Public Testimony to NOSB - Oct 2020

RE: General Comments to the NOSB via Webinar Testimony

October 20, 2020
Patty Lovera, Policy Director

My name is Patty Lovera and I am the policy director for the Organic Farmers Association. Today I am going to talk about several topics impacting organic farmers that the NOP is considering and on Thursday, OFA’s director will comment on several specific issues on the NOSB’s agenda.

Organic Certification Cost Share

OFA members are upset about the decision by the Farm Services Agency to cut 2020 reimbursement levels for the organic certification cost share program. We understand that the NOP and AMS no longer administer this program. But we urge the NOP to reach out to FSA to try to better understand how this happened and how to prevent it in the future.

Dairy

We were disappointed that the NOP did not meet the deadline set by Congress for finalizing a rule on origin of organic livestock. We urge the NOP to work quickly to address this longstanding gap in the organic standards and level the playing field for organic dairy farms.  And we hope to hear an update on the status of the rulemaking at the meeting next week.

Container and Greenhouse Operations

OFA continues to be concerned about inconsistent enforcement of the three-year transition after the use of a prohibited substance. The memo from the NOP in 2019 left many questions unanswered.

This summer, OFA, the National Organic Coalition and the Accredited Certifiers Association conducted a survey of USDA-accredited certification agencies to assess how certifiers interpret the standards for transition within greenhouse, hoop house, hydroponic and indoor operations. Thirty-four certification agencies responded, and their responses indicate a wide range of interpretations about how long these operations must wait after the application of a prohibited substance.

We are encouraged that the ACA working group is focused on this issue, and we urge the NOP to work collaboratively with the ACA and provide clarity on this question as soon as possible.

Strengthening Organic Enforcement – Grower Groups

OFA is aware that there are successful and well-run grower group networks around the world that provide a viable way for small producers to participate in the organic market. But we believe this issue deserves a more thorough conversation among the entire organic community on how to strike the proper balance between allowing this unique system and reducing the potential for violations of the organic standards or unfair economic conditions for growers. The best place to have this discussion is the NOSB. Therefore, we suggest taking the grower group section out of the proposed rule so this consideration can happen without delaying the rest of the proposed rule, which needs to be implemented as soon as possible.

 

RE: General Comments to the NOSB via Webinar Testimony

October 22, 2020
Kate Mendenhall, Director

Thank you, members of the NOSB for the opportunity to speak before you today.  My name is Kate Mendenhall, I am the director of the Organic Farmers Association and am also an Iowa organic farmer.  OFA was created to be a strong voice and advocate for certified organic farmers.  We are led and controlled by domestic certified organic farmers and only certified organic farmers determine our policies.

Organic integrity continues to be the top priority of U.S. certified organic farmers.  The NOSB in partnership with the NOP plays a crucial role in ensuring that the national standards uphold high organic integrity.  My comments today focus on four areas on your agenda:

Paper Pots

OFA has testified numerous times on the importance of this resource to small organic growers.  We support the NOSB process and agree with the Crop Subcommittee’s assessment and support for paper-pots as an allowable synthetic and defined planting aid.  The pandemic has made clear that communities need more small to mid-size organic farmers.   Paper pots help organic farmers and are in line with already-approved inputs.  Thank you to the subcommittee for your work on this and to the NOP for allowing the necessary continued discussion.

Biodegradable Mulch

OFA received a proposal in our 2020 annual policy development process last winter to take a position on biodegradable mulch, but the proposal did not receive any farmer support to take it forward to a vote.  With that knowledge, to answer your question: Is the availability of biodegradable mulch a make-or-break situation for the viability of farmers’ organic systems? We would answer no, as it was NOT a farmer priority.  We recommend continuing with the current annotation with no change and adding it as a research priority--focusing NOSB time on more pressing organic policy priorities. Biodegradable mulch seems like an urgent issue for a few large growers, but this priority is not shared by the nations’ 19,000 organic farmers.

Whey Protein

We support the subcommittee’s vote to remove whey protein concentrate from §205.606 of the National List.  It is always exciting when the organic community can fulfill our own organic demand.  Go dairy!

Fenbendazole

OFA opposes the subcommittee motion to amend the listing for fenbendazole. We are concerned this amendment would allow prophylactic use of a parasiticide that is a synthetic band-aid on an animal management problem.  There is no national need for fenbendazole, rather the requests are coming from a handful of large chicken houses.  The problem should be addressed “organically” with the health of the birds and eggs as the focus.   This amendment would also allow a synthetic residue in an organic food product, which would reduce the integrity of the organic label and consumer trust.  Why would we put more burden on that already fragile organic problem?  Fenbendazole should be left alone.

I appreciate all of your dedication to working for the full organic community, for hearing public comment this week, and for the farmers on the board especially, those who have carved out time during a busy harvest to represent organic farmers’ interest in a strong organic label.  Thank you to the outgoing NOSB farmer members Emily and  Jessie for your five years of service.


NOSB Farmer Member Profile: Emily Oakley

October 2020

Emily Oakley from Three Springs Farm in Oaks, Oklahoma is finishing her five-year term on the National Organic Standards Board this month.  She has been an OFA farm member since 2018.  Emily and her husband, Mike Appel, farm three organic acres of hand-crafted vegetables and fruits on their Oklahoma farm since 2003.  They were first certified in 2007.  We interviewed Emily this summer to find out more about how she became such an incredible farmer-leader and organic advocate.

Why did you become a farmer? 

Farming gives me the chance to "be the change I wish to see".  Organic farming brings together my beliefs about environmental protection with the lifestyle of growing healthy food.  Surely there are more farmers around the world than any other profession, and I feel a sense of solidarity in doing this work.  Plus, who wants to sit at a computer all day when you can be listening to birds, feeling the breeze on your skin, watching the seasons unfold, feeling the awe of a seed you planted grow into food someone will eat!

Why did you choose to be certified organic? 

I advocate strongly for certification because without it, organic can mean anything to anyone.  Despite the challenges of having a national label, it's still the only way to verify that we're doing what we say we're doing.  Organic certification protects not just consumers but farmers as well.

What are the toughest challenges you face as an organic producer? 

I see the two biggest challenges in organic farming as building and maintaining soil fertility and weed management.  But each of those challenges also represents what is best about organic, the fact that we don't look for quick fixes but take the long view.  Organic farmers aren't farming for that particular season but for 10, 20, 30 years from now.

What are the most valuable lessons you've learned since you started? 

Persistence, adaptability, and resilience.  That's true both for farmers and for the agroecosystems we shepherd.  As an admitted control-freak, there's nothing like organic farming to teach both humility and release.  Farming has shown me how to let go of so much that I can't control--weather, pest invasions, market changes--and to celebrate the small pleasures throughout the day.

What is most rewarding about being an organic farmer? 

I get to work outside, with my body and my mind, with my family, doing something I deeply believe in.  I receive so much more than I give, from the hummingbirds flying over my head as I harvest tomatoes, to watching my daughter pretend to be a cheetah in our cover crop, to being nurtured by the customers who've supported our farm and created community.

Why did you decide to serve on the NOSB? 

I was at a point in my life in which time opened up for me.  After a brief hiatus in serving on boards after becoming a parent, I felt ready to take on a new effort.  Why did I apply to the NOSB in particular?  As farmers, we rely on the label to communicate our practices and values to other farmers and our customers.  I'm a big believer in community service, when life affords the opportunity, and this felt like a chance to be a part of upholding organic integrity.

What impact do you feel you have had during your 5-year term as a farmer-member on the NOSB? 

As a full-time, small-scale farmer I hope I've been able to bring the voice of the producer to my time on the board.  I'm one of only a few folks on the board who experiences being out in the field, knows what it's like to depend on your farm for your living, and relies on the decisions the board makes to produce the food I grow.  Making sure that full-time farmers have a voice is critical to ensuring the organic label represents the people who created and built this movement.

Why did you decide to be involved in Organic Farmers Association? 

While serving on the NOSB, I saw how much representation large farms and corporations have at board meetings, but there was an obvious missing voice in the room: farmers.  Every time OFA presents public comments to the board, I feel proud to be part of an organization that speaks on behalf of farmers, that articulates our concerns, and is so keenly in touch with the needs and beliefs of organic farmers on a national level.

 

 

This article was written for New Farm Magazine, the magazine of the Organic Farmers Association.  All OFA Members receive a complimentary issue of New Farm annually.  Join Today!


October Policy Update

By, Patty Lovera, Policy Director

October 2020

Covid-19 Response

Another month has passed and there is still no clear sign when Congress will come to an agreement and pass a new bill on economic stimulus and response to the Covid-19 pandemic. On October 1st, for the second time, the House passed its own version of a stimulus/pandemic response bill. But the Senate has not yet passed its own bill. An attempt in the Senate to pass a “skinny” package with fewer programs failed on a procedural vote in early September.

There have been a lot of fits and starts, with conflicting announcements from the President, but the negotiations between Democrats and Republicans seem to be continuing. The major sticking points are aid to state and local governments, unemployment assistance, and a proposal to provide businesses with immunity from lawsuits by workers or customers. The bills that have been introduced so far would provide more funding for USDA to make direct payments to farms and processors that were impacted by the pandemic, with fairly vague instructions that give a lot of discretion to USDA on how to set up payment programs.

The USDA is still running the two main programs established by the CARES Act that Congress passed earlier this year. On September 21st, the USDA started accepting applications for the second round of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP), which is the program to give direct payments to farms impacted by the pandemic. This round has different rules for which crops and farms are eligible for payments, which are an improvement over the first round (which did not really address the needs of most organic farmers.) We have more detail on the second round of CFAP here. The application period ends on December 11th. Even if the first round did not make sense for your farm, it may be worth it to check out the new requirements to see if this new round is a better fit.

Organic Certification Cost-Share

Unfortunately, there is no good news to report on raising the reimbursement levels for organic certification cost-share. On August 10th, the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) announced that funds were being released for the annual organic certification cost-share program, and that due to an unexpected shortfall in funding they were lowering the reimbursement rate to 50 percent of the certified organic operation’s eligible expenses, up to a maximum of $500 per scope. This is reduced from a rate of 75 percent of the certified organic operation’s eligible expenses, up to a maximum of $750 per scope in previous years (and the level that was specified for this program in the last Farm Bill.)

OFA worked with National Organic Coalition, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and other allies get a better explanation from the FSA about why this program unexpectedly came up short in funding. Now we are working to educate members of Congress on the need to boost the program’s funding so that reimbursement levels can be restored. Congress’ failure to pass new spending bills on time (the new fiscal year for the federal government started on October 1st) means that the federal government is currently running under an extension of last year’s budget. This makes it more complicated to quickly get Congress to provide more funding for the cost-share program. But we are going to keep working to try to get the reimbursement level restored. In the meantime, it does help for members of Congress to hear from organic farmers about why the cost share program is important. You can find out how to take action on cost-share here.

