October 26, 2016
National Organic Standards Board
USDA – AMS
1400 Independence Ave, SW
Washington, DC 20250
National Organic Standards Board members:
The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) is a grassroots coalition of over 4,000 farmers, gardeners, consumers, retailers, educators, and others who since 1979 have worked to build a healthy food system that brings prosperity to family farmers, safeguards the environment, and provides safe, local food to consumers. OEFFA employs education, advocacy, and grassroots organizing to promote local and organic foods, helping farmers and consumers connect to build a sustainable food system. OEFFA’s Certification program has been in operation since 1981. OEFFA certifies over 1,100 organic producers and food processors, ensuring that these operations meet the high standards established for organic products.
We thank you for your service to the organic community, and we respectfully offer the following comments.
COMPLIANCE, ACCREDITATION, AND CERTIFICATION SUBCOMMITTEE
Discussion document: Personnel Performance Evaluations of Inspectors (NOP 2027)
We thank the Compliance, Accreditation, and Certification Subcommittee for considering the topic of Inspector Field Evaluations, for the information it summarized, and the questions it posed. While we view inspector field evaluations as important to consistency and integrity in the inspection portion of organic certification, we see this requirement as overly prescriptive and inefficient. In short, we disagree with the “every inspector, every year” requirement.
In response to NOSB’s questions on this topic, we offer the following feedback:
For certifiers: To date, what have you observed about the benefits, costs and logistics of meeting this requirement?
OEFFA was initially excited about this idea, but has discovered that our understanding of the inspectors’ work has changed very little as a result of the “every inspector, every year” field evaluation requirement. While we view inspector field evaluations as important to consistency and integrity in the inspection portion of organic certification, we have other ways of collecting information about inspectors from certified operators and staff feedback. There are some returns on the investment in field evaluations to be sure, but the marginal benefit is greatly reduced after the highest priority inspectors in a risk-based approach are evaluated.
OEFFA currently works with about 40 contract inspectors, in addition to staff inspectors, to cover an 18 state region. We estimate that it will cost $20,000 to conduct a field evaluation for every inspector this year. Ultimately, this high cost must be passed on to certified operators through increased certification fees.
The logistics of meeting this requirement are burdensome beyond our expectations. Scheduling between the three parties of inspector, evaluator, and certified operation is several times more complex than scheduling between two parties. Additionally, since travel is essential for one or more of the individuals involved, field evaluation inspections must be scheduled further in advance than is usually necessary, which does not fit well with the nature of life and work on the farm.
- For certifiers: If given an option to present alternative evaluation plans to the every inspector, every year, what would these look like? If a risk-based approach, how do you define risk?
Risk can be defined using multiple criteria, including:
- the number of inspections conducted by the inspector each year;
- the experience level of the inspector in the scope being inspected;
- the feedback regarding the inspector provided by certified operators;
- the feedback regarding the inspection report provided by certification staff; and
- performance during prior field evaluations.
Before the NOP began issuing noncompliances for failing to conduct field evaluations of every inspector, every year, OEFFA created a risk-based approach to conducting field evaluations using such criteria as is listed above. We prefer that the NOSB or NOP not dictate an overly prescriptive formula for determining which inspectors must be evaluated in a given year. Instead, we request that we, as a certifier, understanding the general expectation, report on it as part of our annual update, and that it be addressed by the NOP during regular audits to make sure our inspector field evaluation approach is adequate.
- For certifiers and inspectors: What has been your experience sharing evaluation forms and processes? What have been the challenges associated with this sharing?
The sharing of evaluations has functioned adequately in order to meet the requirement. The sharing of evaluations between certifiers or among certifiers and IOIA should continue to be an option in meeting the requirement.
Rather than every certifier submitting an alternative proposal to this requirement, OEFFA recommends a model for field evaluations which is not overly prescriptive, risk-based, and which will allow assessment of all inspectors over a period of several years. We believe such a model will accomplish the goal of accuracy and integrity in the inspection process, while maintaining a “sound and sensible” approach to field evaluations.
