At Good Earth, we view organic as our fundamental quality standard because of the transparent and trackable framework of accountability it creates to help us monitor our food system. One of the major contributing factors in this transparency is the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).
The NOSB is a citizen advisory committee, appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture, tasked with shaping our organic standards and the National Organic Program (NOP) through a democratic review process.
The NOSB is comprised of fifteen members, all representing a variety of groups within the organic community including farmers, retailers, consumers, environmentalists, scientists, certifiers and handlers. The Board is responsible for providing guidance on the standards and policies used to regulate the organic certification process and makes recommendations to the USDA regarding which substances should be allowed or prohibited in organic agriculture and processing.
The NOSB meets publicly twice per year to discuss and vote on the substances allowed and prohibited in organic agriculture, food processing, and production, resulting in the National List. During these meetings, the NOSB listens to hours of public comments, testimony from organic stakeholders, technical reports and scientific studies to help inform their recommendations.
They take a number of factors into account while making these recommendations including effects on human health, effects on the farming system, toxicity, availability of alternatives, probability of environmental contamination, potential interaction with other materials used and overall compatibility within a system of sustainable agriculture.
In addition to their role in governing the National List, members of the NOSB also serve on subcommittees to support organic standards in a number of specialized areas including Policy Development, Handling, Livestock/Aquaculture, Materials/GMOs and Certification, Accreditation and Compliance. These specialized subcommittees help shape the National Organic Program in an ever-evolving, ever-progressing agricultural system.
To better understand how the NOSB operates, we can look at their Spring 2018 meeting. When reports surfaced in 2017 that fraudulent organic imports were entering the U.S. market, the USDA tasked the NOSB with providing guidance on improving import oversight. During the Spring 2018 meeting, two expert panels – a certifier panel and a trade panel – addressed the NOSB to provide insight on opportunities and strategies to increase integrity in the global organic control system. Panelists answered several questions from the NOSB and focused on actions and recommendations that had the potential to improve oversight. Some suggestions from the panels included mandatory certification for businesses that take ownership of product but do not warehouse it (formerly a loophole), putting a system in place for inspections at U.S. ports, increased use of testing, increased qualifications and training for inspectors, improved collaboration with certifiers on investigations, and increased tracking of import and export activity. The NOSB is taking these suggestions into account and presenting their proposal at the Fall 2018 NOSB meeting, slated for October.
The NOSB makes transcripts of their meetings, copies of their meeting materials, and summaries of their recommendations available online. This transparency, paired with the unique partnership between the general public, participating constituents and the federal government, all contribute to the functional democracy of the organic system. This dialogue is what makes the organic system unique in the movement towards beneficial food and agriculture.