National Organic Standards Board Fall Meeting

The fall NOSB meeting will be held online, spread out over several days. The public comment sessions will be from noon until 5:00 eastern on October 20 and 22, and the NOSB meeting will be from noon until 5:00 eastern on October 28, 29 and 30th.

You can get information about how to register to watch the meeting online on the USDA’s website for this meeting.

You can see the full agenda for the meeting on the USDA’s website and read more about the proposals the NOSB will vote on at the meeting here. One piece of the agenda that might be of interest to those who are following the issue of enforcement and organic imports is a guest speaker from Customs and Border Protection, scheduled for the first day of the meeting (Wednesday October 28) at 12:30 eastern.

 


OFA Comments on Strengthening Organic Enforcement 2020

 

October 5, 2020

Jennifer Tucker
Deputy Administrator
National Organic Program
1400 Independence Ave. SW
Room 2642-So., Ag Stop 0268
Washington, DC 20250-0268

Re: Docket No. AMS-NOP-17-0065-0001

To Whom It May Concern:

The Organic Farmers Association is led by domestic certified organic farmers and only certified organic farmers determine our policies. Preventing fraud in the organic marketplace through stronger enforcement has been a top priority for OFA members since our founding.

Our advocacy has included working to include the provisions in the 2018 Farm Bill that are being implemented through this proposed rule. U.S. organic farmers have already experienced significant economic harm from fraud in organic markets, in both domestic and import supply chains. The need for stronger enforcement efforts by the National Organic Program (NOP) was brought to the forefront by years of effort by organic farmers and advocates.[1] U.S organic grain farmers reported negative impacts on the prices they could get for their products after increased volumes of organic grains abruptly started to arrive in the United States several years ago. Since then, imports from regions with questionable oversight and that seem to lack sufficient organic acreage to produce the amount of organic product being exported from that region have continued, while several high profile investigations have also revealed large-scale domestic efforts to sell fraudulent organic products. The net effect of both domestic and imported products being revealed or suspected to be fraudulent has not only economic impacts on the producers who are complying with organic standards but are being undercut in the market by fraudulent products, but also in consumer confidence in the organic label as a whole.

Therefore, we believe that this proposed rule is critical to both the long-term viability of the organic label and organic farmers. And we know that enhanced enforcement efforts by the NOP are long overdue, so we urge the agency to finalize this rule and put it into effect as soon as possible. U.S. organic farmers will continue to suffer economic harm while these regulations are not in effect.

Before we address the specific provisions of the proposed rule and the questions posed for public comment, we have some overarching suggestions and concerns about the proposed rule.

Scope - The broad scope of this proposed rule presents its own challenges. We are concerned that the proposed rule covers so much ground that it will be difficult to get everything in the package finalized. The complexity of some of the topics included in the proposed rule may mean that a significant amount of work remains to be done to resolve concerns raised through this public comment period. But other provisions in the proposed rule, such as the new requirements for import procedures and addressing which entities must be certified, are vitally needed and should be finalized and implemented as soon as possible. If the agency finds as a result of this comment period that some portions of the proposed rule need more in-depth revisions or other work, we urge the agency to consider splitting the proposed rule up so that the sections that are complete can be finalized and implemented quickly.

Emphasis on Auditing - The primary focus of the proposed rule seems to be to improving procedures that will enhance the process of auditing or investigating potential fraud after it has already taken place. We understand that auditing is a major component of  organic oversight. But we also urge the agency not to prioritize auditing at the expense of enforcement activities that can prevent fraud from occurring in the first place, especially in complex supply chains.

NOP Enforcement Capacity – We are concerned that the proposed rule lacks information about the NOP’s commitment to increasing its own capacity to do enforcement activities, in addition to the regulatory changes spelled out in the proposed rule. We urge the NOP to share with the organic community more information about how the new authorities and regulations in the proposed rule impact the NOP’s workplan and staffing needs. Specifically:

  • How will the NOP increase the profile of its enforcement functions as a way to deter those considering fraud?
  • How will the NOP utilize the existing authority, programs and personnel of other government agencies (such as the Automated Commercial Environment system at ports of entry) to increase the NOP’s ability to stop shipments until their organic status can be verified?
  • How will the NOP increase the regular training of agency partners, such as Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) port specialists on organic requirements and documentation?

Certifier Oversight – It is also important to put the new requirements that will be created by the proposed rule into the context of the NOP’s existing authority and mandate to provide oversight of accredited certifying agents (certifiers) as a primary method of ensuring integrity. Because certifiers play such an integral role in the daily work of ensuring that certified operations are meeting the organic standards, it makes sense that this proposed rule focuses a lot of attention on certification activities. But we are concerned that the proposed rule pays insufficient attention to the NOP’s oversight over certifiers, including vital activities involved in accreditation.

The list of controversies in the organic community that are caused by inconsistent interpretation or application of organic regulations is quite long, and includes access to pasture, hydroponic and greenhouse operations and transition of organic livestock. The role of NOP in ensuring that certifiers are using consistent interpretations of the regulations cannot be overstated. We welcome the improvements to certifier practices that this proposed rule will require, but that alone is not enough to prevent fraud. We will continue to push the NOP to improve oversight of certifiers as a key component of enforcement.

NOP Requirements  – This proposed rule creates new responsibilities for many players in the organic supply chain, including certifiers, which is appropriate. But we are concerned that the proposed rule does not outline how the NOP will hold itself to similar high standards as those it is setting for other players in the organic sector. For example:

  • Will the NOP communicate with other accreditation agencies internationally about potential fraud or certifier noncompliance?
  • Will the NOP raise the training and experience requirements for its staff who work on accreditation and enforcement?

Interagency Coordination – We understand that the NOP is not as large an agency as others that deal with imported agricultural products, and that there are not NOP personnel present at critical points in the supply chain, such as international certification office locations or ports of entry. This makes it critical that the NOP is able to leverage personnel from other government agencies who may be present in places where the NOP is not. We urge the agency to continue to prioritize coordination with and education and training for other agencies such as CBP and APHIS. Efforts devoted to educating staff from these agencies about the organic requirements, as well as finding ways to integrate the organic designation into their systems, are a critical way to multiply the reach of NOP in preventing fraud.

Questions for Comment

General Topics

  1. The clarity of the proposed requirements. Can certified operations, handlers, and certifying agents readily determine how to comply with the proposed regulations?

Defining Risk - The proposed rule contains numerous references to certifiers and operations assessing risk and then creating procedures based on the level of risk (for example, in determining inspection frequency or a fraud prevention plan.) We urge the NOP to clearly define different levels of risk to ensure that certifiers are using consistent methods to determine what practices constitute high risk. It may be necessary for the NOP to issue guidance on how to determine risk, or require training for certifiers on this critical assessment process.

When the NOP is coming up with guidance on how to assess risk, we believe that the size of operations and the complexity of supply chains must be considered. While organic certification is size neutral, as an operation grows, the amount of product sold and required inputs increase, which increases the potential to introduce and conceal fraud within the complexity of an operation. Size should be one factor that is considered to increase risk, as should the complexity of an operation and its supply chain for inputs and sales.

We also believe that operations deemed to be higher risk should trigger a requirement for inspection and review by more experienced and specialized reviewers and inspectors.

Defining Audits: In different sections of the proposed rule and the accompanying narrative, the terms “supply chain audit” and “traceback audit” are used. More clarity is needed on these terms, as a supply chain audit sounds much more comprehensive than a traceback audit.

  1. The implementation timeframe. AMS is proposing that all requirements in this proposed rule be implemented within ten months of the effective date of the final rule (this is also one year after publication of the final rule).

Because this proposed rule is so complex and covers so many different topics, we suggest that the NOP consider setting different implementation dates for different sections. We have heard from some certifiers that the proposed implementation date of ten months after the effective date is not feasible to make the changes required for certifiers. Smaller certifiers in particular may need more time, as well as technical assistance.

But the implementation date for the requirements for import procedures should be as soon as possible, ideally faster than 10 months after the effective date of final rule. The problem of fraud in organic supply chains has been hurting U.S. organic farmers for years, and the measures in the proposed rule are long overdue. We can’t afford to wait for another year for these enhanced efforts at fraud prevention to begin.

Applicability and Exemptions from Certification

  1. Are there additional activities that should be included in the proposed definition of handle (i.e., are there additional activities that require certification)? Are there any activities in the proposed definition of handle that should be exempt from certification?

We suggest that to be explicitly clear, the NOP should add the terms “importing,” “exporting,” “transloading,” “relabeling,” “splitting,” “opening,” “packaging,” “private labeling” and “sorting” to the definition of handle.

We also have concerns about some forms of transport remaining exempt from certification. Some types of containers used for large bulk shipments, or containers that are permeable, could create risk for commingling with non-organic product or contact with prohibited substances. Transport of large volumes of product or transport involving commingling are factors to consider for requiring certification.

Another area that needs clarity is certification for private label products. Companies that sell private label organic products (but do not otherwise handle organic products) should be required to be certified. Companies that sell organic products need to understand the special requirements organic products have as they move through the supply chain, whether or not they produced them. Allowing an entity to benefit from the premium associated with the organic label by selling private label products without being required to do the same work to be certified that is required of other certified entities producing a similar branded product creates an unlevel playing field.

  1. Are there specific activities not included in the proposed rule that you believe should be exempt from organic certification?

We urge the NOP to clarify that on-farm seed production can take place under the scope of a crop certification, and does not require an additional certification as a handler.

  1. Are there additional requirements that exempt handlers described in this proposed rule should follow?

We believe the NOP should establish and require a uniform affidavit process to provide more structure to exempt entities providing transport or storage services to ensure those entities understand that organic products must be handled in ways that prevent contact with prohibited substances or commingling. Ensuring that exempt handlers use and provide uniform affidavits vouching for how organic products were handled should be the responsibility of a buyer of organic product.

The proposed rule would allow facilities that only store organic product to be exempt from certification. But oversight is still needed for these facilities to ensure that these operations are aware of and following the organic regulations to prevent contact with prohibited substances and commingling. Later provisions of the proposed rule about special handling instructions and notification of organic status on nonretail containers could be useful for exempt storage facilities. But we urge the NOP to consider what else can be done to ensure that these exempt operations understand the special handling needed for organic products.

For transport activities or activities at a port that may not require certification, the NOP could require a transport plan from the owner of the certified product. This plan would detail where products goes and what happens at each stage of the transportation, and could be connected to the uniform affidavit system.

Imports to the United States

  1. Is the 30-day timeframe for certifying agents to review and issue an NOP Import Certificate appropriate? Why or why not?

