes required and request public comment about the now missing prohibitions. The proposed rule was published in December of 1997.

Although the staff had protested strongly at the changes and warned senior officials about the kind of response to expect, nobody was prepared for the onslaught of public outrage that followed. Self-appointed “watchdogs of organic integrity” spread distorted information that whipped up hysteria about corporate agribusiness-controlled bureaucrats seeking to undermine the meaning of organic and “water down the standards.” This was the first proposed rule to accept public comments via email, and it generated a record 275,000+ mostly negative messages – the majority of them form letters circulated through consumer networks and retailers. The personal attacks and utter nonsense coming from former colleagues and friends was crushing.

The uproar resulted in making scapegoats of the NOP staff members who truly cared about the organic vision and the impact of the new rules on small organic farmers. A new NOP Program Manager was hired in 1998, who responded to political pressure from the community by discarding the initial proposal and starting over. It took another year to create a new proposed rule, deleting the ‘SOFAH’ definition and substituting “practice standards” for more flexible criteria of compatibility with a system of organic farming and handling, among other changes considered to be “higher” standards.

With the USDA hierarchy now chastened by public anger, the path to finalization was much smoother than previously. In the Fall of 1999, OFPA author Kathleen Merrigan (today Deputy Secretary of Agriculture) was appointed AMS Administrator and was able to midwife the publication of the final rule at the end of the year, just before the next change of administration in Washington. Before an organic producer or handler could be certified in compliance with the NOP an initial group of accredited certifying agents would first have to be accredited—the new rule would thus not be fully implemented until 2002.

The repercussions of these events continue to be felt in the ongoing regulatory approach that accedes to public demands for “stricter” standards, to the detriment of small organic producers and, in this author’s opinion, the true organic vision. The third and final segment of this series will examine the development of the NOP since implementation, and the questions raised by younger generations of food activists as the organic industry appears increasingly dominated by global big business and incomprehensible regulatory complexity.


NOP Home Page:

OFPA, as amended in 2005:

Organic Trade Association (OTA):

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