Organic rule dispute leads to arrest

Published online: May 20, 2014
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An organic advocate recently found herself in handcuffs due to a dispute over synthetic substances used in organic farming.

The incident occurred during an April 29 meeting of the National Organic Standards Board, which advises the USDA on organic policy.

Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the Organic Consumers Association, disrupted the meeting to protest a change in the process for removing synthetic substances from the list of approved organic materials.

Several law enforcement officers arrested Baden-Mayer, who was charged with criminal trespass and released on a $1,000 bond.

“It’s a terrible change to the process,” Baden-Mayer later told Capital Press.

Previously, the use of certain synthetic substances would automatically “sunset” after five years unless two-thirds of the NOSB agreed to retain the materials in organic production.

Last September, the USDA announced that two-thirds of board would have to vote to remove the synthetic substance, otherwise the material would stay on the list.

In effect, a synthetic material can now remain in organic production even if nine of the board’s 15 members vote to remove it.

Synthetic substances will effectively be much harder to eliminate, especially since the NOSB is “stacked” with representatives of large food manufacturers, Baden-Mayer said.

“There really is no hope of ever getting them out of organics,” she said. “This is about the future of organic.”

The change is meant to streamline the NOSB’s review of synthetic materials, said Sam Jones-Ellard, public affairs specialist with USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

By requiring an affirmative vote to remove a substance, the sunset review is now in line with the process for adding new synthetic materials to the list, he said.

“The two processes are aligned and consistent,” Jones-Ellard said.

Organic farmers invest time and money to incorporate certain substances in their production system, so removing a substance should be as difficult as adding it to the list, according to a USDA fact sheet explaining the change.

Synthetic materials will continue to undergo review every five years as required by federal statute, and the new process provides more opportunity for public comment, Jones-Ellard said.

The Cornucopia Institute, an organic industry watchdog group, believes the policy change contradicts the intent of the Organic Foods Production Act, which establishes a system for regulating organics, said Mark Kastel, co-founder of the group.

“It’s a double cross to undermine the authority of this board that Congress created,” said Kastel.

The sunset process was meant to create consensus by requiring two-thirds of NOSB to support the continued use of a synthetic substance, he said.

“This is purposely to make it hard to do something that wasn’t comfortable for all segments of the organic industry,” he said.

The idea was to make way for synthetic materials to be replaced by organic alternatives as they became available, Kastel said.

For example, for many years non-organic hops were permitted for use in organically-labeled beer, said Baden-Mayer.

In 2010, the NOSB allowed conventional hops to sunset from the list effective in 2013 at the urging of organic hop growers.

“You wanted to open markets for organic producers,” said Baden-Mayer.

The dispute relates to other controversies in organic production, like access to pasture for poultry, she said.

Poultry with minimal outdoor access aren’t able to forage for insects and other natural food sources, which requires their feed to be supplemented with synthetic methionine, she said.

Retaining methionine would allow larger producers to continue providing limited outdoor access, Baden-Mayer said.

“The real purpose of this is to have a low-cost methionine supplement for birds that never get to see the light of day,” she said.