We are concerned about a different timing issue that was mentioned in the narrative description of the proposed rule, but not specifically mentioned in the regulatory text, that imported shipments be “associated with” but not “accompanied by” the Import Certificate and that importers would have up to 10 days to submit the certificate to the Automated Commercial Environment (ACE) system. This lag time between a shipment entering  the country and the import certificate being made available in the ACE system is far too long. The lag between the product and the certificate arrivals could substantially diminish the chance that a problematic shipment is prevented from entering commerce, or make it impossible to prevent fraudulent product from being recovered once it does. This lag time could be the difference between preventing fraudulent product from entering the country or merely finding out that this happened later during an audit, after it is too late to prevent.

The Import Certificate should accompany the imported shipment and be submitted to the CBP ACE system upon shipment from the foreign port. Without a verified import certificate in the ACE system, a shipment should not be unloaded at a U.S. port of entry.

  1. How could the mode of transportation and frequency of shipments affect the use of the NOP Import Certificate?

We urge the NOP to consider specifying a limited number of ports of entry (for each mode of transportation) where organic imports are allowed to enter the United States. As the NOP continues to build its capacity to work with these new import certificates and other government agencies like CBP and APHIS, it makes sense to first refine these systems and train other agency partners at a few main ports of entry. This would help NOP refine its procedures before they could eventually be expanded to more ports of entry.

Additional Comments on Imports to the United States

We support the requirement created by the proposed rule that imported organic products must have an import certificate. But we urge the NOP to do more with these new certificates than is outlined in the proposed rule, as recommended by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG). The OIG recommended in its 2017 audit report that the NOP “develop and implement a plan to verify NOP import certificates at U.S. ports of entry, identify fraudulent import certificates, and capture organic import data.”[2] We believe the proposed rule could go further to establish systems for achieving the OIG’s recommendation. Requiring import certificates is a critical first step, but it should not be the only step that NOP takes.

For import certificates to have real value in preventing fraud, the NOP will need to have a plan, and the capacity to implement it, that allows the verification of the information on the certificates. Simply having certificates on file with no follow-through to verify the information they contain will provide false confidence. The NOP’s ability, working with CBP and other agencies, to flag shipments whose information cannot be verified while still at the port, is what will have a deterrent effect on parties considering an attempt to import fraudulent products.

The proposed rule also does not make clear how the NOP will capture organic import data from import certificates in a useful time frame to influence its oversight of certifiers or other countries’ accreditation systems. Capturing data to indicate trends, such as a surge in imports from a particular broker or from a particular region, could inform the NOP’s oversight of certifiers or accreditors operating in those regions, or indicate the need for further investigation. The NOP should develop a set of investigative procedures that are triggered by import data, such as automatically conducting an investigation when there is a significant surge in imports for a specific product category to determine if fraudulent activity is contributing to that increase and conducting an automatic investigation when a product entering a port has been certified or produced by an entity that is under investigation from another competent authority such as the EU.

Another area where the proposed rule could be clearer is how the NOP will work to address the recommendation from the OIG for improved coordination between the NOP, APHIS and CBP to ensure that APHIS officials at a port are notified about what to do if APHIS fumigates organic products with prohibited substances. The OIG called on the NOP to work with CBP to update the ACE system message sets to ensure that APHIS officials are notified of steps to take when organic agricultural imports are treated with NOP-prohibited substances and that importers are notified that treated organic products can no longer be sold, labeled, or represented as organic. We understand that the NOP has been participating in a working group with CBP and other agencies on issues related to imported products, and we urge the agency to continue with that process. But providing more context in the proposed rule about how these inter-agency coordination efforts connect to the new regulatory requirements will help the organic industry understand what is happening at ports of entry and possibly deter fraud by making clear that NOP is leveraging the resources of other agencies to strengthen oversight.[3]

Labeling or otherwise providing a visual indicator that a container holds organic products is a good first step. But unless the person seeing the container knows what organic means, providing this information will not do much good. Therefore, the NOP should design simple training modules for employees of other government agencies and uncertified entities in the supply chain on the specifics of the handling requirements and rules for organic products, emphasizing prohibited materials, restrictions on fumigants and restrictions on commingling.

The proposed rule was also not clear about how the NOP is addressing Recommendation 7 of the OIG report, on how NOP will notify the trade to ensure fumigated product is not sold as organic.[4] This notification could be improved by the provisions of the proposed rule relating to removing exemptions for some types of handlers and improving the requirements that nonretail containers indicate organic status. But the proposed rule does not clearly describe how the NOP will improve the procedures to notify the trade if organic product is mistakenly treated with prohibited substances, specifically how organic labeling on a nonretail container must be altered to indicate that a product has lost its organic status.

Finally, we urge the NOP to go beyond what is required by the Farm Bill for information captured by the ACE system for organic imports. Information that the NOP should consider utilizing in addition to the new import certificate includes other types of documents that are widely used in commerce, such as bills of lading, insurance certificates and shipping manifests. We are aware that audits and inspections by certifiers may utilize these types of documents. But we urge the NOP to consider ways to use these documents to provide additional information to detect potentially fraudulent imports as shipments arrive at ports of entry, in order to prevent fraud. For large bulk shipments of products such as grain, which are likely to contain the commingled production of many operations, having additional information could be critical in detecting fraud and preventing these shipments from entering commerce. As the NOP continues to improve its enforcement capacity, we urge the agency to consider expanding requirements about what information a broker, importer or other handler must provide to buyers at the time of import to include information about all of the operations that supplied the product in a commingled shipment.

Labeling of Nonretail Containers

AMS seeks comment regarding the proposed amendments to the labeling of nonretail containers, specifically whether or not the certified operation that produced or last processed the product must be listed (i.e., not optional) on all nonretail container labels.

We support requiring the labeling identified in the proposed rule section 205.307(a), items which “must” be listed. But we believe that some items listed in proposed rule 205.307(b), items which “may” be listed, are so important that they should be made mandatory and not left to the discretion of handlers to decide. Specifically, we urge the agency to move the following items to 205.307(a) so they will be required for nonretail containers:

  • Producer contact info (or last certified handler)
  • Special handling instructions (such as “Organic – Do Not Fumigate”)
  • Country of origin
  • USDA organic seal

We believe the proposed rule’s definition of nonretail container is too limited. Large nonretail containers used for shipping (tankers, containers, barges, etc.) should also be covered by these labeling requirements because they are used in complex supply chains and have high potential for commingling. This labeling could provide a very important last layer of protection to prevent commingling or contact with prohibited substances at a port or other facility that handles more than organic products, or is being shipped or stored by entities that may remain exempt from certification.

And we urge the NOP to think beyond labeling requirements and to explore methods that are already used in food supply chains, such as tamper-proof seals on shipping containers. These seals could also potentially be color-coded or somehow identify organic status.

Finally, we are aware that the NOP is concerned that requiring labeling of very large, bulk-scale, containers may be challenging. If that is the case, then we suggest that those types of containers are too large to be used for shipping organic products. We believe it is appropriate for organic shipments to have restrictions on the type of containers that can be used for transportation, given the special handling requirements needed to protect organic integrity. Extremely large vessels, such as those using bulk cargo holds, encourage commingling of product and increase the potential for fraud. We urge the NOP to consider requiring that organic commodities be shipped in containers that can be loaded onto ships and then onto rail or trucks, while remaining sealed with tamper-proof devices. This could eliminate one weak point in long complex supply chains.

On-Site Inspections

We support codifying the NOP’s guidance that certifiers must conduct unannounced inspections for a minimum of five percent of the operations they certify annually. The NOP had previously issued this as a best practice, but the proposed rule will now make this requirement enforceable.

We support the requirements for mass balance and traceback audits, as well as provisions that prevent certifiers from operating in regions where they lack capacity to conduct unannounced inspections.

We urge the NOP to require that certifiers perform unannounced inspections during critical times, such as during the grazing season for a dairy operation that may not be complying with the pasture rule.

The discretion given to certifiers in selecting which operations receive unannounced inspections makes it even more critical that the NOP can ensure that certifiers are using a consistent process for determining which operations are high risk. As we described earlier in this comment, the NOP should clarify definitions of how risk is evaluated, issue guidance and perhaps require training for certifiers on how to assess risk. We believe that the size of an operation must be a main factor in assessing risk, both because of the complexity that comes with maintaining organic practices on larger operations and the volume of product that larger operations release into commerce.

Certificates of Organic Operation

  1. Should an expiration date be included on all certificates of organic operation? Would this make them more useful?

Organic farmers usually do not control the timing of their certificate renewal. They are bound by decisions involving their certifier about when their inspection can take place and the final review of their application completed. Therefore, we urge the NOP to ensure that any expiration date on certificates allow time for delays in inspection or review by the certifier. We do not want farmers to be left without a valid certificate because the process ran behind schedule due to things they cannot control.

Additional Comments on Certificates of Organic Operation

Section 205.404 (b) of the proposed rule would require a certifier to issue a certificate that is generated from the INTEGRITY database and states that a certifier may provide a certificate to certified operations electronically. We suggest that the NOP to add a provision that requires certifiers to provide certified operations with the option to receive paper copies of their certificate. There are still many farm operations that do not have sufficient internet connections to rely on electronic records, or do not wish to do so.

Including acreage data in the INTEGRITY database is necessary to do thorough mass balance audits that can detect fraud, by showing if a region does not have enough acreage to supply the amount of product claimed to originate there. We urge the NOP to include acreage data by crop and region to allow this kind of analysis. But there will need to be some flexibility in how this data is collected and presented to avoid creating a burden for farmers. For example, for producers with a diversified crop mix, especially fruit and vegetable producers who may grow many varieties every year on small parcels of land, a streamlined way to estimate acreage will be needed to avoid creating a huge reporting burden for these operations.

And farmers have also expressed some concerns about how acreage data is presented in the database. One particular concern is whether buyers could access detailed acreage information about specific certified operations in the database, in order to gain an advantage in marketing negotiations. We suggest that the NOP consult with the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service about how that agency addresses such concerns in the course of conducting and reporting data from the Census of Agriculture. One potential method for addressing this problem could be to aggregate the acreage data by some regional area (such as the county level in the United States) to prevent an individual operation’s acreage from being accessible in the database. Another potential option would be to limit who can access acreage information to certifiers and the NOP, to prevent buyers or others involved in marketing from accessing this information.

Personnel Training and Qualifications

  1. Should any other types of knowledge, skills, and experience be specified?

We believe the NOP should require specific qualifications for different types of inspectors and reviewers employed by certifiers. Specific examples include experience working on or managing an operation of the type they are qualified to inspect or review. For example, an inspector or reviewer evaluating a dairy operation should be required to have knowledge of how dry matter intake calculations are done and have experience with dairy operations.

We also urge the NOP to create requirements for inspectors and reviewers who deal with high-risk operations, with more qualifications required to be eligible to certify those operations. As will be discussed in more detail below, we also suggest that the NOP consider specialized training or requirements for certifiers that wish to certify grower groups, due to the complexity and specific risks created by those systems.

