Former OFRF Board Chair Joins NOSB

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The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), an advisory group responsible for considering issues and making recommendations to USDA on topics including the production, handling, and processing of organic products, held its biannual meeting in mid November in St. Louis. These meetings provide the opportunity for organic stakeholders to provide input on proposed changes and recommendations. After receiving recommendations from the NOSB, the USDA will publish its final rules on the issues.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack appointed five new members to the Board who will begin serving their five-year terms on Jan. 24, 2017. We are very excited that Steve Ela, an OFRF board member from 2001-2011 and previous OFRF board Chairman, has been appointed to be a member of the NOSB.  Joining Steve will be Asa Bradman, a California environmental health scientist; Sue Baird, an organic consultant in Missouri; David Mortensen, a plant ecology and weed management professor at Penn State, and Joelle Mosso, a product line manager for Olam International in Fresno, CA.

Organic production is constantly evolving based on research, education, and increased understanding of our complex agricultural and production systems. It is the job of the NOSB to review inputs, amendments, innovative techniques, and processes that are impacting organic products. These meetings can have a significant impact on organic farming and manufacturing practices for many years.

One of the most hotly debated topics at the NOSB meeting included allowable inputs for certified organic production. Among other duties, the NOSB reviews the substances on the National List every five years to ensure they conform to specific criteria. In addition to reviewing substances currently allowed in organic agriculture, the NOSB also considers petitions to add or delete a particular substance. 

This year, one input in particular, carrageenan, was a hot topic. It is an FDA-approved food additive made from red seaweed, which is used as a thicker, stabilizer, and emulsifier. The debate over carrageenan has been ongoing for many years. Concerns have been raised about the risk of inflammation and possibly colon cancer in humans and animals from ingesting carrageenan in food products. However, there has been a lack of conclusive scientific consensus about the human health impacts of consuming carrageenan.

At the NOSB meeting, the Board voted 10-3, with one abstention, to remove carrageenan from the list of substances approved for use in USDA certified organic foods. Following the submission of these recommendations, it is up to the USDA to issue a proposed rule change for notice and comment as the next step in the removal process. In addition to recommending the removal of carrageenan, the NOSB also rejected petitions to approve 1-Methylcyclopropene (1-MCP), which is used on harvested apples to slow ripening, and the use of soy wax in organic mushroom production. 

Another hotly debated topic was bioponics, which combines the production methods of hydroponics and aquaponics to grow produce without using soil. Currently, some organic certifiers have been allowing certain hydroponic/aquaponics farms that meet all existing organic standards to carry the USDA organic label. However, debate continues over the inclusion of bioponics in organic production.

The essential discussion is around agriculture and soil. There has been ongoing debate over whether food grown in an agricultural system that doesn’t rely on soil qualifies under the National Organic Program.  The Organic Foods Production Act requires that “an organic plan shall contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility, primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil through proper tillage, crop rotation, and manuring”.  

Beyond producing safe and healthy food, organic agriculture is committed to producing important environmental benefits, and many of these environmental benefits are directly related to soil management and conservation.  However, there are a number of scientists, researchers, and industry experts that support bioponic farms as ideal for growing, on the basis that the farms can make efficient use of water and nutrient inputs. Both sides of the debate have strong arguments and emphasize taking care of the earth as the foundation of organic agriculture.

The NOSB voted 10-4 to send the controversial issue back to a subcommittee for more discussion and clarification of how such production processes are defined. For now, the food grown using hydroponic methods may continue to be certified organic as long as all the established criteria for organic production are being met.

OFRF is excited to be a part of the ever growing and changing nature of organic agriculture. We will continue to work with the NOSB to ensure that organic research supports the continually evolving regulatory environment for organic farming and production.