The House of Representatives’ Freedom Caucus lists the USDA National Organic Program as one that should be a high priority for reform under President-elect Donald Trump. We agree.

The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), enacted in the 1990 Farm Bill, established the National Organic Program (NOP) to set uniform national standards for the production, handling and processing of foods and agricultural products labeled as “USDA Organic.” It also created the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a federal advisory board comprised of 15 volunteers appointed by the Agriculture Secretary for five-year terms, to consider and make recommendations regarding organic issues.

USDA’s organic standards describe how farmers are to grow crops and raise livestock, including which inputs and materials are approved for use in products certified as organic. “Organic” is, by definition, a marketing term. It is a philosophy and personal preference akin to being a vegetarian or a vegan, buying locally grown or preferring “free range.” Importantly, the criteria for organic foods do not take into consideration human nutrition, food security or water/soil conservation, among other things.

When the NOP was established in 1990, organic foods were a very minor part of the food supply. Today, however, the organic industry has grown to become approximately 5 percent of food spending, and the NOP is relied upon by millions of Americans. According to a new report, organic farming has reached 4.1 million acres in 2016, which is a new record, and an 11 percent increase as compared to 2014. While organic has clearly become a significant market, the USDA organic program, as laid out in the statute and implementing regulations, has not kept pace and should updated.

At the release of the final national organic standards, then-Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman stated, “Let me be clear about one thing: [the organic label] is not a statement about food safety, nor is organic a value judgment about nutrition or quality.” To that end, the Mayo Clinic is just one of many reputable groups to have studied the issue, and confirmed that organic foods are, in fact, no more nutritious than conventional foods.

Today’s consumer reads more into the organic label than is warranted. While the USDA organic program, as laid out in the statute and implementing regulations, does not consider whether or not the products are healthier and safer, a recent study conducted by Academics Review concluded those are in fact the primary reasons consumers purchase organic foods. Millions of consumers are relying upon the ‘USDA Organic’ seal as a means for identifying foods that are (from their perspective) safer, more nutritious and/or of higher quality.

Case in point, for milk to be organic, among other things, cows must remain in the pasture for at least 120 days per year. Consumers sure can choose to pay a premium to keep cows in the pasture, but they should also understand it does not improve the nutritional quality of the milk.

In short, what is now a subjective concept needs to become more objective, and based on sound science. Therefore, a number of reforms seem to be in order:

  • All regulatory decisions must be based on sound science, as opposed to personal or consumer preference. Decisions must be made on objective information, and cannot be arbitrary.
  • The marketing of USDA organic foods must be consistent with the criteria for organic foods and the USDA should have authority to prevent false and misleading advertising, similar to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission.
  • The Organic Program should require a water reduction plan in order to be more sustainable. Israel, for example, makes extensive use of drip irrigation for all of agriculture and it is powered by solar energy. NOP should put a premium on water reduction to be sustainable. 
  • The cost and complexities associated with organic certification process should be reviewed so it is not a barrier to entry.
  • The criteria for serving on the NOSB should be reviewed and strengthened.
  • The criteria for organic designation should be limited to farming practices, and never duplicate the efforts of other regulatory bodies. In particular, the NOSB should leave the issue of food ingredient safety to the FDA.
  • Finally, the USDA Agriculture Marketing Service will need to establish the Bioengineered Food Disclosure Program while also updating the National Organic Program….a formidable task.

Look what happened recently with carrageenan, a food ingredient derived from naturally occurring red seaweed, which has long been considered one of “nature’s perfect stabilizers.” Carrageenan is certified as kosher, halal, gluten-free, and is commonly used in vegetarian diets and lifestyles. There is a scientific consensus regarding its safety, as confirmed by the World Health Organization, FDA and regulatory bodies in Europe, Japan, Brazil…among others. Moreover, carrageenan has been approved as a non-synthetic allowed in organic foods for over a decade now.

However, the NOSB voted at its last meeting in October to recommend that USDA remove the ingredient from the list of substances that are approved for organic foods. The NOSB members made this recommendation, while recognizing that carrageenan is safe, based on their perception of “consumer demand.”

USDA must now decide whether or not to accept the NOSB recommendation.  The Department faces a difficult decision in which they must choose between sound science and its own advisory body. This Hobson’s choice has been created by a deficient statute, deficient regulations and an advisory committee composed of individuals without sufficient scientific training and discipline.

And looking ahead this year, in 2017, there is a new controversy in the organic industry over hydroponics, the technique of growing plants without soil. The debate gets at the very heart of what it means to be “organic,” and may change the organic foods available to grocery store shoppers. The NOSB is scheduled to take up the issue and make its recommendation to USDA. It is unclear what will be the basis of their decision.

Proven evidence gleaned from rigorous scientific inquiry must remain the key factor in the regulatory review and decision-making process for all programs, including the USDA Organic Program. That is especially true when it comes to judgments affecting the health and well-being of Americans, and something as essential as the quality and safety of our food supply.

As part of drafting a new Farm Bill in the 115th Congress, the House and Senate Agriculture Committees should take note of the recommendation of the Freedom Caucus, and thoroughly review the National Organic Program.

About the Authors: Marshall Matz and Peter Matz are at OFW Law in Washington, D.C. mamtz@ofwlaw.com; pmatz@ofwlaw.com 

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