Oversight of Certification Activities

In section 205.501 (a) (22) of the proposed rule, we are concerned about why a new certification office has 90 days to notify the NOP that it has started operations. This seems like far too long for a certifier to operate in a new area without letting the NOP know they have started certification activities there. We urge the agency to drastically shorten the length of time certifiers have to notify the NOP about opening a new office, and to consider requiring notification before certification activities in the new area can begin.

Accepting Foreign Conformity Assessment Systems

AMS seeks comment regarding whether the public sees a differential risk to enforcement associated with certain organic trade relationships. Specifically, compared with organic equivalence determinations, are there increased risks associated with recognition agreements where other countries’ governments oversee the implementation of NOP certification?

The 2017 report by the OIG outlined numerous ways that the NOP needed to “strengthen its controls over the approval and oversight of international trade arrangements and agreements for the import of organic products into the United States.”[5] These included better tracking and public notification of differences between foreign and U.S. organic standards, as well as oversight and audits of countries with equivalency and recognition agreements. Until all of the recommendations from the OIG’s report are fully implemented, there will continue to be risk associated with both types of organic trade agreements. The agency must develop a better system for identifying and accepting public comment on differences between U.S. and foreign organic standards and how to resolve them.

Additional Comments on Accepting Foreign Conformity Assessment Systems

The NOP should conduct more frequent audits for certification agencies and certifiers’ foreign satellite offices using a risk-based approach. Audits of satellite offices in other countries outside the location of the certifier’s headquarters office should be required for accreditation of the certifier as a whole, and the certifier’s headquarters office should be held responsible for any noncompliance found at their satellite offices.

Additionally, the agency should not restrict its relationship with governments of trading partners solely to standards setting activities. These governments are also providing oversight and accreditation of the organic sector in their countries, and the NOP and these trading partners should be collaborating on enforcement activities as well as data that could inform decisions about risk for fraud in international supply chains. A more expansive approach to the scope of the relationship with recognition or equivalency agreement countries would include the foreign governments’ role as accreditors. If a country the United States has a trade relationship with has taken enforcement action against a certifier or certified operation, that information should be shared as part of the trade relationship. This could prevent unscrupulous operations or certifiers from using the United States as a destination for product they could no longer sell in another country due to an enforcement action. This communication needs to be ongoing, in real time, and public – not something that only occurs during a regular two-year review.

Compliance – General

We support the proposed rule language regarding the NOP’s ability to initiate enforcement action against any person who sells, labels or provides other market information concerning an agricultural product if such label or information implies, directly or indirectly, that such product is produced or handled using organic methods, if the product was produced or handled in violation of the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) or regulations. This was the intent of the Farm Bill provisions to strengthen the NOP’s capacity to take enforcement actions when fraud happens, and we believe more robust enforcement activities by NOP will deter fraud in the future.

Noncompliance Procedure for Certified Operations

In addition to the clarification in the proposed rule about a person who is responsibly connected to an operation that violates OFPA or the regulations being subject to penalties, we urge the agency to review and upgrade their procedures for coordinating with other government agencies with the capacity and authority to provide enforcement, such as the Department of Justice, state attorneys general, the Department of Treasury and others who have been involved in past investigations and prosecutions of organic fraud cases.

We also urge NOP to consider how to maximize civil penalties in the case of fraud, by setting the number of violations per bushel or other unit of production so that the penalties are actually punitive to those who committed fraud and to deter others who may be considering it.

We also urge the agency to make explicit in the proposed rule that any business or individual found to have intentionally violated the organic regulations for the purpose of fraud can never again receive an organic certificate. We think that it is necessary for the NOP to clarify that unintentional violations due to mistakes or confusion about the standards are not the intent of this provision, and that the penalty of being ineligible for future organic certification is due to intentional violations and intent to commit fraud.

Grower Group Operations

OFA is aware that there are successful and well-run grower group networks around the world that provide a viable way for small producers to participate in the organic market. We are supportive of those operations having this opportunity and see the concept of grower groups as a very valuable option for small operations, both internationally and in the United States. But we do have concerns about the complexity of grower group systems and the need for well-designed and well-run internal control systems and thorough oversight by certifiers.

We have some specific thoughts in response to the questions posed for comment, which we offer below. But first we would like to express our more general concern that there should be a much more thorough conversation among the entire organic community about the best way to set rules for grower groups that strike the proper balance between allowing this unique system to provide small growers a way to participate in the organic market and reducing the potential for violations of the organic standards or unfair economic conditions for growers. We believe that discussion should be initiated at the National Organic Standards Board because it has been over a decade since this topic was last addressed in that venue, which serves as a forum for the entire organic community.

The inclusion of new regulations for grower groups in this larger proposed rule on enforcement is problematic. We think that the best approach is to take the grower group section out of the proposed rule, so that it may receive more discussion and consideration, without delaying the rest of the proposed rule, which needs to be implemented as soon as possible. The stakes for getting these rules for grower groups right are very high for many small farms around the world. It is worth taking more time to make sure the rules are as thorough and well-designed as possible. The best way to do that is to remove this section from the proposed rule, so that there is not unnecessary pressure to rush through this process to complete the larger package of issues in the proposed rule.

With that general caution about process, we offer the following specific thoughts in response to the questions for comment.

  1. Should there be limits on gross sales or field sizes of individual grower group members? If yes, please describe these limits.

We believe there is some need for a limit on the scale of operations that are eligible to participate in a grower group. We view grower groups as an appropriate way for smaller operations, who may not be able to manage organic certification on their own, to enter into the organic industry. There may be a point at which some operations grow in size or experience, making the process of getting their own certification more feasible. But we understand that for some operations this may never happen. It does seem to create the opportunity for imbalances in the decision-making process of a grower group if a few participating operations are radically larger than others, as well as creating challenges for calculating who should get an annual inspection or other oversight.

We believe the NOP should consider some guidelines for how to address limits on the scale of operations eligible to participate in grower groups, but understand that this is a very complex subject because of the huge range of operations around the world that participate in this system. We believe it is unlikely that a single metric like acreage or sales value will be sufficient to encompass the diversity of different grower group networks around the world, and it will likely require a multi-part test to assess this.

  1. Should there be a limit on the maximum number of members allowed in a grower group operation or in a grower group production unit? If yes, please describe these limits.

This question also illustrates the need for a very thorough discussion of grower groups by the entire organic community. An arbitrary limit on the number of operations in a grower group will not be useful, because so many factors ranging from geographic range covered to the quality of the internal control system impact risk. But the complexity involved in managing larger numbers of members in a grower group, both for the internal control system and for certifiers, needs to be addressed.

  1. Should there be a limit to the geographical distribution of members? This includes limits to the maximum geographical proximity or distance between grower group members, grower group production or gathering areas, or grower group production units within a single grower group operation. If yes, please describe these limits.

Similarly, this needs thorough discussion in the organic community. But a larger geographical distribution of members in a grower group does increase the complexity of the system and  this must be considered in how certifiers and internal control systems define risk.

Additional Comments on Grower Groups

In addition to the questions posed for comment, we have other concerns that we think would best be addressed in a discussion with the organic community before finalizing any new rules for grower groups.

Protections for Farmers – The requirement that members of a grower group can only market their organic products through the grower group is logical from the perspective of how to create a system with control over organic integrity. However, this could create an imbalance in power between individual farmer members and the grower group entity. If farmers have some concern or dispute with the grower group entity over prices or other treatment, they have few or no options to seek a better price or better conditions if they cannot market their products elsewhere without losing their organic certification. Because they cannot sell the product as organic in any other way, they have no leverage in the transaction with the grower group buyer. This requires some other mechanism for protecting farmers from retaliation or other unfair treatment at the hands of the grower group entity. The NOP should convene a discussion with the larger organic community, including international organizations with experience in running grower groups, about models including cooperative structures or other grower protections that may be necessary to protect individuals participating in grower groups.

The experience of contract poultry growers and other contracting arrangements in the United States comes to mind when considering a requirement that a farmer must sell their product in a specific channel. The imbalance in power between the buyer/owner in a vertically integrated supply chain and individual producers can become severe and lead to unfair practices ranging from preferential treatment of some producers relative to others to retaliation against individual producers who challenge a decision by the buyer or complain to authorities. If the use of grower groups expands, especially in countries where vertically integrated supply chains is predominant, it will be important to have options for individual growers to protect their rights while still being able to participate in a grower group.

Livestock -  The proposed rule would not allow livestock producers to participate in a grower group, but does not explain why. There are honey producers operating around the world who use a grower group model currently, and it does not seem appropriate to cut them off from the grower group system without clear justification. And with proper rules to address scale and other factors, small farms raising livestock may be interested in this model, especially if a grower group network could share the infrastructure for processing that is so often a limiting factor for animal products.

But if the grower group model were to be expanded to livestock, especially in the United States, there are additional factors to be considered. The model of vertically integrated contract livestock operations in the United States is not one that should be imitated in the organic sector. We do not want organic growers to end up having to suffer unfair treatment or prices as a condition of being able to market their products as organic. If livestock is to be allowed in the grower group model, the NOP should consider whether to require that individual growers own the animals and also have some ownership or control of the processing infrastructure and decision-making of the grower group.

Retail - Although it is not included in this proposed rule, OFA oppose the use of the grower group model for retailers. If retail operations require certification because they meet the definition of a handler under the new requirements of the proposed rule, individual locations should be required to be certified.

Certifier Requirements - The certification of grower groups is complex due to the complicated structure of this system and the need for an excellent understanding of the risks posed by large numbers of operations operating over a potentially large geographic area. The NOP should consider a special type of accreditation for certifiers that have the necessary training and experience to certify grower groups.

Single Crop – The NOP should clarify the use of the phrase “single crop” in the proposed rule on grower groups. As currently written, it could be interpreted to mean that a grower group can only market one crop, which could have negative implications for crop rotation on small farms.

European Union Standards - The European Union is in the process of revising their standards for grower group certification. Many grower groups around the world sell to both the U.S. and EU markets. Therefore, we encourage the NOP to consult with the EU before finalizing new U.S. standards on grower groups to ensure they are as compatible as possible to alleviate the burden on grower groups that sell into both markets.

Supply Chain Traceability and Organic Fraud Prevention

  1. Does the proposed definition of organic fraud encompass the types of fraudulent activities you witness in the organic supply chain?

NOP should consider how to clarify this definition to make clear that entities that may not take legal possession of a product (because they are a broker, shipper, processor or facility that stores product owned by someone else) are still covered by this definition.

Additional Comments on Supply Chain Traceability and Organic Fraud Prevention

In section 205.501 (a) (21) of the proposed rule, we urge the NOP to provide more clarity on the difference between a “supply chain audit,” the term used in the regulation text, and a “traceability audit,” the term used in the narrative. A supply chain audit sounds much more comprehensive than a traceability audit, which could focus on the one stop forward and back approach of whether an operation can provide that level of traceability, as opposed to vouching for the entire supply chain of a product.