Conversion of Native Lands
While we support the continued growth of the organic industry and expansion of organic acreage, we feel that it should not be at the cost of converting native ecosystems that have no cropping history. The NOSB has a track-record of working successfully to tackle difficult subjects related to organic production, and we have faith that the NOSB is equipped to find a viable solution in partnership with the organic community.
OEFFA looks forward to a discussion document on the important subject of eliminating the incentive to convert native ecosystems to organic production. We strongly encourage the Certification, Accreditation, and Compliance subcommittee to prioritize this topic, so that this discussion document will be presented to the public for comments in advance of the spring 2017 NOSB meeting.
Proposal: Fall 2016 Research Priorities
We agree with the NOSB statements that “Organic no-till preserves and builds soil organic matter, conserves soil moisture, reduces soil erosion, and requires less fuel and labor than standard organic row crop farming.”
We support research focusing on the benefits of organic no-till. This has been viewed by many as the gold standard for sustainable production. While we support this research, we also understand that continued focus and research on the multifunctional benefits of organic soil building and management systems must also be maintained. Research examining tillage and soil carbon sequestration has raised questions about the value of no-till for carbon sequestration, calling for more in-depth research and analysis . While there are other benefits to no-till and reduced tillage systems, additional research should focus not just on this practice, but as the NOSB has stated, with consideration of the whole farm system.
Fate of genetically engineered plant material in compost
We support the NOSB advocating for additional research on the fate of genetically engineered plant material in compost. This is an issue that been cited as a weakness in the organic standards. The NOSB cannot make informed recommendations without research indicating the ultimate breakdown of GE plant material in compost.
Integrity of breeding lines and ways to mitigate small amounts of genetic presence
There are many questions about the viability of public germplasm collections. Understanding inadvertent presence of GMO’s in those collections is critical. Maintaining pure breeding lines is a foundation for a strong organic agriculture system and should be prioritized.
Prevention of GMO contamination: Evaluation of effectiveness
We support a better understanding of how prevention strategies are working to maintain the integrity of organic crop production systems. Advocating best practices for both organic and conventional farmers is important for organic farmers who are required to take preventative measures, and for conventional farmers that chose to be good stewards and good neighbors. In those instances where organic producers cannot rely on the best practices of good neighbors, policy research is needed to develop a mechanism that will not just provide conventional growers incentives to take their own prevention measures, but will also focus on policy research that includes mandatory compensation mechanisms paid by patent holders to farmers that experience contamination.
Holistic, Systems-based measures for reducing and eliminating the use of synthetic methionine in poultry diets
Recently, in reviewing ingredient lists for livestock minerals, we noticed an increased use of metal methionine hydroxy analogue chelates, or, in common language, synthetic methionine stuck to copper, manganese, or zinc. We have allowed the use of such chelates under §205.603(d)(2), “Trace minerals, used for enrichment or fortification when FDA approved,” because these substances are AAFCO approved as sources of these minerals. Typically, however, synthetic methionine use would be regulated under §205.603(d)(1), which specifically addresses DL-Methionine. This work-around underscores the urgent need for natural methionine sources within an holistic, systems-based approach to poultry production.
Substantial research has already been conducted investigating isolated strategies for raising chickens organically and humanely without synthetic amino acid supplementation. Please see the summary presented in comments by our colleagues at the Center for Food Safety. In researching systems approaches to eliminating the need for DL-Methionine in organic poultry feeds, studies should assess multiple strategies that investigate the impacts of natural methionine feed sources, breed, and high-welfare management strategies simultaneously. If we don’t spend time investigating natural methionine sources in a systems-based approach, creative ways of including synthetic methionine in poultry diets will likely proliferate.
Proposal: Excluded Methods Terminology
We commend the NOSB and ad hoc group members for their efforts in developing the draft Excluded Methods definitions. We strongly support adoption of the Excluded Methods terminology and the incorporation of a Classical/Traditional plant breeding definition to provide clarity and a strong basis for decision-making. We also support the inclusion of multiple definitions to ensure that the guidance is as comprehensive as possible.
