Big Ag Execs Placed on USDA Organic Board Leads to Lawsuit

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USDA Organic Farms All Cracked Up?

The Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group, has filed a lawsuit against the USDA for the appointment of two non-farmers on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a 15-member advisory board for the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). Four of these slots are earmarked by Congress for organic farmers, and according to the Cornucopia lawsuit, two are currently filled by full-time agribusiness executives.

The NOSB is tasked with advising the USDA on the implementation of the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act, determining which synthetic materials are appropriate for use in USDA organic food.

"The American people have a right to trust that food certified as organic is free of inappropriate or inadequately reviewed synthetic substances that do not comport with the OFPA," the complaint states. "USDA has failed this responsibility and has shirked its legal obligations by appointing individuals to the NOSB that violate the OFPA's board composition requirements."

Cornucopia's senior farm policy analyst, Mark A. Kastel, notes that the appointment of agrobusiness executives goes against the very foundation of the NOSB. “The NOSB was designed by Congress to placate the concerns of the organic community, to act as a buffer between organic industry regulation and the power of corporate agribusiness lobbyists,” he says. “Stripping the board of the ability to set its own work plans and agenda shuts out the public that has historically petitioned for the attention of the NOSB to focus on industry-wide problems.”

Via a scoreboard, Cornucopia has kept track of voting trends between agribusiness and farmer voters, noting real discrepancies. The two people in seats reserved for farmers, Ashley Swaffar, a corporate compliance officer at Arkansas Egg Company (now a staff member of another agribusiness, Vital Farms), and Carmela Beck, a grower liaison for Driscoll’s, had scores of 31 percent and 10 percent respectively, as compared to 92 percent for outgoing NOSB member Colehour Bondera, a legitimate certified organic farmer.

The growth of the organic industry has recently seen more and more influence by major agribusinesses, many of which have purchased leading national organic brands.

“This type of appointment is part of a pattern of actions taken by the USDA to make the NOSB and the National Organic Program friendlier to the needs of big business interests,” says Will Fantle, Cornucopia’s Codirector.

The Cornucopia Institute has requested in the past that the USDA make this process more transparent, revealing the names of applicants prior to making appointments. “Instead, they have chosen to conduct this process in secret,” Fantle says. “These apparently illegal appointments might not have occurred had the USDA elected to conduct a more transparent process.”

The lawsuit was filed by the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University on behalf of Cornucopia. Two certified organic farmers who had applied for NOSB appointments and were passed over joined Cornucopia in the suit.

“I have applied three times over the years for one of the four seats reserved by Congress for organic farmers on the NOSB,” says Dominic Marchese, a USDA organic grass-based beef farmer and one of the farmer-plaintiffs on the lawsuit. “I am angry at how anyone at the USDA thinks that an agribusiness executive can represent my decades of experience working with the land and animals.”

Marchese last applied for the NOSB in 2011, the year that Beck was appointed to a farmer seat.

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Organic farm image via Shutterstock

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