Additional Amendments Considered But Not Included in This Proposed Rule

Packaged Product Labeling

  1. For private-label packaged products, which certified operation(s) should be listed on the retail label (brand name/distributor, contract manufacturer, or both)?

Both the brand name/distributor and the contract manufacturer should be listed on retail labels. This increases the transparency of the organic marketplace, which benefits producers and consumers by allowing them to understand the supply chain responsible for a product.

  1. Which certifying agent(s) should be listed?

The certifying agent for both the brand name/distributor and contract manufacturer should be listed. If a product that is not sold under a private label must list its certifier, products sold under a private label must also list their certifier.

  1. Should the certifying agent listed on a label always be the certifying agent of the certified operation listed on the label (i.e., should the certifying agent match the operation)?

Yes. Allowing labels to list certifying agents that do not match the operation that actually produced the product is not only allowing inaccurate information to be presented to consumers, which could undermine their confidence in the organic label, but also could encourage frequent changes in suppliers or certifiers by private label product manufacturers. This kind of frequent switching could create a dynamic where buyers are constantly pitting suppliers (and their certifiers) against each other to create an advantage by cutting prices paid to farmers or compliance with organic standards.

  1. Should listing contract manufacturers on labels be mandatory? Should it be optional?

Listing contract manufacturers on labels should be mandatory. Organic consumers value transparency and providing this information on labels increases the transparency of the organic supply chain. Organic farmers and handlers also benefit from increased transparency in the supply chain, which helps them assess opportunities in the marketplace.

Expiration of Certification

  1. Could an operation with unresolved adverse actions renew certification?

This depends on the number and severity of the adverse actions. The NOP should discuss with the organic community how to design a system that would not block an operation from getting its certificate renewed due to minor non-compliances, if the operation had a record that indicates that they are working in good faith to address the problems. But there should be an option for an operation with a history of repeated adverse actions and a record of failing to address them to be prevented from renewing its certification.

  1. Would a grace period be appropriate for operations that failed to renew by the expiration date? If so, what length grace period would be appropriate?

We have heard concerns from organic farmers that some certifiers could suspend a certification for missing the deadline to submit an application or pay fees. In this scenario, there should be some sort of grace period so that certifiers can contact the operation to make sure there wasn’t a miscommunication or reasonable explanation for the delay.  This is a topic that the Accredited Certifiers Association may be well-suited to address and develop best practice recommendations.

  1. What process should exist for an operation to regain organic certification should it allow its certification to expire?

There are some valid reasons why a farm operation may have allowed its certification to expire, such as illness or other setback on their farm operation that caused the farmer to fall behind with paperwork. We suggest that the NOP discuss this topic with the organic community to try to find a reasonable process for an operation that had previously been in good standing and can offer a valid reason why their certificate expired to regain certification. One idea for doing this would be to only allow an operation to use this process once and also to include a farm using this process of regaining certification in any future assessment of risk for this operation (for determining unannounced inspections or other certification activities.)

  1. Should certifying agents notify certified operations of their upcoming expiration of certification?

Yes, certifiers should notify certified operations of their upcoming expiration. This could prevent operations from losing their certification because they are a small business struggling to keep up with paperwork or because of some other disruption they are facing. If an operation needs this reminder repeatedly, this may be something that certifiers could consider as a factor in assessing risk for this operation.

Fees to AMS and Oversight of Certifying Agents’ Fees

Fees Paid to NOP – We are concerned about the approach of having an agency rely on user fees for the revenue it needs to run operations. Creating a reliance on user fees brings with it some risk that a disruption to the industry generating the fees can leave an agency starved of funds it needs to operate. For example, because of the disruptions to global trade and air travel caused by the coronavirus pandemic, user fees that fund agricultural import inspection activities performed by CBP are hundreds of millions of dollars lower than projected for the year. This has left that agency short of funding and in need of an emergency infusion of funds from Congress to maintain operations.[6]

We are also very concerned about the power dynamic created by a user fee relationship. When an agency is reliant on fees paid by the entities it is regulating, it can create a disincentive to penalize or remove one of those entities from the program because doing so could reduce the user fees that provide revenue for operations. We believe that shifting the NOP to a more user fee-dependent model is a mistake that will make the agency’s enforcement activities harder to accomplish, which would undermine the viability of the organic industry.

NOP Oversight of Fees Paid by Certified Operations – In addition to the question of fees paid to the NOP, our members believe that the agency should also increase its oversight of the fees that operations pay for certification. Farmers report a wide range of fees charged by certifiers and wonder if more consistency would alleviate confusion about differences between certifiers and the burden of having to do research to choose a certifier. And as we continue to try to remove obstacles to new farmers getting their organic certification, the cost of certifying remains a barrier for many small operations and those run by socially disadvantaged farmers. The NOP should convene a conversation with the organic community to evaluate certification fees and whether options like a sliding scale for small, beginning, and socially disadvantaged farmers would increase participation in organic certification.

Related to the issue of certification fees, OFA remains very concerned about what happened to the organic certification cost share program this year. We urge the NOP to advocate with other USDA agencies such as the Farm Services Agency, which administers the cost share program, to help protect the cost share program and restore it to previous reimbursement levels.

Conclusion

This proposed rule is a long overdue first step towards the robust enforcement we need to protect the integrity of the organic label and the economic viability of organic farms that rely on consumer trust in that label. We urge the NOP to make the revisions we outline in this comment and to finalize the rule as soon as possible. To do so, we believe that the NOP should prioritize finishing the most urgent, and closest to completion, provisions of the rule such as the import requirements. If other provisions, such as the grower group regulations, need more discussion and evaluation, we suggest that the agency remove those sections from the proposed rule so that work can be done without holding up the rest of the package.

But once this rule is finalized, there is still more work to do prevent fraud in the organic sector. We believe that the NOP should seek from Congress any additional authority it needs to address fraud in domestic or international markets, such as stop sale authority. And we will continue to advocate for resources for the NOP to increase the agency’s capacity to hold itself to the same standards of training, information sharing and other enforcement activities that it has set out for other entities in this proposed rule.

Beyond personnel and funding, the NOP must have the will and mindset needed to prioritize enforcement actions and visibility in the marketplace to deter fraud. We understand that auditing is a cornerstone of the organic certification system. But an overemphasis on auditing things after the fact, at the expense of active involvement in the marketplace through verification activities and coordination with other agencies, will not solve the problem facing the organic industry.

Finally, we urge the NOP to take seriously its role as an accreditor and to acknowledge that its role as an accreditor is inextricably tied to its enforcement mandate. The oversight of organic certifiers is essential, and the accreditation procedures that are not addressed in this proposed rule are a key component of how organic standards are actually enforced on the ground. Ensuring that certifiers consistently interpret and apply the standards, everywhere they operate, is critical to the integrity of the organic label. And the NOP is the only entity that can ensure that this happens. As the agency works to finalize the provisions of the proposed rule and implement new requirements for certified operations and certifying agents, it cannot overlook the work it needs to do as well to fulfill its critical role in the enforcement process.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on these issues that are of critical importance to U.S. organic farmers.

Sincerely,

Kate Mendenhall
Director

 

[1] “U.S. Farmers Stalk Fraudulent Imports to Save Their Markets.” Minneapolis Star Tribune. July 16, 2019. https://www.startribune.com/organic-farmers-stalk-fradulent-imports/511952972/?refresh=true; “The Labels Said ‘Organic.’ But These Massive Imports of Corn and Soybeans Weren’t.” Washington Post. May 12, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/the-labels-said-organic-but-these-massive-imports-of-corn-and-soybeans-werent/2017/05/12/6d165984-2b76-11e7-a616-d7c8a68c1a66_story.html?utm_term=.bc595122d7b9;  “the Tragedy of Fraud.” Organic Farmers Association. Summer 2020. https://organicfarmersassociation.org/news/the-tragedy-of-fraud/.

[2] USDA Office of Inspector General. “National Organic Program – International Trade Arrangements and Agreements.” Audit Report 01601-0001-21. September 2017. Recommendation 4.

[3] USDA Office of Inspector General. 2017. Recommendations 6 and 7.

[4] USDA Office of Inspector General. 2017. Recommendation 7.

[5] USDA Office of Inspector General. 2017

[6] “Ag Groups Warn of Ag Inspection Funding Shortfall.” Feedstuffs. June 30, 2020. https://www.feedstuffs.com/news/ag-groups-warn-ag-inspection-funding-shortfall

 


OFA Comments to NOSB Fall 2020

October 1, 2020

Ms. Michelle Arsenault
Advisory Committee Specialist
National Organic Standards Board
USDA-AMS-NOP, 1400 Independence Ave. SW
Room 2642-S, Mail Stop 0268
Washington, DC 20250-0268

 

Re: Docket No. AMS-NOP-20-0041-0001

Dear National Organic Standards Board Members,

The Organic Farmers Association is led and controlled by domestic certified organic farmers and only certified organic farmers determine our policies using a grassroots process. We believe organic farmers were instrumental in creating our successful organic market and must be leaders in directing its future.

OFA supports the work of the National Organic Standards Board and we know that you play a crucial role in maintaining the integrity of the USDA organic label. We appreciate the opportunity to provide comments to the Board and the National Organic Program on general issues impacting organic farmers, as well as several specific items on the agenda for your meeting.

Issues Impacting Organic Farmers

We support NOSB recommendations moving forward to rulemaking or guidance in a timely manner, and we urge the NOP to continue to prioritize its regulatory efforts that are critical to the integrity of the organic label.

Dairy

We were disappointed that the NOP did not meet the deadline set by Congress for finalizing a rule on origin of organic livestock. We urge the program to work quickly to address this longstanding gap in the organic standards and level the playing field for organic dairy farms who are already meeting the intent behind the organic label. We urge the NOP to work quickly and intently to finish the origin of organic livestock rule that so many dairy farmers urgently need. We also encourage the NOP to be transparent with the organic community about the status of the rule. We urge you to include the following provisions in a rule on origin of livestock:

  • A producer as defined by the USDA NOP may transition bovine dairy animals into organic production only once.
  • A producer is eligible for this transition only if they convert an entire established non-organic dairy operation to organic production at the same geographic location within a defined 12-month period. Once that transition has started, other non-organically certified animals cannot be added to the herd.
  • This transition must occur over a continuous 12-month period prior to production of milk or milk products that are to be sold, labeled, or represented as organic.
  • A producer must not transition any new bovine dairy animals into organic production after the end of the 12-month transition period.
  • A producer is not eligible for the exemption if it has been used by a Responsible Connected person who has 20% or more ownership share in their legal entity.
  • The certifying entity will file an organic system plan prior to the start of transition and the transition process is overseen by the certifier as part of their accountability.
  • Transitioned animals must not be sold, labeled, or represented as organic slaughter stock or organic bovine dairy animals.
  • If organic management of the dairy animal, starting at the last third of gestation or at any other time it has been organic, is interrupted, the animal cannot be returned to organic certification.
  • Split bovine conventional and organic milking herds at the same location should be prohibited.
  • Once the regulation is finalized all entities should be required to immediately meet the requirements of the Final Rule.

