NOFA-VT & VOF Submit Fall NOSB Comments

Below are public comments made to the National Organic Standards Board on October 26, 2016 by Nicole Dehne, Certification Director of Vermont Organic Farmers LLC and Madison Monty, Policy Advisor, NOFA-VT.

Please click a topic below to read that portion of our comments. 

Certification and Accreditation Subcommittee

Personnel Performance Evaluations of Inspectors

Conducting on-site evaluations of organic inspectors is an important step to achieve consistency and to ensure that inspectors are accurately evaluating compliance with the organic regulations. We do not disagree with the NOP’s intent in mandating this important tool. However, we feel a more reasonable approach to on-site evaluations of inspectors would mimic the NOP’s own requirement for the on-site evaluations of their NOP Auditors. We recommend allowing certifiers to have the same amount of flexibility afforded the NOP by requiring on-site evaluations to be conducted at least once every 3 years. This would allow certifiers to develop a schedule that would be more affordable, logistically feasible, and would allow some flexibility in the timing of our evaluations.

Crops Subcommittee


Organic production systems must promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity, as recognized by the creators of OFPA and clearly stated in the Organic Rule. NOFA-VT and VOF believe the maintenance of soil ecology and organic matter is the foundation of organic farming.  In this regard and others, hydroponic/bioponic systems do not meet the letter or spirit of OFPA and should not be allowed in organic production.  

The NOSB’s deliberation around hydroponic/bioponic/aquaponic systems holds historical significance and has substantial ramifications for the future of organic. For this reason, NOFA-VT and VOF urge the NOSB to bring the issue of hydroponics/aquaponics/bioponics to a vote at the fall 2016 meeting. Although there exists a continuum of methods used in greenhouse and container production, we believe the distinction between the two ends of this continuum –hydroponics/aquaponics/bioponics and in-ground farming (whether in the open or under cover) – is clear enough for the NOSB to bring this issue to a vote. We fully support the Crops Subcommittee’s separation of hydroponics/aquaponics/bioponics from other containerized methods for the purposes of NOSB deliberation. We also support the process of addressing the other containerized methods through a discussion document.

In contrast to the ecologically complex systems envisioned by the creators of OFPA, hydroponic systems reduce crop production to a simplified system of a nutrient feeding solution and an inert growing medium. By purposefully eliminating the ecological complexity used in soil-based systems, hydroponic systems represent the antithesis of organic and go against the definition of “organic production” set out in the Organic Rule. 

J. I. Rodale and his staff defined organic growing as "a system whereby a fertile soil is maintained by applying nature's own law of replenishing it – that is, by adding organic matter to preserve humus rather than using chemical fertilizers.”  Rodale’s definition was simplified to create a founding tenet of the organic movement: "Feed the soil, not the crop.”  Some would argue organic should be solely defined by the use of approved “natural” fertilizers, pesticides, and other inputs, and that in such a system, the growing medium becomes unimportant.  This perspective reflects and favors the approach of conventional agriculture, which is essentially “Feed the plant, not the soil.” By this logic, a tomato grown in coconut husks can be organic as long as it is only fed approved fertilizers and only sprayed with approved pesticides. By this same logic, a chicken can live all its life in a factory and still be considered organic as long as it is only fed organic grain and only treated with approved medicines. 

Certification of hydroponic production systems, as currently sanctioned by the NOP, fails to recognize the essential functions of complex soil ecosystems in organic production and the role of organic farmers as stewards of soil ecology. Furthermore, the current inconsistencies among certifiers in regard to certifying hydroponic systems diminish the value of the organic label and reflect poorly on the industry.   Hydroponic/bioponic systems have a place in food production, but that place is not within organic. 

Container & Greenhouse Production

We applaud the NOSB for their diligence in carefully working through the gaps and holes from the 2010 NOSB Recommendation. It is essential that any new recommendation for container growing be based in science. It is also essential that requirements for container growing are measurable and verifiable. With those goals in mind, we recommend creating a recommendation based on minimum soil volumes and depth as well as a maximum limit on the amount of nutrients that can be added post-planting. In addition we recommend establishing a minimum amount of compost or soil in growing media. To establish soil volume, allowed nutrients post-planting, and minimum compost or soil in growing media we recommend that the NOSB note the scientific rationale for their determination. 

For example, we support the NOSB’s use of the research of Dr. Martine Dorais of Laval University and the Agassiz Research and Development Centre for determining appropriate soil volume sufficient to provide plants nutrients without supplementation.  

In addition, it should be clear that these requirements are for plants grown to harvest in containers vs. starts or transplants.

Strengthening the Organic Seed Guidance

NOFA-VT and VOF strongly agree with the NOSB Discussion Document and feel that more specific guidance is needed to encourage the use of organic seed by producers.