The Principles and Criteria section provides a strong foundation consistent with the process-based system of organic agriculture. This section clearly explains how techniques are to be evaluated in determining whether they should be permitted for use in organic agriculture. We agree with this section as proposed.
We also support the Terminology Chart which shows which techniques, defined in Appendix A, are excluded from or allowed in organic production, and the criteria that were used to make that determination. Additionally, we concur with the comments submitted by the Center for Food Safety this fall, that specify four additional terms in the Discussion Document’s Terminology Chart — transposons, cisgenesis, intragenesis and agro-infiltration — should be considered excluded methods.
We urge the NOSB to add these terms to the proposal’s Terminology Chart before approving the proposal.
In sum, we strongly urge the adoption of this proposal, with the inclusion of the four technologies cited above. We hope it will serve as guidance while supporting a long-term proposal to move through the regulatory process with the new administration.
Discussion Document: Excluded Methods Terminology
We appreciate the opportunity to comment on the discussion document which addresses areas for additional work around Excluded Methods. We will comment specifically on:
- Additional criteria for evaluating technologies which need to be considered
- How to detect those technologies that are excluded but may not provide detectable genetically engineered DNA when tested
We put forth the following suggestions for dealing with these difficult questions:
We support the NOSB including the research institute of organic agriculture from Switzerland’s recommendation on Excluded methods stating that: A variety must be usable for further crop improvement and seed propagation. This means that the breeders’ exemption and the farmers’ right are legally granted and patenting is refrained from, and that the crossing ability is not restricted by technical means.
Detection and testing
The NOP should begin gathering data on the presence of GMO materials in seeds and crops. We ask that the NOSB recommend a national pilot study with proper sampling methodology. ACA members could conduct a percentage of their required sampling for GE presence and voluntarily report anonymous data to the NOP. An analysis and report of those findings could help the NOSB in future discussions about the presence of excluded methods and any threshold establishment.
New methods of biotechnology, for which testing methods are costly or non-existent, present particular difficulties. Given the current testing limitations, we recommend:
- An affidavit system for ACAs to use for varieties identified as being derived from these new excluded methods. This is a system with which ACAs, producers, and seed dealers are familiar. While it has limitations, it is, at present, the most suitable alternative.
- A national reporting system for genetically manipulated crop and animal material. If statutory authority is required for the establishment of such a system, we urge you to request that support from the Secretary. As GE technology rapidly evolves and outpaces the U.S. regulatory structure, measures must be put in place to allow for protection of the organic industry.
In summary, OEFFA supports the following suggestions for additional criteria, detection, and testing:
- Ensure crop varieties are usable for further crop improvement and propagation;
- Consider a national pilot study for GE presence in seeds;
- Of the options presented, the affidavit system for ACAs to use for varieties derived from excluded methods should be explored further; and
- Consider a national reporting system for genetically manipulated crop and animal material.
Report to the USDA Secretary on progress to prevent GMO incursion into organic
We appreciate the ongoing work of the NOSB on GE contamination and we support the action of the NOSB to update the Secretary of Agriculture regarding its progress in preventing GMO incursion into organic production. We are thankful that those efforts start with seed by securing research funding and data collection for testing of organic and non-GMO seed, as well as emphasizing the need for more data. Now the data needs must broaden beyond avenues of contamination to include the comprehensive costs of contamination prevention and product rejection, as well as an assessment of the barriers to reporting farm contamination.
While USDA and AC21 continue to focus on coexistence, organic, non-GE, and even GE farmers have experienced the failure of this strategy as is evidenced by the recent and unauthorized use of Dicamba. Now is the time to expedite the issue of holding GE technology developers responsible for trespass. The NOSB has a significant window of opportunity to emphasize the importance of USDA leadership in this area.
The body of work that has been completed by the NOSB materials/GMO subcommittee on GE contamination issues is substantial. We believe that the proposed letter is a fair representation of NOSB activities. We request your leadership in developing mandatory policies around shared responsibility. OEFFA views it as important that the cost of avoiding GMO contamination of organic farms and products be borne by those who profit most from the use of GMOs-the patent holders for GMO seeds. We ask NOSB to prioritize the development of policies around shared responsibility in your report to the Secretary. Prevention and contamination costs should be borne by GE patent holders.