We also urge the NOP to continue to focus on compliance with the pasture rule, with an emphasis on higher risk operations including those on the margins of the 30 percent dry matter intake rule and dairies with 1,000 or more milking and dry cows.

Container and Greenhouse Operations

OFA continues to be concerned about the consequences for the integrity of the organic label as a result of the NOP and NOSB moving forward to allow organic hydroponics without clarity on how this type of production complies with the Organic Foods Production Act. We are also troubled by inconsistent interpretation of NOP guidance on the practices that can be used in container and greenhouse operations.

This summer, OFA, the National Organic Coalition and the Accredited Certifiers Association conducted a survey of USDA-accredited certification agencies to determine the amount of consistency in how certifiers interpret the standards for transition within greenhouses, hoop houses, hydroponic and indoor operations.

The goals of the survey were to:

  1. Inform the work of the ACA’s working group, which is focused on the June 3rd, 2019 NOP memo on Land-based Production Affecting Greenhouse and Container Production.[1] The working group intends to begin creating guidelines in the coming weeks and months to address inconsistencies and identify best practices in three-year transition period requirements.
  2. Use the aggregated data we have collected to inform the NOP and NOSB, identify where there is a lack of uniform interpretation, and request their review and clarification.
  3. Ultimately the goal of the survey is to bring all certifiers into alignment in this area so that together we uphold high organic integrity and provide uniform interpretation of the organic standards

Thirty-four certification agencies responded, and their responses indicate a wide range of interpretations about how long these operations must wait after the application of a prohibited substance and whether split operations can be certified. We presented 20 different scenarios and only two – an operation with plants grown in the ground (while in a structure like a greenhouse or hoop house) and certification of the outdoor access area for poultry – showed strong consensus on what transition time is required after application of a prohibited substance. Other scenarios yielded split results, indicating that different certifiers have different interpretations and application of the standards. We have attached a summary of the survey results with this comment.

The survey results show that certifiers need more clarity from the NOP. We are encouraged that the ACA working group is focused on this issue this fall, and we encourage the NOP to work collaboratively with them and provide clarity for certifiers on this regulatory question.

Organic Certification Cost Share

OFA members are extremely concerned about the decision by the Farm Services Agency to cut 2020 reimbursement levels for the organic certification cost share program to 50 percent, with a maximum reimbursement of $500 per scope (down from the long-standing level of 75 percent or $750 per scope.) This cut in the program leaves organic operations – who had been planning on being reimbursed for their certification costs at the same level as previous years – burdened with an unplanned expense, in the midst of a period of economic stress caused by the pandemic.

Our conversations with FSA after they announced the reduced reimbursement level have been very disturbing, and indicate that the agency used incorrect numbers in its communications with Congress about the status of funding for this program. And delays in preparing the program for 2020 applications meant that the news about the funding shortfall came so late that it will be a challenge to fix the problem this year. We understand that the NOP and AMS no longer administer this program. But we urge the program to reach out to FSA to try to better understand how this problem occurred this year and how to prevent it in the future. We see the NOP as an important advocate for organic agriculture within the USDA and ask you to support organic farmers by helping to maintain a strong organic certification cost share program.

Issues on the NOSB Meeting Agenda

Crops Subcommittee: Proposal – Paper (Plant pots and other crop production aids) – petitioned

The issue of paper pots is on the agenda for the NOSB because this is a tool that is critical to many small farms that depend on this product. Therefore, we appreciate the Board’s efforts to address this need and clarify the status of paper on the national list. OFA supports this proposal.

Crops Subcommittee: Discussion Document – Biodegradable biobased mulch annotation change

In the discussion document, the Board requests feedback from the organic community on several questions relating to the environmental characteristics of these products, their compatibility with organic standards and whether they are vital tools for any operations. We appreciate that this material has been a source of discussion for the Board for a long time and that there are proponents of this product in organic production. But we will note that as part of our policy development process this year, a proposal was submitted to support the consideration of biodegradable biobased mulch by the NOSB, and this proposal was not adopted by OFA. This is not a priority issue for the organic farmer community, and we encourage you to focus on the organic issues that are most important and necessary to organic farmers, the backbone of the label.

Handling Subcommittee: Discussion Document - Whey protein concentrate - petitioned for removal

OFA supports the intent of the discussion document to remove whey protein concentrate from the National List. As indicated in the petition submitted to NOSB and in public comments, there is adequate organic whey protein concentrate available and non-organic whey protein concentrate should no longer be allowed in certified organic products.

Livestock Subcommittee: Proposal - Fenbendazole - petitioned

OFA opposes the subcommittee motion to “amend the listing for fenbendazole to include: Fenbendazole-for use in laying hens or replacement chickens intended to be laying hens at 7 CFR §205.603 (23)(i).”  We have several concerns about the proposal to allow fenbendazole in laying hens or replacement chickens with no withdrawal time, especially without the completion of a definition of what constitutes an emergency use.

Organic consumers have long looked to organic products as a way to avoid exposure to veterinary drugs or other residues. Allowing the use of this parasiticide without a withdrawal time could lead to residue in eggs or laying hens that end up as slaughter stock. Undermining consumers’ expectations for organic products by allowing residues in one product can put the credibility of the entire label in jeopardy. In addition to our concern about residue, we also feel that fenbendazole is not a product widely requested by certified organic farmers raising laying hens, as reflected in testimony by numerous certification agencies at the spring meeting.  Management changes should be encouraged on farms where fenbendazole is requested rather than allowing a parasiticide as a band-aid for an overarching management problem.

We are also concerned that allowing this use will trigger producers who do not use fenbendazole to feel compelled to communicate this to their customers through additional label claims. A better approach than this constant escalation of claims that need to be provided on top of organic certification is to have strong organic standards for all products, that don’t require any extra communication to concerned consumers.

The debate over the necessity of allowing the use of fenbendazole also illustrates the need for the NOP to finish the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule. Public comment on this issue has shown a wide range of opinion over the necessity of this treatment and the OLPP could be a way to ensure that organic standards require all producers to use practices that maximize bird health and prevent disease.

Materials Subcommittee: Discussion Document – NOSB Research Priorities 2020

OFA supports the efforts of the Board to highlight specific topics for research that will advance organic production. Specifically, we would like to emphasize the need for research into the following topics on the 2020 list:

Livestock

  1. Evaluation of methionine in the context of a system approach in organic poultry production.
  2. Organic livestock breeding for animals adapted to outdoor life and living vegetation.

Both of these research priorities would help to support organic livestock production that meets high standards for animal welfare and reduces the reliance on confinement methods that do not meet consumer expectations for organic.

Crops

  1. Elucidate practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and that contribute to farming systems resilience in the face of climate change.

OFA members are concerned about climate change and have been documenting the impacts of a changing climate on their farms for decades. Recent severe weather events have offered a more forceful reminder that the climate is changing. The role of organic methods in addressing climate change and better tools for organic farmers to adapt to changing conditions should be top priorities for research.

Coexistence with GE and Organic Crops

  1. Testing for fraud by developing and implementing new technologies and practices.

Making sure that the NOP can develop and enforce strong regulations that are capable of detecting and preventing fraud in organic supply chains is a top priority for OFA. Fraud in organic supply chains not only impacts farmers who follow the rules but are undercut by those who do not, but it also puts the reputation of the entire organic label at risk. Research into new testing methods that can provide better tools for detection and enforcement should be a top priority.

Thank you for your consideration of these comments.

Sincerely,

Kate Mendenhall
Director

 

[1] https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/2019-Certifiers-Container-Crops.pdf


USDA Announces Second Round of Farm Payments for Coronavirus

September 22, 2020

On September 18, 2020, the USDA announced the second round of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP 2). This new round of the program has up to $14 billion available for direct payments to eligible operations.

Farms can apply for funding from CFAP 2 starting on September 21 through December 11, 2020.

Even if you were not eligible for the first round of CFAP (which was the case for many organic farms), it may be worth checking again because the USDA has changed some of the eligibility requirements and the methods for calculating payments, which may work better for some organic farms. The USDA is using three different methods for calculating payments (a flat per-acre rate, a per-bushel or per-head rate and a percentage of 2019 sales), which vary between different commodities.

Here’s what changed:

Longer time frame

CFAP 1 covered crops that had price losses or market disruptions from mid-January through mid-April of this year. CFAP 2 covers losses for the rest of the year.

More Ways to Calculate Payments

There are three different methods being used to calculate payments, and one of them should work better for specialty (fruit and vegetable) crop producers and diversified operations. For specialty crops, USDA has a new option of covering a percentage of 2019 sales (using a sliding scale – the first $50,000 of sales triggers a 10.6% payment, sales of $50,000 to 99,000 trigger a 9.9% payment, with three more steps for higher sales amount.) There is still no distinction on payment rate for crops with a premium (like organic), but using 2019 sales figures should help capture some of that premium if the crops were sold with a premium for organic last year.

More Eligible Crops

CFAP 2 has more eligible commodities than CFAP 1, including several types of wheat (and also mink, mohair and hemp.) You can see a list of crops that are eligible for some type of payment here.

Just like CFAP 1, this round is being administered by the Farm Services Agency. To apply, you will need to refer to your sales, inventory and other records. The USDA has more information about what records you will need to apply on their website.

You can get more information about payment rates for each type of crop and how to apply here. You can apply on the website or make an appointment with your local FSA office to get assistance over the phone.

The USDA is hosting a webinar about CFAP on Thursday September 24 at 3:00 eastern. You can register for the webinar here.


OFA Director on Food Sleuth Radio

Listen to OFA Director Kate Mendenhall's interview with Melinda Hemmelgarn on her radio show, Food Sleuth Radio. The show touches on organic certification, cost share, and the pandemic.


ORGANIC FARMS ADAPTING DURING COVID-19

Resilience, Soil Health, and Community = Winning Strategies

By, Noah Cohen, Organic Farmers Association

Despite much uncertainty and upheaval of our economy during the 2020 outbreak, many organic farms have been bright spots of the COVID-19 economy. With consumers now having 100% control over their food dollars, we have seen nationwide increase in organic sales.  An increase of home cooking has mirrored an increase in purchase of organic whole foods.  Organic farmers have pivoted to shift their businesses in new directions to better serve the local direct markets as well as rethink our food systems for the future.