We support additional language in the NOP Guidance that would require producers to show increased use of organic seed. Currently VOF evaluates the annual seed usage of all of our producers based on total varieties used. It is not a perfect system but it does allow us to evaluate whether seed usage increases annually.  However, having specific guidance from the NOP that requires this idea of continued improvement would give certifiers more teeth when enforcing this regulation. We strongly recommend that the NOP keep the evaluation method for annual improvement broad enough so that certifiers can determine what methods work best for individual producers. As stated in the NOSB document, evaluating total varieties purchased may work better in some instances vs. trying to determine the total amount of acreage planted to organic seed.

We also support the idea to establish organic seed usage as a specific Organic System Plan goal. We believe asking producers specifically what measures they are taking to increase their annual organic seed usage would push producers into increased usage. 

Creating a framework for evaluating when organic seed is commercially available (for example once 51% of broccoli varieties are organic-requiring the use of all organic broccoli seed) is an intriguing idea and should be further explored. What is problematic about this approach is that it would potentially prevent producers from accessing new varieties that are being developed that may include important disease or pest resistant traits. 

Finally, we agree that the NOP should proactively work to encourage organic seed companies to participate in Organic Seed Finder. Working towards one resource that producers and certifiers alike can use to access organic seed information would be a critical step towards assisting consistent application of the organic seed requirement.

Materials Subcommittee

Research Priorities

1. Biodegradable Biobased Mulch: The NOSB’s list of research priorities is a strong signal to the organic industry of issues deemed significant by the board. NOFA-VT and VOF appreciate the NOSB’s inclusion of Biobased Biodegradable Mulch to this list as Vermont producers continue to be very interested in using this product. Currently this product is on the National List and yet there are no commercial products that meet the requirement as described in the NOP’s Policy Memo 15-1 which requires that all of the polymer feedstocks are biobased. We encourage the NOSB to get answers to the questions posed in the Research Priorities Proposal as soon as possible in order to make a recommendation to the NOP that addresses the specific percentage of biobased components it must contain.

2. Organic No-Till: We suggest expanding the proposed research priority on Organic No-Till to include research on soil carbon restoration practices more broadly.  We are glad to know some land grant universities and federal agencies are currently doing research on organic no-till production, and we agree that more research needs to be done on this topic in particular. At the same time, organic producers in our state and regional networks are currently conducting their own on-farm research (independent of federal funds) on techniques to build soil carbon with the goals of improving soil health and mitigating the impacts of climate change. In addition to organic no-till, other practices that can contribute to building soil carbon (and therefore mitigating climate change effects) include: intercropping with cover crops, living pathways/walkways, silvopasture, and integrating livestock and crops.

Many organic producers are recognizing the key role agriculture will play in either contributing to or mitigating the impacts of climate change. NOFA-VT and VOF believe the NOSB should support and build upon the research efforts already underway by expanding its research priorities to include additional soil carbon restoration techniques.

Excluded Methods Terminology

NOFA-VT and VOF strongly support full adoption of all three sections of the proposal put forward by the NOSB Materials Subcommittee. It is critical that this NOSB, at this meeting, provide as much guidance as possible for the new incoming Administration. Substantial advancements in agricultural biotechnology have and will continue to impact organic producers and challenge certification agencies that work to ensure the highest standards of production. Because new technologies are being adopted so quickly, organic regulations have struggled to keep pace and we need to move ahead now where it is clear that we have consensus. We need to be as clear as possible to ensure this timely issue is before the new USDA, at the beginning of its term. 

New genetic techniques that have not received any independent health, safety, environmental or socioeconomic evaluations, are beginning to move into our food system. They may not be labeled nor even be regulated under the existing, but woefully inadequate, National Biotech Coordinated Framework. In addition, these techniques are all patented using restrictive utility patents that prevent farmers from saving such seeds and breeders from sharing or improving upon such seeds for at least 20 years. These points alone make these new techniques inappropriate for organic and incompatible with a system of sustainable agriculture, which is one of the key criteria for NOSB evaluations of any new materials proposed for use in organic.

In organic production, a precautionary approach first requires proof of safety to ensure there are no unintended consequences, including GMO contamination or other ongoing environmental, health, or safety impacts.

Additional Comments

We provide the following additional comments regarding the three sections of the Materials Subcommittee’s proposal:

1. Definitions – This section is now aligned with both FDA and CODEX definitions and should be adopted by the NOSB. These improvements meet both the scientific and policy concerns that were raised in the earlier versions. The alignment of the proposed definitions with both CODEX and FDA will also better ensure continued equivalency with NOP country partners. 

2. Principles and Criteria – This section should also be adopted as is, Coupled with the existing NOSB materials evaluation criteria, these Principles and Criteria provide an appropriate, useful and specific and useful tool for evaluating new genetic techniques to determine whether they should be allowed or excluded. It is particularly critical that the NOSB protect farmers’ and breeders’ rights to improve and save seeds that are allowed in organic production.