Calcium Chloride is a 2018 sunset review material listed at §205.602(c) with the annotation “brine process is natural and prohibited for use except as a foliar spray to treat a physiological disorder associated with calcium uptake.”
In addition to the twenty registered OMRI products and the ten WSDA products noted in the NOSB materials, OEFFA has seven products on our Approved Products List containing calcium chloride.
While we support the re-listing of this material, and appreciate the spirit of the listing, we find the annotation difficult to understand and explain to producers. The example we use with producers is often blossom end rot on tomatoes. In a situation where a tomato crop shows early signs of or first fruits with blossom end rot, the foliar application of calcium can help prevent the development of blossom end rot on developing fruit. We would allow the use of calcium chloride in this circumstance.
We request the continued listing of calcium chloride, clarification about the interpretation of the calcium chloride annotation, and that NOSB consider re-wording the annotation for better clarity and broader understanding by producers.
Discussion document: Strengthen and clarify the requirements for use of organic seed (NOP 5029)
We support many of the points in the Organic Seed Alliance’s comments. In particular, we support the concept of continuous improvement with regard to organic seed sourcing and use, however, we have identified some additional issues regarding organic seed for further discussion.
- Uncertified seed dealers– Seed dealers that are not breaking packages, because they are not required to be certified organic, are held one step away from accountability with regard to completing and documenting seed searches on behalf of the producer. While producers often request and are willing to pay for organic seed, they are often shipped untreated, non-GMO varieties. Frequently, seed searches, if performed by the dealer, are not documented, and producers are issued noncompliances, despite their intention and willingness to pay for and use organic seed. In this way, we may be penalizing the wrong actor, as we have no formal method of feedback for an uncertified seed dealer.
- Regional variations in organic seed availability– The Organic Seed Alliance has worked hard to collect and summarize data regarding organic seed use and availability. It has noted that the largest farms use less organic seed (by percentage of seed used) than smaller farms. As previously mentioned, many organic producers are willing to purchase organic seed, but such seed is much easier to obtain in some regions than others. Quantity of seed may also impact this equation, as smaller volumes of organic seeds may be easier to obtain, or less costly to ship, than larger volumes. Organic producers in regions where organic is not prominent already face significant challenges. They may need to maintain more buffers, clean equipment more frequently, and cannot benefit in the same way as high-density organic regional producers can in terms of group orders, work sharing, and mentorship. In moving forward with stronger requirements for organic seed, we want to be sure not to further disadvantage farmers who are acting, in some cases, as regional organic pioneers.
- Seed search documentation– Related to the two, aforementioned topics is the idea of requiring organic producers to document a search for five, rather than three sources of organic seed per crop before purchasing an untreated, non-GMO variety. OEFFA is not convinced that this additional burden, placed on the producer, will affect the desired outcome of increased use of organic seed. In our minds, different tools, rather than bigger versions of the same tools are needed to meet the organic seed requirement. We support the concept of continuous improvement, and we support an industry-wide effort to move toward more organic seed use, balancing that effort among requirements for producers, handlers, variety developers, seed producers, and seed dealers.
OEFFA supports many of the Organic Seed Alliance’s recommendations, and asks that these additional considerations foster further dialogue on the topic so that undue burdens are not placed on organic producers.
Proposal: Aluminum Sulfate
OEFFA supports the Crop Subcommittee’s preliminary vote NOT to add aluminum sulfate to the National List at §205.601.
Proposals: Aluminum Sulfate, Sodium bisulfate, Acid-activated bentonite
OEFFA supports the Livestock Subcommittee’s preliminary vote NOT to add the three proposed materials, aluminum sulfate, sodium bisulfate, and acid-activated bentonite to the National List at §205.603. We do not view these synthetic substances as compatible with a system of organic production.