Here’s how a handful of organic farmers from around the country have fared:

JENNIFER TAYLOR, LOLA's ORGANIC FARM, GLENWOOD, GA

  • FARM FACTS: Taylor runs Lola’s Organic Farm, which sells organic fruits and vegetables through farmers markets, a co-op, and a CSA program.  She also works at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University (FAMU) as the coordinator of Florida’s Statewide Small Farm Program, which helps farmers obtain education and training to implement organic methods.
  • EXPERIENCE: Lola’s Organic primarily grows fresh fruits and vegetables—food categories that saw especially astronomical sales increases nationwide during the pandemic’s early phases, with consumers suddenly gravitating to products perceived to boost immune system health. “That [sales boost] was true for us,” Taylor says, “and that’s still going on.” “One outcome of this whole thing,” she explains, was that “it caused everyone to slow down and reflect on what’s important to us and to our communities, and as we did that, to think about our health. Because health was an issue.” Many of Taylor’s local community members began to focus on “how to build our own immune systems, and how to eat healthy foods,” she says. “And that was why the customers were being, and still are, very appreciative and supportive of the farmers gearing up to share and sell their local organic produce to the customers [through channels like farmers markets].”
  • TAKEAWAYS: Taylor, who works with small farmers to implement organic practices and enter “different alternative types of marketing systems” at FAMU, says the COVID crisis has “verified” the resilience of local organic farming and underscored its importance to community food systems. “Communities found that [local organics] did not stop being available [during COVID], and food from your local organic farmers was and is the reliant food resource for the community,” she explains. “It also verified [that] for us, because we knew we were essential food providers long before we were deemed that role.” While the organic farmers of Taylor’s community broadly adapted well to the pandemic restrictions, she says farms that “use direct connections from the farmer to the consumer and to the communities” have been especially successful.Taylor also observes that the pandemic’s disproportionate public health impact on communities of color drives home the need to bring the essential health benefits of organic agriculture to urban areas, which she says calls for helping urban and underrepresented farmers implement organic methods through technical assistance, education on certification, and cost-sharing. “Healthy environments, healthy food resources, pollinator habitats, the lack of toxic chemicals being used-- all these are benefits that urban communities see through growing organic agriculture in the soil,” she explains. “And so expanding and enhancing resilient agriculture systems and growing [organics] in urban areas-- that supports minority communities.”

LORETTA ADDERSON, ADDERSON'S FRESH PRODUCE, AUGUSTA, GA 

  • FARM FACTS: Adderson has run Adderson’s Fresh Produce since 2007, where she grows organic fruits and vegetables on her 56-acre multi-generational family farm.
  • EXPERIENCE: “Our biggest challenge was finding a market for our produce,” says Adderson, who had ordered seedlings before the pandemic started with the expectation of selling to 12 different distribution channels, including multiple restaurants, school districts, and retail markets. “We immediately realized we had overproduced… due to the pandemic, we only had one online market and one juice bar [to sell produce to].”Faced with lagging sales and over 15,000 seedlings, Adderson pivoted by introducing a Grab Bag Program—which, to better meet public health standards during the pandemic, soon became a Grab Box Program—targeting two different communities. One market where this transition was particularly challenging was the Veggie Park Farmers Market, an organic produce market that serves the Harrisburg neighborhood of Augusta. Harrisburg is a food desert—an urban area where accessibility to affordable fresh food is limited. Many Veggie Park customers, Adderson explains, could not access traditional CSAs because they had no credit or debit card, making it impossible to pay online. The farmers were not set up to receive EBT card payments either, so innovation was necessary. “The boxes were delivered to a central location, and the customers would pick up their boxes and place a check or cash in a container beside the boxes,” Adderson says. While Veggie Park did get some customers for the Box program—especially when their annual Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program opened—sales remained down significantly compared to their traditional farmers market sales from previous years. Nonetheless, Adderson’s Fresh Produce has weathered the storm, albeit with lower sales than usual and the loss of many of their crops due to extreme summer heat. “Our plan for the fall is to step up our game with an increase in brassicas,” Adderson says, “and to add a Box CSA for a stronger 2021.”
  • TAKEAWAYS: “We still have a lot of work to do,” Adderson says of the implementation of her Box Program. “The CSA is a new concept for our communities, families and farmers… [so we need to] educate, and, importantly, allow EBT for online purchases.”
    As a retired nutritionist, Adderson has been preaching the importance of building immune health since long before the pandemic. Now this commitment has begun to pay off, with consumers finally gravitating toward the vitamin-rich, immune boosting organic vegetables she has long been committed to growing to improve the health of her community. “Providing organic dark leafy greens and other high-nutrient vegetables to help reduce nutrition-related diseases is our mission,” she says. “Broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, mustards, and spinach are full of vitamins and minerals. Excellent sources of Vitamin A and C, too.” Adderson plans to keep using her platform as a staple food resource for her community to drive home the connection between health and diet and encourage her customers to consume more fresh, nutritious, and vitamin-rich foods to protect their health, both during the pandemic and beyond.

MARYROSE LIVINGSTON - NORTHLAND SHEEP DAIRY, MARATHON, NY

    • FARM FACTS: Livingston runs Northland Sheep Dairy, a 177-acre farm that produces “completely handmade” aged sheep cheese and lamb using 100% grass-fed sheep, and primarily sells wholesale to restaurants and retail outlets.
  • EXPERIENCE: Livingston considers herself incredibly lucky that due to the production timeline for both aged cheese and lamb, her sales dropping off precipitously during the pandemic has not hugely affected her livelihood. “I make aged cheeses, so I’m usually selling the previous year’s cheese,” she explains. “I’m mostly wholesale—we make whole wheels that go to a couple distributors, mostly to restaurants. But of course [this year] the restaurant sales went kaputt, as did my distributors… so I have a couple really small retail outlets I sell to, but other than that I’m really not selling much cheese. So therefore, I haven’t weaned my lambs… I’m not milking, I’m not making cheese, yet.” As for lamb, Livingston does direct sales to customers, which were, as usual, concentrated around November last year. “So we sold all our lambs at once and had a nice nest egg from that, so we’re doing fine,” she says. “We’re using this year to do lots of projects we’ve never had time to do, we’re making the most of it, and it’s going pretty well.” And for this year’s slaughter season, she says, “I’m fortunate that I have a wonderful relationship with a great USDA butcher that’s certified organic, and I have my appointment, and I’m good to go.”
  • TAKEAWAYS: “Being small has made us resilient,” Livingston says, “and so has making aged cheese [which can be stored rather than sold for a long time]. If I were producing a ton of fresh cheese, I’d be really under the gun to keep them moving.”

NATE POWELL-PALM - COLD SPRINGS ORGANICS, BELGRADE, MT

  • FARM FACTS: Powell-Palm is a millennial farmer who has been running his own organic cattle-growing operation since the age of 12, and the owner of Cold Springs Organics, an 875-acre ranch where he produces grains and grass-fed beef.
  • EXPERIENCE: “In Montana, we sort of socially distance natively, so it wasn’t all that much of a change for us. And in the summertime, me and my crew don’t really leave the farm, it’s just too busy for that,” quips Powell-Palm, who I finally reached after several weeks during a 30-minute break between marathon sessions of combining wheat. The biggest impact of COVID on his day-to-day operation, he says, is that it “disrupted some of the supply chain, so ordering parts [for machinery like combines] has been kind of tricky.”
    With meat processing plants shutting down en masse during COVID, many meat growers have been left unable to sell this summer. Powell-Palm, however, was able to “inch by,” thanks to Montana’s robust system of local, family-run slaughter plants, which have fared much better than the industrial-scale processors elsewhere. “The plants here don’t have very many employees, so they’re pretty resilient as far as surviving [the pandemic],” he explains. But by next year, Cold Springs will be better prepared: this year’s shutdowns have inspired them to open their own processing plant. “We had mostly been selling our cattle to Whole Foods, which goes through a larger processor that’s experienced disruptions throughout the pandemic,” Powell-Palm explains, “so it’s kind of inspired us to take the jump.”
  • TAKEAWAYS: Powell-Palm says the pandemic has made it clearer than ever that organic grass-fed beef is not only the only ecologically sustainable beef production system, but also a critical solution for consumer health and a bulwark against devastation for farmers during economic crises. Unlike other beef, which is loaded with the blood pressure-spiking Omega-6 fatty acids that spur nutritionists to warn against too much red meat, grass-fed beef largely replaces these fats with the much more heart-healthy Omega-3s. “Grass-fed beef actually has nearly the same Omega-3 [fatty acid] profile as salmon… so when you talk about salmon’s ability to bolster brain function and heart health, grass fed beef does that as well,” Powell-Palm says. With consumers becoming unusually health-conscious during the pandemic, he says, many have started to take stock of these benefits. “There’s also been a lot of studies about farm economic liability and grazing,” Powell-Palm says, “and the farms that graze [their livestock] as opposed to using feedlots, they’re really the ones that survive the bad times, like this pandemic. They’re the really resilient model.”Reflecting on his decision to open his own meat processing plant as well as his own feed mill—which he says is “kind of as a service” for members of his community who want to raise their own food—Powell-Palm says local processing infrastructure and self-sufficient local food systems are key to keeping food available to communities during crises like COVID. “Thinking about the wake-up call of [COVID],” he says, “we’ve got a lot of food going un-used at the local level right now, so we’re trying to figure out how you make [our local commodities] more accessible, more able to utilize at the local level, and more available to consumers and to communities.”

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

Most organic farmers seem to agree on one thing: that COVID-19 has exposed fundamental flaws in the food system status quo. Mark McAfee calls the pandemic “a national stress test on our food system [where] consolidated, huge industrial systems have failed” while local, organic, consumer-connected systems have thrived. While COVID-19 has been tragic, Bishop says, it has unexpectedly provided “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to reevaluate our current food system and imagine how it might improve for the future, using the resilience and success of the many thriving local, organic farms as a blueprint.

Several farmers also recommended specific policy priorities, including:

  • Establishing federal quotas for dairy to stabilize dairy prices, protecting dairy farmers from market shocks like the pandemic
  • Establishing robust certification processes for the grass-fed label on meat to ensure uniform standards and increase consumer transparency
  • Allowing EBT cards to be used for online CSA purchases, to enable consumers without access to credit or debit cards to access fresh produce delivery
  • Bringing the crucial soil health benefits of organic farming to cities by supporting urban organic farmers
  • Improving nutritious food access for Black, indigenous, and people of color communities by supporting underrepresented organic farmers via technical assistance, organic certification education, and increased funding for the organic certification cost-share program
  • Enforcement of antitrust laws to combat meat/dairy industry concentration, which many have called “the root cause” of COVID-related processing supply chain disruptions
  • Fixing the organic livestock enforcement loophole, which has tanked organic dairy prices
  • Mitigating the farm workforce’s vulnerability to border closures by introducing a new longer-term farm worker visa for immigrants and an agriculture-centric path to citizenship
  • Prioritizing local farms + disproportionately impacted communities when distributing stimulus money
  • Making federal investments into organic sector development
  • Revising eligibility restrictions for SNAP, creating incentives to buy fresh, local foods

 


September Policy Update

By, Patty Lovera, Policy Director

COVID-19 RESPONSE

It’s getting a little repetitive, but once again there is still no clear sign what Congress will do next to address the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and related economic disruption. The House passed its version of a stimulus/pandemic response bill in May, but the Senate has not yet passed its own bill. On September 10th, the Senate voted on a Republican version of a limited or “skinny” version of a pandemic response bill, which failed, 52-47 (most bills need 60 votes to advance in the Senate.) 