3. Terminology Chart – NOFA-VT and VOF strongly support the full inclusion of all techniques listed in the Terminology Chart in the proposal. There is broad consensus within the organic community on whether these techniques should be excluded. The creation of this chart has been informed by several rounds of public comment on this topic at previous NOSB meetings. 

Response to the Discussion Document

We submit the following comments in response to the Discussion Document:

4. Additional Technologies and Terms – We support including four techniques flagged as “TBD”: cis-genesis, intra-genesis, transposons, and agro infiltration in the list of excluded methods now as they all now fall within the revised NOSB definition. Whether genes are moved or manipulated between species or within species, all four techniques require genetic engineering as defined in the above NOSB definition and principle sections, so therefore they should all be excluded as well. If these four “TBD” techniques cannot be excluded now, we support their inclusion in the discussion document with other “TBD” techniques and urge the NOSB to fully resolve them at the Spring NOSB meeting after allowing additional vetting and debate, as required to win full adoption.

5. Detection and Testing – The NOP should begin gathering data on the presence of GMO materials in seeds and crops. We ask that the NOSB recommend a national pilot study with proper sampling methodology. ACA members could conduct a percentage of their required sampling for GE presence and voluntarily report anonymous data to the NOP. An analysis and report of those findings could help the NOSB in future discussions about the presence of excluded methods and any threshold establishment.

New methods of biotechnology for which testing methods are costly or non-existent present particular difficulties. Given the current testing limitations, we recommend an affidavit system for ACAs to use for varieties identified as being derived from these new excluded methods. This is a system that ACAs, producers, and seed dealers use and are familiar with and while it has limitations, it is, at present, the most suitable alternative.

Further, we ask you to consider a national reporting system for genetically manipulated crop and animal material. If statutory authority is required for the establishment of such a system, we urge you to request that support from the Secretary. As GE technology rapidly evolves and outpaces the U.S. regulatory structure, measures must be put in place to allow for protection of the organic industry.

6. Guidance vs. Revised NOP Regulation – While we strongly urge the final products of this work to move through the official NOP regulatory process to provide enduring and legally binding clarity regarding these new excluded methods, we also recognize that we are at the end of the current Administration and that the necessary time to vet this through this USDA process may not be feasible. We therefore strongly urge immediate adoption of these recommendations as guidance while retaining strong NOSB and NOP support for the incoming Administration to move this through the proper USDA to achieve regulatory status at its earliest opportunity.

NOSB Report to USDA Secretary on Progress to Prevent GMO Incursion into Organic

NOFA-VT and VOF appreciate NOSB’s ongoing work on GE contamination and we support the NOSB’s effort to update the Secretary of Agriculture on its progress in preventing GMO incursion into organic production. We are thankful that those efforts start with seed by securing research funding and data collection for testing of organic and non-GMO seed, as well as emphasizing the need for more data.  In addition, data collection efforts should include the comprehensive costs to farmers of contamination prevention and product rejection, as well as an assessment of the barriers to farms reporting contamination.

While USDA and AC21 continue to focus on coexistence, organic, non-GE, and even GE farmers have experienced the failure of this strategy as evidenced by the recent unauthorized use of Dicamba. The GE crop seed developed to withstand the application of Dicamba was intended to pair with a newer formulation developed with less risk of drift.  The damage and use of the older formulation clearly illustrates it is difficult or impossible to control what happens in the field, and these so-called restrictions are ineffective.  Now is the time to expedite the issue of holding GE technology developers responsible for trespass. The NOSB has a significant window of opportunity to emphasize the need for USDA leadership in this area.

This opportunity is further emphasized by the organic corn and soybean seed producers who came to the NOSB meeting to share their experience of having to “throw away” 15-20% of their seed due to GMO contamination.  They did not have a non-organic market for the organic seed varieties, and they could not sell this contaminated seed to their organic customers.  The cost of this loss was then passed on to the organic customer in the remainder of the seed they sold.  Not only is this discouraging for current organic seed producers, but it is also a deterrent to new organic seed companies looking to enter the market.  A 20% yearly loss in inventory would be hard for any business to accept, especially when it is due to no fault of your own. 

The body of work that has been completed by the NOSB materials/GMO subcommittee on GE contamination issues is substantial.  We believe that the proposed letter is a fair representation of NOSB activities and we request your leadership in developing mandatory policies around shared responsibility.  It is important that the cost of avoiding GMO contamination of organic farms and products be borne by those who profit most from the use of GMOs – the patent holders for GMO seeds.

NOFA-VT and VOF join our colleagues from the National Organic Coalition (NOC) in asking the NOSB to prioritize the development of policies around shared responsibility in your report to the Secretary. Prevention and contamination costs should be borne by GE patent holders, not organic and non-GE producers.