National Organic Standards Board Update: SPRING 2021 MEETING

By Harriet Behar

Organic Farmers Association

Numerous important discussions of interest to organic crop producers occurred during the virtual 2021 spring National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting the last two weeks of April, including over 11 hours of public comment and 13 hours of Board discussion.

Ammonia extract, considered a natural substance since this version is derived from manure, was petitioned to be placed on the prohibited non-synthetic list, with many comments both pro and con.  Those wanting approval for this material point to the need for a highly soluble source of nitrogen to improve organic crop yields, as well as a way to deal with extreme climate issues such as very wet, cold, or dry conditions when the soil biological activity is stifled and not providing sufficient nutrients to the crop.  Those against this natural form of ammonia extract pointed to information that stated that soil biological activity can be damaged by this material.  Since the natural and synthetic forms cannot be distinguished in the soil, it could be difficult to determine fraudulent use of the synthetic version, which is not allowed under organic standards.

Many commenters felt the allowance of this highly soluble fertilizer will begin to change current organic methods which “feed the soil” to instead mimicking conventional agriculture’s method of “feeding the plant”.  Carbon sequestration and improvement of soil organic matter were also mentioned as foundational principles of organic, which is not encouraged in an agricultural system that relies upon soluble fertilizers.  The NOSB will continue this discussion and perhaps include a wider-ranging proposal in the fall, that might look at many types of highly soluble fertility inputs.  Possible annotations discussed for these nutrients included restricting them to either specific conditions or a maximum percentage of that specific nutrient provided by that fertility input within a crop season.

Kasugamycin, an antibiotic to prevent fire blight in pear and apple trees, was petitioned to be allowed.  The two antibiotics that had been allowed in the past, have been removed from the approved list for more than five years.  Most of our organic trading partners around the world do not allow the use of antibiotics for this crop use.  West coast fruit growers spoke mostly in favor of allowing this material since the current methods of fire blight control are labor-intensive and rely upon the use of copper and sulfur, both somewhat toxic materials. They stated other inputs such as a yeast-based product are somewhat experimental and not as reliable or easy to use as antibiotics to control the possibility of losing whole blocks of trees in an orchard when the climatic conditions during blossoming allow for the rapid spread of fire blight. Commentors and NOSB members were concerned about antibiotic resistance by widespread use, as well as consumer expectations that antibiotics are not allowed in organic and should remain that way.  It is expected that this material will be voted upon at the fall NOSB meeting.

A proposal for paper-based crop planting aids, including paper pots, was approved unanimously by the NOSB.  The NOSB has been reviewing and modifying this proposal for a couple of years since the paper’s ingredients such as synthetic adhesives and non-biodegradable fibers made the wording of the proposal more complicated.  In the proposed definition, at least 60% of the fiber must be cellulose-based and 60% of all of the ingredients must be non-synthetic. At least 80% of the content must be bio-based and verified by a third-party assessment.  Many small-scale growers using the chain paper pots will be happy to know that these pots meet this definition and will continue to be allowed in organic agriculture.

Biodegradable biobased mulch film is another material that has not yet been finalized, with an improved proposal coming back for review by the NOSB in the fall.  The current listing for this material requires 100% biobased ingredients, which is not available in the marketplace, other than a difficult-to-use paper mulch.  The current biodegradable mulch films (not allowed in organic) have 70% or higher content derived from petroleum, with some of these stretchable mulch films produced through genetically engineered bacteria.  Those in favor of this material point to the environmental problem caused by tons of plastic mulches that end up in landfills, and the lack of recycling opportunities that would be solved by the use of biodegradable plastic films. Having an easy-to-install, non-removable mulch with the many heat-producing, moisture conserving, and weed prevention positive characteristics of these biodegradable mulch films would be very popular with all types of growers.  Those having concerns point to the uneven biodegradability of the mulches and that they need to be incorporated into the soil to break down.  Pieces of mulch can blow into field edges or even waterways, causing problems for wildlife and the environment.  The remnants of microplastics in the soil and their effect on soil biological life by continued use were also discussed. Many commenters felt there is not quite enough research completed on this material to change the annotation and allow for widespread use in organic agriculture.

Organic producers will also be affected by the discussion on how to improve the numbers of knowledgeable and experienced organic inspectors and certification agency personnel. As the organic regulations become more complicated and more entities are covered under USDA organic certification, the need for better trained and more numerous people working in organic certification has become clear.  Discussion of partnering with colleges or universities to train certification personnel, as well as having experienced inspectors formally mentor novices for at least a year, were discussed.  The National Organic Program has asked the NOSB to work on this topic and within a week of the meeting, put out a request for proposals from non-profits to request funding for a variety of capacity building projects.

Many other topics were discussed in livestock, handling, and crops.  The fall 2021 NOSB meeting in Sacramento, CA is planned to be in-person, where many of the materials reviewed every five years on the National List will be voted upon as well as any updated proposals.