There is no denying that the organic production of fruits and vegetables has moved well past the fad stage and is a full-blown trend. In fact, it has been for the past decade.
Retailers have been realizing double-digit growth for quite some time, though sales started at a very low level meaning it took many years of double digit growth to get up to the blip level. But in 2015, organic food sales in the United States topped $43 billion, with fresh produce accounting for about one-third of those sales as the dominant category in the sector. Growers and shippers of virtually every commodity and in every growing region are involved in organic production. It is no longer an isolated segment of the industry, as it has truly gone mainstream.
In 2015, Western Growers surveyed its members and by extrapolating the data on acreage, it appears that members of the association produce about half of the organic fresh fruits and vegetables grown and marketed in the United States.
“It’s an important segment of the industry and an important sector within our membership,” said Dennis Nuxoll, vice president of federal government affairs for Western Growers and one of several staff members focused on organic issues.
Cory Lunde, director of strategic initiatives and communications for WG, said to help guide the association along this path an ad hoc committee of members from the organic community was put together. The group is meeting on an intermittent basis to discuss areas of concern to organic producers and how Western Growers can get involved.
Western Growers is currently representing its members and their organic production in several areas where the association’s expertise is being put to good use.
In early May, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted Western Growers amicus status in a lawsuit challenging the National Organic Program’s (NOP) Guidance 5016: The Allowance of Green Waste in Organic Production Systems. In this lawsuit, the plaintiffs – Center for Environmental Health, Center for Food Safety, and Beyond Pesticides – were seeking to invalidate the guidance on procedural grounds. They argued that the allowed process was not followed in creating the new guidance. In effect, the guidance protects certified organic farmers when organic compost contains incidental residues of prohibited substances that the farmer did not cause. Since the inception of the federal organic program, USDA has recognized compost containing de minimis levels of chemical residues is nearly unavoidable. Under the USDA’s Guidance, compost is allowed on organic farms provided its use does not contribute to contamination of soil, crops or water. The guidance recognizes there is no analytical testing that can confirm the absence of all disallowed chemical substances, and the cost of trying to conduct such testing is prohibitive and could render organic production economically infeasible.
In its brief Western Growers asked the court to consider the impact of plaintiffs “zero tolerance” approach on organic farmers, compost manufacturers and consumers before agreeing to invalidate the guidance.
The Organic Trade Association and California Certified Organic Farmers successfully requested authorization to join the case and to join the arguments submitted by Western Growers.
Unfortunately in June, the federal court struck down the five-year-old federal Guidance document allowing the use of composted municipal green waste on organic farms in California. The court found that USDA did not gather sufficient comment on the 2011 legal guidance and ordered it back to the drawing board.
Since the ruling, Western Growers has been monitoring USDA’s effort to correct the procedural issues and release a new guidance document that passes muster as quickly as possible. Until that occurs, Nuxoll said organic farmers, who have followed USDA’s lead in good faith for years, don’t know the rules of the road. Western Growers is concerned that certified organic farmers will no longer enjoy the protections of NOP Guidance 5016 if their organic compost contains incidental residues of prohibited substances that they did not cause and be opened up to potential lawsuits.
On another front, Nuxoll said Western Growers is providing input and monitoring the work of USDA with regard to a national organic checkoff program that would raise funds through assessment for a research and promotion program. The Organic Trade Association submitted a proposal that is currently working its way through USDA protocol. If USDA agrees there is sufficient interest in the effort, it will publish a proposed rule followed by a comment period.
“We are engaged in this effort,” Nuxoll said, noting that WG members have expressed both support and concerns.
In general, he said the research aspect of the program is backed universally while a market promotion program needs to be vetted thoroughly before support can be gained. He said the expenditure of funding and the makeup of the board of this program will also be carefully scrutinized. “How will the program be crafted to make sure that the sectors that are funding it are getting their fair share of promotion and research,” he said.
He noted that in the original proposal from OTA there was much effort to create geographic diversity on the board but not sector diversity. In theory the board could consist of dairy growers throughout the country with no fresh produce representation. He also said there are concerns that geographic diversity won’t recognized the outsized role California producers play in the organic sector.
Nuxoll said Western Growers will carefully vet the proposed rule when it is released. He said it is impossible to know how soon that will be.
A Snapshot of WG’s Organic Advisory Committee
At its initial meeting, members of the Western Growers Organic Advisory Committee identified and analyzed many different topics of concern to that sector of the fresh produce industry. Shortly after this first meeting, the Organic Advisory Committee became aware of and then advocated for WG’s active involvement in the compost litigation. Below are the key areas initially identified as areas where WG’s involvement could be helpful:
1. Organic Imports and Exports
• It was noted by Committee members that Mexico does not have an equivalency agreement with the United States.
• Although the U.S. and Canada have an equivalency agreement in place, Canadian requirements can at times be in conflict with the U.S. standards. There is a need to monitor and influence to make sure there are no “kinks” in the system.
ACTION ITEM: Staff will engage with USDA and U.S. Trade Representative regarding the development of a Mexican equivalency agreement and removing undue burdens from the Canadian agreement.
2. Organic Check-Off Program
• The committee was in general agreement that the program objectives (i.e. assist transition, research into pest control, consumer education) of the proposed organic checkoff program were legitimate activities.
• However, the committee expressed the following structural concerns:
How the funding structure can be fairly implemented (e.g. how will correct payment of assessment be ensured?)
How the funding will be allocated (e.g. will larger segments of the organic industry—such as dairy—dictate how check-off dollars are spent?)
How the governing board will be structured (e.g. will there be proportionate representation between size of producers / geographic regions / ideological factions?)
• Staff also expressed concern over the proposed one person one vote that will be used to determine the success of the checkoff. It was noted that other USDA check-off programs require either a majority of producers representing a majority of the volume to pass a referendum, or require a combination of majority of all votes AND a majority of all production before a check-off is deemed successful. This was something that needed to be monitored.
ACTION ITEM: Staff will engage with USDA as the proposal moves forward regarding alternative proposals to ensure proportionate representation within the governing body and ensure program funding priorities for produce are appropriately represented.
3. National Organic Standard Board (NOSB)
• Concern was expressed over a perceived shift in ideological constitution of the NOSB board.
ACTION ITEM: WG should become more engaged in the NOSB process. Staff will engage with USDA to understand the system and determine appropriate opportunities to engage.
4. NOSB Hydroponic and Aquaponic Task Force
• The committee expressed concern about the NOSB Hydroponic and Aquaponic Task Force’s intentions to decertify products “not grown on soil.”
ACTION ITEM: Staff will work to engage in this process as it moves forward to NOSB. (Update: In July, USDA staff submitted a policy recommendation to the NOSB moving the process to the next step of review.)