Organics in the News

Reason to hope? New USDA head expresses support for organics
In response to questions from Senator Patrick Leahy, Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns promises to uphold and strengthen implementation of the Organic Foods Production Act

By Jim Riddle

January 24, 2005: During the U.S. Senate confirmation hearing of Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns for Secretary of Agriculture, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont posed a series of written questions concerning organic agriculture.

Secretary Johanns’ answers might surprise you!

Sen. Leahy asked lengthy, informative questions. I have included most of Sen. Leahy’s questions and Sec. Johanns’ responses below.

Sen. Leahy: With an annual rate of growth of 20 percent per year in organic retail sales, organic agriculture is clearly a bright spot in our agricultural economy. Yet the strength of the organic market is highly dependent on consumer confidence in the integrity of the USDA organic label. Therefore, it is critical that USDA take its role as the administrator of the National Organic Program seriously. This commitment needs to start at the top, with the Secretary of Agriculture, as well as with those who administer the organic programs directly. Please describe your commitment to organic agriculture, and provide your views on the role of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in preserving the integrity of the USDA organic label.

Sec. Johanns: I believe USDA should fully support organic agriculture as an excellent marketing opportunity for producers to succeed in today’s competitive global market. Support for organic agriculture should include a full commitment to the integrity of the USDA organic label.

Sen. Leahy: In April of 2004, USDA’s National Organic Program issued a series of controversial “guidance” and “directive” documents regarding interpretations of the Organic Foods Production Act and its implementing rule. These documents caused a great deal of consternation to me and within the organic community, because they threatened to undermine the integrity of the USDA organic label in several key areas. As a result of widespread public concern about these documents and the lack of consultation with the oversight Committees or the organic community prior to their issuance, Secretary Veneman announced that these documents would be rescinded. While this decision by Secretary Veneman was much applauded by me and by the organic community, no action was taken by USDA to clarify the status of these documents with the organic certifiers in the field. The documents simply vanished from the National Organic Program website, but the uncertainty created by the documents with regard to certain organic standards has remained. At the October meeting of the National Organic Standards Board, USDA staff concurred with the Board’s recommendations for clarifying the troublesome documents, and committed to posting those clarifications on the National Organic Program website within two weeks. However, several months later, those clarifications have still not been made. Will you provide your commitment to make it a priority to proceed with the clarifications of these April 2004 organic standards documents, in keeping with the commitments made by the AMS Deputy Administrator for Transportation and Materials during the October meeting of the National Organic Standards Board? And if so, I would appreciate it if you could provide me with a commitment about when those clarifications will be made, given that they have already been significantly delayed.

Sec. Johanns: I will make it a priority to work with the Agency to assure that clarifications are issued and published on the National Organic website for all interested parties.

Sen. Leahy: The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 created the National Organic Standards Board “to assist in the development of standards for substances to be used in organic production and to advise the Secretary on any other aspects of the implementation” of the Act. In recognition of the significant responsibilities of the Board, Congress has repeatedly directed USDA to hire an Executive Director for the Board and provided increased funds to the National Organic Program for that purpose. Yet no formal action has been taken to fill this position. Please comment on the status of the NOSB Executive Director position. Will you provide your commitment that the position will be announced at a GS 12-14, or higher? If there are budget constraints in meeting this requirement, please specify the additional budget needs in this regard.

Sec. Johanns: It is my understanding that USDA has received input from the National Organic Standards Board and is currently developing a position description for an Executive Director. The Executive Director position will be established at a grade level consistent with its responsibilities. Adequate funds are available to support this position.

Sen. Leahy: In the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA), Congress directed the USDA to create a Peer Review Panel to assist the Secretary in evaluating and approving organic certifier applications for accreditation. Congress’ intent for the creation of the Peer Review Panel has been reiterated in both the Fiscal Year 2004 and 2005 Agricultural Appropriations processes. Because the role of the organic certifying agents is so critical to assuring the integrity of the USDA organic label, it is crucial that USDA accredit only those certifiers who are fully qualified and are capable of assuring adherence to the strict standards that consumers expect. In OFPA, Congress envisioned the Peer Review Panel to be comprised of “not less than three persons who have expertise in organic farming and handling methods” to assist the Secretary in evaluation of applications of certifying agents seeking accreditation, to ensure that the accreditation process is consistent with existing norms and the intent of the law. To date, the USDA has failed to create such a panel. Can I have your commitment that you will move forward as expeditiously as possible in the creation of the Peer Review Panel?

Sec. Johanns: Yes, I will work with the Agency to consult with the National Organic Standards Board to formalize a peer review panel on an on-going basis.

Sen. Leahy: USDA organic standards for livestock and poultry production require access to the outdoors and to pasture. Consumers of organic livestock products rightfully assume and expect that livestock and poultry products that carry the USDA organic label come from animals that been provided with such outdoor access. Will you comment on your commitment to uphold the outdoor access and pasture requirements of the USDA organic standards for livestock and poultry?

Sec. Johanns: I believe USDA should continue its commitment to upholding the regulations describing the requirements for access to the outdoors and pasture.

Sen. Leahy: In creating the National Organic Standards Board, Congress intended the Board to be a citizen panel of experts representing a broad array of stakeholders from the organic community. Currently, there are five vacancies on the Board awaiting replacement by the Secretary. As you seek to fill these crucial positions, will you commit to filling them with candidates with demonstrated organic experience, representing a broad array of stakeholders, including those representing the interests of small-and-medium-scaled organic producers and processors?

Sec. Johanns: I believe USDA should continue reaching out to every organic producer, processor, and certifying agent in the United States in order to obtain a diverse pool of qualified candidates for filling the five vacancies on the National Organic Standards Board. Further, I believe that the candidates submitted for selection should represent a broad spectrum of interests within the U.S. organic community.

Sen. Leahy: In addition, if confirmed do you support Department efforts to coordinate organic production and handling data collection and analysis between various agencies, such as NASS, ERS, CSREES, ARS, and NOP? Will you work to increase US exports of organic products by working with the International Trade Commission to facilitate the creation of voluntary export codes? Will you support a budget that includes funding the inexpensive, unfunded authorizations for organic in the 2002 Farm Bill?

Sec. Johanns: I will fully support efforts to coordinate organic production and handling data collection and analysis among all USDA agencies, and will work to promote U.S. organic products, including exports.

Jim Riddle serves as chair of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board and organic policy advisor for NewFarm.org. He was the founding chair of the Independent Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA).