Ξ May 3rd, 2009 | → 3 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Wine History, Wine News |
When one imagines organic certification one might be forgiven believing it is a simple process. It is not. In fact it is the product of many years of hard work and dedication, of negotiation, vigorous debate, the clash of agricultural ways of life. It is hardly surprising the road toward organic standards has been rocky, under construction: Nothing less than the quality and safety of our food and the improvement of our environment is at stake.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the term ‘organic’ is really quite new. Originally used to describe a philosophical orientation to agriculture taken as an expression or measure of cultural ‘health’, the word now has at its service a fairly advanced set of rules and regulations. And the overall orientation and purpose of those rules and regulations still allow us to hear the echo of that wisdom, of what Lord Northbourne called in his book, Look to the Land, “Having a complex but necessary interrelationship of parts, similar to living things”.
The specific occasion of this interview with Peggy Miars, Executive Director of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) is to extend a series of inquiries begun with my piece last month, an interview with the formidable Kris O’Connor of the Central Coast Vineyard Team. My principle interest is the attempt to draw distinctions various certifying organizations. What is meant by ’sustainable’, by ‘organic’, by ‘biodynamic’, how do European, British and international certifying agencies differ from that found in the US? Do we enjoy the most rigorous? What are the food challenges faced in a world undergoing climate change and is ‘organic’ capable of responding?
I invite you to visit the web site of International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), specifically their Organic World Directory should you wonder what the rest of the world is doing with the concept ‘organic’! I shall explore many of these organizations in the coming months and try to determine the commonalities and the disparities among the various approaches. For now please enjoy part 1 of my interview with Ms. Miars. She is well-informed, laughs easily, is careful to select the proper word. Part 1 will be posted in three days.
So what is CCOF? From their title page:
“Since 1973, CCOF has been a leading organic certifier. Today, CCOF is the only full service organic certification and trade association providing premier organic certification programs and trade association benefits to farms, processors, private labelers, retailers, restaurants, brokers, and supporting members including individuals, suppliers and service providers. CCOF helps you succeed with marketing and PR support and stay informed by supporting the growth of organic foods and agriculture through certification services, organic education, promotion, political advocacy.”
Admin I noticed you folks had recently linked my interview with Will Bucklin. I wanted to thank you for that. He’s been certified organic for quite some time, an old-school farmer, spends long days in the field.
O.K. I’ll shut up now and let you talk! Could you provide an account of your personal biography, how it is you came to your current position, the Executive Director of the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF)?
Peggy Miars Sure. My career has been only in marketing and non-profit management. My degree is in marketing. I’ll just address how I got to organic. I did have some experience in non-profit management back in the late eighties and early nineties. After moving to California in 1994 I worked for a non-profit here in Monterey County, and then in 1996 that was was my first experience in organic. I went to work for a natural foods store in Pacific Grove doing their marketing. Probably a year after I started Whole Foods came in and bought the store and transitioned it over to the Whole Foods Market in Monterey. As the new store was being built and opened, we were shutting down the smaller Natural Foods store. So I worked for Whole Foods for a brief period. I worked on all the opening marketing events and then left to start my own marketing/consulting business. One of my clients there was another natural foods store that sold organic products. From there I went to work for Earthbound Farms in 2000, consumer marketing. So I was really expose to the larger community at Earthbound. From there I came to CCOF in January of 2004. I was hired as the Communications Director. All of a sudden, before I knew it, the previous Executive Director left and I was promoted in June of 2004 to my current position.
So, my background in non-profit management as well as my background in the organic industry helped me to gain the skills and the knowledge and the contacts to be where I am today, heading CCOF.
Well, it’s a remarkable trajectory. Congratulations!
PM (laughs) Thank you! It’s kind of interesting how sometimes when you’re young and you’re trying so hard, you’re trying to get to all these goals and they don’t happen, I think as you get older you kinda’ let go of those things, and surprisingly, miraculously, they come to you.
That’s what I’m hoping! Are you yourself an organic gardener?
PM I am not. I do not have a green thumb. Actually, we live in Boulder Creek now, in the redwoods. We don’t really have a lot of good space for gardening, although I am going to take a first try at it this year. One of our employees here gave me some Painted Mountain corn that I’m going to see if I can get to grow in Boulder Creek. It’s specifically bred for higher elevations and cold climates. We’ll see how that goes.