Agriculture Impact Mitigation Plans to Address Fracking and Related Activities
For some time now, producers have faced oil and gas industry activities on organic farms. These activities range from seismic testing (the releasing of charges under the earth to determine if oil or gas is present for removal), to traditional gas and oil wells, to hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of hard to access fossil fuels, and pipelines for transportation of these the fossil fuels. We also know that the water used in hydraulic fracturing (produced water) is, in some cases, being applied as irrigation water on certified organic land. We recognize this as a tough and complicated issue, which is precisely why we are soliciting your help to address it.
The issue of oil and gas extraction on or in close proximity to organic farms is complex and multifaceted and as such, would require effort over a long-term. We ask the NOSB to begin work on this topic. While farmers and certifiers are being told this topic is outside of NOSB jurisdiction, organic farmers are regularly being impacted by these activities. The farmers look to organic educators and certifiers for guidance or for standards to support them, and educators and certifiers are left similarly under-equipped to address these issues, often working in isolation with little guidance. The lack of discussion of this topic is not preventing its impacts on organic farms. OEFFA and other certification agencies are already dealing with these issues in the absence of guidance, so your leadership on this topic cannot come soon enough. There must be consistency under the National Organic Program in both the US and abroad regarding the impacts of oil and gas infrastructure construction (wells, pads, and pipelines), fracking water, and related impacts on organic land.
One tool currently in use to address the aforementioned activities on organic farms is an Agricultural Impact Mitigation Plan. Such a plan was developed and employed in the well-known decision in favor of Gardens of Eagen in Minnesota, which defeated a Koch Industries pipeline that threatened to traverse the organic farm via eminent domain. The farmer, author, and policy advocate Atina Diffley has shared and spoken about the plan widely. OEFFA has edited this Agricultural Impact Mitigation Plan to incorporate livestock concerns, specifically those related to dairy operations.
Please review the attached Agricultural Impact Mitigation Plan and consider its ability to be tailored to the contextual situation of the farm, its surroundings, its organic system plan, and the day-to-day needs of the operation. Imagine how it might be used to protect organic farms from the impacts of oil and gas industry exploration, extraction, transport, and waste disposal.
In the absence of sufficient federal regulatory oversight, the organic industry has of necessity taken it upon itself to attempt to shield organic farmers from the negative impacts of energy extraction. For example, OEFFA, working directly with farmers impacted by the oil and gas industry, has advocated for the use of the agricultural impact mitigation plan to protect them with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and companies involved in pipeline projects in Ohio. FERC has adopted language explicitly stating that the company should “…file with the Secretary, for review and written approval of the Director of OEP, an impact avoidance, minimization, or mitigation plan for the organic farm….”, additionally the company “…should include documentation that the plan was developed in consultation with the landowner.”, “…coordinate with the landowner to develop site-specific mitigation measures…” as well as “mitigate and compensate for potential impacts on these lands.”
We urge the NOSB add the topic of Agriculture Impact Mitigation Plans with respect to oil and gas Industry activities on organic farms to its Compliance, Accreditation, and Certification Subcommittee and Crop Subcommittee work plan, as applicable. We ask you to consider the utility of Agriculture Impact Mitigation Plans in conjunction with the certification process to help protect organic producers’ operations, make clear to oil and gas industry representatives the requirements of organic systems and organic certification, and to provide guidance to producers and certifiers in thinking through and mitigating impacts of these activities on organic farms.
Additionally, we request that the NOSB share a draft Agricultural Impact Mitigation Plan with both the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA,) including a recommendation that organic farmers and oil and gas companies utilize such a plan, tailored to site-specific and operational needs, prior to engaging in oil and gas activities on organic farms.
Thank you for your consideration of these comments.
On behalf of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association and OEFFA Certification,
Carol Goland, Ph.D.
 Tillage and soil carbon sequestration-What do we really know? Baker,J., Ochser,T., Venterea, R. Griffis, T., Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 118 (2007) 1-5.
 PLOS One: Soil Water Holding Capacity Mitigates Downside Risk and Volatility in US Rainfed Maize: Time to Invest in Soil Organic Matter? A. Williams, M. Hunter, M. Kammerer, D. Kane, N. Jordan, D. Mortensen, R. Smith, S. Snapp and A. Davis., August 25th, 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.137/journal.pone.0160974