This means that the negotiations between Democrats and Republicans will continue, with major issues to be resolved, including aid to state and local governments, unemployment assistance, and a proposal to provide 

businesses with immunity from lawsuits by workers or customers. The two sides seem to be as far apart as they were earlier this summer, but as we get closer to the election, there may be more pressure on both sides to come up with something that can pass both the House and Senate.

So far, the negotiations remain focused on those big picture economic issues, with not much discussion of specific sectors like agriculture. All the bills that have been introduced would provide more funding for USDA to make direct payments to farms and processors that were impacted by the pandemic, with the same vague instructions that give a lot of discretion to USDA on how to set up these payments.

USDA continues to run the two main programs established by the CARES Act that Congress passed earlier this year. You can read more about these programs here. The deadline for applying for the direct payment program, the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, just passed but USDA has said they will soon be making an announcement about a new round of funding for that program. We will post an update on the OFA website when details are released.

USDA Regulations on Origin of Organic Livestock

Earlier this summer, we made sure to remind the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) that Congress had set a deadline for them to finalize a long-delayed rule about how livestock are transitioned into organic production. Congress set a deadline of mid-June for NOP to finish this rule in the 2020 appropriations (spending) bill for USDA.

Unfortunately, the NOP not only failed to meet that deadline, but has now explained that they believe there are significant problems with the proposed rule they have been working on since 2015 that need to be addressed before they can finish it.

OFA is going to continue to push NOP to finish this rule, which is critical for creating a level playing field for all organic dairy producers and closing the loopholes in existing regulations that are being exploited by large operations.

Organic Certification Cost-Share

On August 10, the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) announced that funds were being released for the annual organic certification cost share program. OFA has been working with allies like the National Organic Coalition for several months to pressure FSA to make this year’s funds available so that organic farmers and handling operations could begin to apply for reimbursement for part of their annual certification costs.

Unfortunately, the FSA announced that due to an unexpected shortfall in funding, they were lowering the reimbursement rate to 50 percent of the certified organic operation’s eligible expenses, up to a maximum of $500 per scope. This is reduced from a rate of 75 percent of the certified organic operation’s eligible expenses, up to a maximum of $750 per scope in previous years (and the level that was specified for this program in the last Farm Bill.) OFA has been working with NOC and other allies to understand what happened to cause this funding shortfall and to alert members of Congress who support the cost share program. In late August, 39 members of the House sent a letter to FSA objecting to this cut in the reimbursement rate and in September, Senator Collins (R-ME) sent her own letter expressing concern. We are going to keep working with members of Congress to try to restore the funding for organic certification cost share this year and to prevent funding shortfalls like this in the future. You can find out how to take action on cost share here.

Don’t Forget to Comment on Stopping Fraudulent Organic Imports!  

OFA has worked for years to demand better enforcement to prevent fraud in organic markets. In last month’s policy update, we gave some detail on the proposed rule on Strengthening Organic Enforcement. The public comment period for this proposed rule is open until October 5th, so check out what is in the rule and find out how to add your comment here.

COMMENT ON STRENGTHENING ORGANIC ENFORCEMENT RULE

National Organic Standards Board Fall Meeting

The fall NOSB meeting will be held online, spread out over several days. The public comment sessions will be from noon until 5:00 eastern on October 20 and 22, and the NOSB meeting will be from noon until 5:00 eastern on October 28, 29 and 30th.

You can get information about registering to watch the meeting online, how to submit written comments and how to sign up for a public comment slot on the USDA’s website for this meeting. The deadline to submit written comments and sign up for a public comment slot is October 1st.

You can see the full agenda for the meeting on the USDA’s website, but two items that might be of interest to OFA members are paper pots and a parasiticide for laying hens called fenbendazole. You can read more about the proposals the NOSB will vote on at the October meeting here. OFA will be urging the board to approve paper pots as an allowable synthetic because they are similar to already-approved inputs and because they are particularly important to smaller operations. And we will be urging the board not to allow the use of fenbendazole with no withholding period and no defined parameters for use. There are real concerns about the potential for residues of the drug to remain in eggs laid by treated birds as well as concerns about how this drug fits into a properly managed organic system with adequate outdoor access.

 

TAKE ACTION ON ORGANIC ENFORCEMENT

We also need OFA members to weigh in during the public comment period for the Strengthening Organic Enforcement proposed rule to make sure it gets finalized quickly and that the final rule is a strong as possible.

Here’s how you can comment:

The fastest way to submit a public comment is through the federal government’s online system. This proposed rule has its own web page and you can click on the “Comment Now” button on the top right to enter your comment. You can either copy and paste your comment into the system or attach a file.

If you want to submit a hard copy of your comments instead (you don’t need to do this if you submit online), send it to:

Jennifer Tucker, Deputy Administrator, National Organic Program, USDA-AMS-NOP, 1400 Independence Ave. SW, Room 2642-So., Ag Stop 0268, Washington, DC 20250-0268;  Fax: (202) 260-9151

What to include in your comment:

  • Make sure to include the docket number for this proposed rule in your written comment: AMS-NOP-17-0065.
  • Explain that you are an organic farmer and mention any specific concerns you have or examples of how fraud in organic supply chains has impacted you.

TALKING POINTS:

  • This proposed rule is necessary and long overdue. I especially support the end to exemptions for uncertified handlers in the supply chain and the requirement of electronic import certificates.
  • I urge the USDA to finalize this rule as soon as possible and speed up the effective date so that the agency can start enforcing these rules to prevent fraud in organic supply chains.
  • For section 205.273(c), I urge the USDA to shorten the time frame allowed for an importer to submit an electronic import certificate into the ACES system. Allowing importers 10 days to file the electronic certificate after the shipment has reached a U.S. port could mean the difference between preventing fraudulent products from entering the U.S. and having to try to retrieve them once they have entered commerce.
  • I appreciate the proposed rule’s requirements that non-retail containers be labeled with more information about the organic status of products (section 205.307). But I urge the agency to expand this requirement to large non-retail containers such as trailers, tanks, rail cars, shipping containers, grain elevators/silos, vessels, cargo holds, freighters, barges, or other method of bulk transport or storage. Providing a visual indicator that these contain organic products serve as a valuable backstop to other methods, such as organic certificates, and provide one last opportunity to prevent unintended commingling or treatment with irradiation or other prohibited substances. I also urge the agency to investigate technologies that indicate whether containers have been opened or tampered with during shipping for large-scale shipments.

 


NOC & OFA Issue Press Release on Cost Share

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: August 26, 2020

Media Contact:
National Organic Coalition, Abby Youngblood, abby@nationalorganiccoalition.org, 646-525-7165
Organic Farmers Association, Kate Mendenhall, kate@organicfarmersassociation.org 202-643-5363

National Organic Coalition and Organic Farmers Association

Thank House Members for Their Bipartisan Letter to USDA Calling for Restoration of Organic Certification Cost Share Funding

Washington, D.C. – August 26, 2020 — Yesterday, 39 Members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) to urge the restoration of funding for the Organic Certification Cost Share program (OCCSP), and to extend all applicable program deadlines to ensure that farmers who are still dealing with COVID-19 impacts have ample time to access these funds.  The letter was led by Representatives Stacey Plaskett (D-VI), Rodney Davis (R-IL), Anthony Brindisi (D-NY), and Dan Newhouse (R-WA).  All signers of the letter are members of either the House Committee on Agriculture or the House Organic Caucus.

The letter is in response to the announcement on August 10 announcement by the FSA of the agency’s plans to reduce reimbursement rates for the organic certification cost share program, which provides reimbursements to organic farms and handling operations. The Federal Register notice stated that FSA is “revising the reimbursement amount to 50 percent of the certified organic operation’s eligible expenses, up to a maximum of $500 per scope,” because of lack of funding. The 2018 Farm Bill clearly set reimbursement rates at 75 percent of the certified organic operation’s eligible expenses, up to a maximum of $750 per scope.

“The National Organic Coalition thanks Representatives Plaskett, Davis, Brindisi and Newhouse for their leadership in organizing this letter calling on USDA to restore funding for this crucial organic program.” said Abby Youngblood, Executive Director at the National Organic Coalition. “Producers and other organic operations need this support now more than ever because they are faced with economic disruptions and loss of markets due to COVID-19.”

"The Organic Certification Cost-Share Program is especially important for small and mid-size organic farms,” said Kate Mendenhall, Director of the Organic Farmers Association. “Organic farmers scrambled this season to make sure healthy food was available for our local communities in a time of crisis.  This is a time when the USDA should be looking for ways to support organic farmers, not harm them."

This action by USDA is unwarranted and completely unacceptable. The 2018 Farm Bill provided new funding for the program and also directed USDA to use the program’s carryover balances from previous years to fund the program for fiscal years 2019 through 2023. Given these sources of funding, there should be plenty of funds available for the program’s operation in fiscal year 2020. Either USDA’s accounting for this program is flawed or the agency has redirected some of the organic certification cost share funding to other programs, in conflict with the funding directives in the 2018 Farm Bill. In addition, the FSA has done a huge disservice to the organic community in this time of crisis by delaying the release of funds by many months while organic operations struggle to stay in business as they weather a pandemic and loss of markets.

In addition, NOC and OFA urge organic operations to apply for certification cost-share assistance as soon as they are able to do so with their state agency or local FSA office: https://www.fsa.usda.gov/programs-and-services/occsp/index

Operations have until October 31, 2020 to apply for funding. FSA has stated that “if additional funding is authorized at a later time, FSA may provide additional assistance to certified operations that have applied” for the organic certification cost share program.

About the National Organic Coalition:

The National Organic Coalition (NOC) is a national alliance of organizations working to provide a "Washington voice" for farmers, ranchers, conservationists, consumers, and industry members involved in organic agriculture. NOC seeks to advance organic food and agriculture and ensure a united voice for organic integrity, which means strong, enforceable, and continuously improved standards. The coalition works to assure that policies are fair, equitable, and encourage diversity of participation and access. Learn more at NationalOrganicCoalition.org.

 

About the Organic Farmers Association:

The Organic Farmers Association (OFA) provides a strong and unified national voice for domestic certified organic producers, by supporting a farmer-led national organic farmer movement and national policy platform, strengthening the capacity of organic farmers and farm organizations, and supporting collaboration and leadership among state, regional and national organic farmer organizations. Rodale Institute supports this initiative as fiscal sponsor and partner with OFA’s farmer leadership. Learn more at OrganicFarmersAssociation.org.