Best of luck to you. We tried to grow corn here in our little plot the the nitrogen demands were too great. In any event, you, of course, must remember the era when ‘organic’ meant something very different, before the USDA essentially transformed the ‘game’, as it were. Can you tell me something about what it was like intellectually, how challenging it was when the USDA put forward the proposition to take ‘organic’ under its jurisdiction?
PM First let me say that it was the organic industry that went to the USDA and asked for regulation. I’m not aware of any other industry that did that. And we did it because we wanted to show consumers that, “Yes, this really is organic. When I say it is organic I have proof”. That’s why the industry went to the USDA and said we need some regulation.
So I think the intent of going to the USDA was very admirable, and there was a good goal we were working toward. I don’t think people expected the 12 years that it took to get the regulations through. We definitely did not expect the Big 3 to be included in the first draft: GMOs, sewage sludge and irradiation. And as you may know, the USDA got over 275,000 comments about the Big 3, that’s more comments than any other issue in USDA history. So they immediately pulled those from the organic regulations.
And it still continued to be a back and forth issue of what the USDA wanted proposed versus what the organic industry was looking for. And even today there are alot of debates in organic. Obviously, there are so many people involved whether you’re a small farmer, big processor, a certifier, whether you’re a manufacturer, everyone’s got their agenda, and everyone wants to get it passed through the National Organic Program (NOP). So I would say, and perhaps I’m straying from your question, but one thing that’s on my mind today is the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) because I’m flying out Saturday [5/2], to Washington D.C. to participate in that bi-annual meeting. It really is democracy in action. Everyone has an opportunity to speak up. You, Ken, have an opportunity, your readers have an opportunity, it’s a very democratic process. And I’ve actually seen the
NOSB change their minds on a decision because of the public comment at their meetings.
So, it’s a challenge working with the USDS. I know some people are not pleased with it and are wondering whether it was even a good idea. Personally, I think it was the best move for organic because it’s really given us legitimacy, it has told consumers that, yes, this is something you can trust, you don’t have to worry when you see the organic label. It was a good move. We’re still working on it. It’s a continuous improvement process.
[On the NOSB, from the CCOF web site: "The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is comprised of 15 members who advise the US Secretary of Agriculture and USDA on implementation of the National Organic Program. They are hugely influential and are responsible for review of new materials petitions, many organic standards interpretations, and recommendations on development of new organic standards. However, recommendations by the NOSB are not official policy until they are approved by the National Organic Program.
CCOF has been very active in monitoring NOSB meetings and providing commentary reflecting the needs to organic agriculture, consumers and organic processors. Your support helps keep organic standards strong. Admin]
So where might an interested reader go to make a comment?
PM Well, the first thing you’d want to do is… here, I’ll look it up as we speak… if you google NOSB you’ll come up with… National Ocean Sciences Bowl (laughter) as the first listing! But the National Organic Standards Board will come up. The meetings happen twice a year, it’s always in the Spring and the Fall. They do publish their agenda. They publish whatever discussion documents they have available. Anyone can download them.
I remember in those early days, when, apparently, the USDA was being petitioned by the organic movement generally, that the concern was that a lot of other folks from more conventional agriculture concerns would cause a dilution of the branding of ‘organic’ as hitherto understood. You’ve touched on this. What have been the greatest strengths of the certification program and some of its weaknesses?
PM I think the strength is what I talked about previously, which is giving legitimacy to the organic label in the minds of consumers. I do believe that’s happened. I’ve seen it because of the tremendous growth of organic over the last several years. I think the challenges we face in organic certification…, the biggest challenge is that we have a national organic standard. It is not overly prescriptive, therefore it includes areas that are open to interpretation. We have got about 50 domestic certifiers and another 50 certifiers over-seas that are accredited to certify to the NOP. So you’ve got a 100 different certifiers that are interpreting the regulations differently. That is a challenge. I don’t know that we’ll ever overcome it.
There are differences between the European certification and the US, for example.
PM Yes. there are differences. I can’t tell you the specifics. That’s not my area of expertise. But I can tell you that we continually see other countries coming up with their own standards. For example, Mexico is in the process of developing theirs, Taiwan is developing theirs, Canada…. And so what happens if you’re an exporter, for example, and you export to those countries you then have to meet four different certifications unless these countries can come to an agreement on equivalency where they can trade back and forth. In fact, that’s what we’re talking to Canada about now. Even though the standards are a little bit different can we agree to accept each other’s standards?
