National Organic Standards

Anne Wolfley

In mid-June, I interviewed Tony Kleese about the recent news regarding the National Organic Standards and Certification Act. Tony is the coordinator for the Organic Trade Association's Organic Certifier's Council. He keeps American certifiers working together in developing policy and consensus on national and international certification issues. On the local level, he is the administrator for the Sustainable Farming Program at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro, which trains people on how to farm using sustainable methods, including organic agriculture.

With more people choosing to eat organic produce, the USDA's (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture) standardization efforts were born out of a need to define exactly what "organic" means. Before World War II, there were no chemical pesticides or fertilizers. In the 1950s and 1960s, "organic farming went into hiding" and chemical pesticides and fertilizers became widely used. It wasn't until the late '60s and early '70s, in the wake of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and the "Back to the Land" movement, that people began to speak out against chemical farming. By the late 1980s, there were multiple (independent) grass roots organic certification organizations, but there was little communication, resulting in a great disparity of standards throughout the country.

In 1990, Congressman Patrick Leahy of Vermont introduced the Organic Foods Production Act to establish a uniform standard, and it was passed into law as part of the 1990 Farm Bill. The Act established the National Organic Standards Board, which surveyed organic farming experts around the country and made recommendations to the Secretary of Agriculture in late 1996. The USDA proposed a rule this past December and allowed for public comment through the end of April. However, this rule was very different from what the organics community had recommended, and there was an incredible uproar.

The document contained over 60 flaws (including allowing sewage sludge, genetically-engineered organisms, and irradiated food to be considered organic) and it went against two basic tenets of the organic approach, enhancing biodiversity and promoting ecological harmony and health. There have been over 225,000 comments so far, and a total of 250,000 are expected. With a new program manager who truly represents the organic experts, Keith Jones, the USDA needs to sort through the comments and rewrite the rules.

Tony took part in a national meeting of certifiers in April, during the comment period. They decided to create an independent process of certification to work with the USDA called the Independent Accreditation Steering Committee, and Tony was asked to coordinate it. They are being asked to present a proposal by September to provide a uniform standard for organics, an accreditation of certifiers, and an oversight/enforcement mechanism (which could be the USDA's role). A draft proposal was out in the first week of June and is now being reviewed.

The future is still uncertain. Organic certification could be independent, done through the USDA, or through some hybrid scheme. Tony hopes that the USDA will encourage a public-private partnership. Ideally, they would allow the organics industry to write the rules, while aiding in the review and subsequent enforcement. For more information, Tony invites you to contact him at P.O. Box 17293, Chapel Hill 27516, 968-4300, or by email at tkleese@aol.com.