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After 25 years they’re still getting it wrong

A news story has been circulating lately that celebrates the 25th anniversary of enactment of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA), aka the organic law. Here’s one that came up in my news feed today: “Celebrating 25 years of organic standards” in a publication called Farm and Dairy, by Catie Noyes (

The author quotes an Ohio farmer who was an early organic adopter, as well as Kathleen Merrigan, who developed the legislation as a staffer for Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT). All well and good—I’m happy to see the Ohio Ecological Food & Farming Association (OEFFA) and others celebrating the passage of the OFPA. In October I attended the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting here in Stowe, VT and was delighted to help celebrate this milestone with so many good friends and colleagues.

BUT…this and other slightly different versions of this story published recently also include some very inaccurate depictions of the actual events that led to establishment of the National Organic Program, authorized under this legislation. Repeating these factual errors, which I wrote Organic Revolutionary in part to correct, does a disservice to the ongoing hard work needed to keep organic growing.

The biggest errors occur in the section headed “Developing Standards.” Here a policy advisor for the National Organic Coalition is quoted as ascribing the huge public outcry as a response to publication of the law itself, which is not the case. The massive public response (about 280,000 not 325,000 as indicated here) came in 1998, in response to the first Proposed Rule promulgated by USDA. The author likely didn’t understand the difference, which is a shame but not unusual.

However, she goes on to relate some ‘facts’ about that first draft regulation—that USDA proposed to permit the “Big Three” practices of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), irradiation, and sewage sludge to be used in organic production--which have entered the realm of ‘common knowledge’ but are just plain wrong. I was a principal author of that first draft regulation, and can authoritatively state the following:

  • The law itself (the OFPA) was silent on both GMOs and irradiation.

  • The first proposed regulation to implement the law, though originally written to prohibit both GMOs and irradiation, had those prohibitions deleted by the Office of Management & Budget before it could be published.

  • As written, the first proposal would not have permitted the use of 'biosolids,' as sewage sludge is identified by EPA. However, it was not explicitly prohibited, but only identified as a synthetic product that would have to be included on the National List to be allowed, which it wasn't.

  • The proposed rule as published would neither have prohibited nor allowed either GMOs or irradiation. Instead, we requested public comment as to whether and why they should be prohibited. We got what we asked for, in spades.

  • At the request of EPA, we also asked for public comment about the permissibility of biosolids for organic production, despite the fact that this material would not have been permitted as written.

The article also incorrectly states that the final rule was published in 2002. It was actually published in 2000, but required another two years before it could be fully implemented.

Since 1998, the USDA has consistently been characterized as having attempted to allow "the Big Three" to be used by organic producers, which is considered prima facia evidence that the NOP is up to no good and eager to water down the standards. It's time to put that story to rest. This is a central part of my saga, as related in Organic Revolutionary: A Memoir of the Movement for Real Food, Planetary Healing, & Human Liberation.

Stay tuned – Publication is planned for late January 2016!


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