Indeed. With respect to GMOs, for example, Canada’s conventional growers can have difficulty exporting to Japan where GMOs are banned, as far as I am aware. And Great Britain, although their resistance to GMOs appears to be changing, at least as far as ‘conventionally grown’ is concerned. But whether there might be a deal breaker with respect to reciprocal recognition of organic certifications and trade is still not known.
PM The EU has an acceptable level of GMO contamination because they acknowledge that GMOs are already out there.
Of course, Great Britain is not a member of the EU so it creates its own standards…
PM Yup. It creates its own. So now you’ve got Europe with different standards.
About the concept of ’sustainable’. There are multiple organizations here in California that certify ’sustainable’. What are the key differences between organic and sustainable?
PM Well, I think philosophically they are similar in that we want to care for the earth and improve the environment. The main differences that I see between organic and sustainable is that organic does have a definition that’s regulated by the USDA. ‘Sustainable’ has a different definition depending on who you talk to, and as you just said, there are different ’sustainable’ certifications out there that have their different definitions, their different processes and so forth. So for the consumer I believe, even though we’re still working on educating them about organic, I think a lot of people understand that when they see organic at least they have an idea that it means no toxic and persistent pesticides, fertilizers and inputs. I think that when a consumer looks at the word ’sustainable’ they don’t really know what it means. Because it means different things.
In a worse case scenario, if overused or imprecisely defined, ’sustainable’ might drift into a kind of ‘green wash’. Whereas organic seems to be well-protected by more rigorous standards. Is that a fair statement?
PM I would say yes. I don’t know about the ‘green wash’ but I agree that organic is highly regulated whereas the ’sustainable’ standards are private standards, they can change as needed. I think the other thing to point out, as we were talking about earlier, is about the NOSB and how the public has the option to comment. I don’t know if that’s true with the ’sustainable’ standards if they are developed by a private company or organization.
I am not certain of that either…. Now I know that there are some pesticides and insecticides of various spectrums, broad, narrow, that are permitted in organic farming. What are the scientific parameters that determine whether a pesticide might be employed or allowed in an organic regimen?
PM The first thing I should say is that there is a national list of inputs that is maintained. And to quote the manual “In general, non-synthetic inputs are allowed in organic unless specifically disallowed. In general, synthetic inputs are not allowed in organic production unless specifically allowed.” Does that make sense?
PM And part of the NOSB meeting is discussion about inputs because manufacturers will petition to have things added to the list, or to have them removed from the list. So every NOSB meeting has a discussion about various inputs. There is a lot of public comment, and there is a vote from the NOSB. I should mention that the NOSB is an advisory board to the National Organic Program (NOP). This means they can give advice but they do not direct. So they will make a recommendation to the NOP and then it is up to the NOP to actually do the rule-making and to state whether or not materials are allowed.
One of the difficulties of the last eight years with the Bush Administration, with respect to both the EPA and the USDA they have allowed companies to perform, pesticide manufacturers to perform their own in-house analyses of new materials. What do you think might be different with the Obama Administration? Do you see any signs on the horizon that the burden of proof might shift, that the Gov’t might take a greater interest in actually doing some of the primary research?
PM You have described it well as it applies to organic. If a manufacturer wants to have their product allowed for inputs they would apply to primarily to the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) or the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA). They are the two primary agencies that review inputs for organic. So most certifiers rely on those two agencies to do the evaluation of the inputs. Some manufacturers do not like to go that route because they have to reveal some proprietary information. In that case the farmer will then go to the certifier and say “I want to use this input on this field for this crop. Would you allow me to do it?” In that case the certifier has the responsibility to review the material and determine whether it’s allowed.
I think we’re going to be moving more toward testing. And one example is right here in the State of California, [the use of] liquid fertilizers in organic. We are moving toward inspections of manufacturing facilities and testing their products to insure that they really are what they say they are and what has been approved for organic. It’s starting with liquid fertilizer, I expect that it will probably go on to pesticides and other inputs at the state level, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there was discussion at the federal level along those same lines down the road.
So you think there has been a sea change at the federal level, then?
PM I do and I think it’s because of California and what’s happening here. It’s gotten the attention of the USDA.
End of pt. 1