The National Organic Standards Board is a federal advisory committee that makes the decisions on which inputs can be used in organic agriculture. Generally, natural products are allowed in organic agriculture while synthetic products are not, but the Organic Food Production Act permits exceptions.
Miles McEvoy, deputy administrator for the National Organic Program, said the NOSB has statutory authority over the national list, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cannot add synthetic products to the list without the NOSB’s recommendation.
A synthetic product is defined in the Organic Food Production Act as a substance that is formulated or manufactured by a chemical process or by a process that chemically changes a substance extracted from naturally occurring plant, animal, or mineral sources. Substances created by naturally occurring biological processes are not considered synthetic.
A natural, or nonsynthetic substance, on the other hand, is derived from mineral, plant, or animal matter and does not undergo a synthetic process.
Because there are often arguments as to whether a product is natural or synthetic, the USDA is working on guidance to clarify how to determine if something is natural or synthetic, McEvoy said. Much of the confusion surrounds processing methods. For example, if a material is extracted from a natural source, such as rocks or plants, but is then processed into a different form, does that make it a synthetic product? There have been questions about whether materials such as agricultural processing waste are natural or synthetic. McEvoy said the guidelines should be out this winter.
The NOSB meets twice a year to consider the recommendations of its six committees relating to the listing of materials. The next meeting will be at the Hilton Portland and Executive Tower in Portland, Oregon, April 8 to 11. One of the agenda items will be the organic exemption for the antibiotic oxytetracycline for control of fireblight in apples and pears, which is set to expire in October 2014. Tree fruit industry organizations have petitioned for it to be reinstated on the approved organic materials list.
After the NOSB makes a recommendation to add a product to the list, the USDA begins the rule-making process and puts out the proposed rule for public comment, which is considered before the final rule is issued. However, the NOSB’s decision and the comments it receives, matter more than the comments the USDA receives, McEvoy told growers at the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual meeting in December.
“For instance, if the board recommends that tetracycline can’t be used after 2014 and we put out the proposed rule that says that, and we get lots of comments that say, ‘That’s ridiculous, we need to extend it to 2015 or 2017,’ we can’t do that based on the public comment we get.”
That’s why, he said, it’s important that growers be involved in both parts of the process and make comments to the NOSB as well as the USDA.
“The USDA cannot allow tetracycline to be used in organic fruit production if the NOSB does not approve an extension,” he stressed.
As well as providing written comments, interested parties can sign up to testify to the board during the April meeting. No limit has been set on the number of people who can testify, McEvoy said. At previous meetings, as many as 200 people have had the opportunity to speak. The NOSB meets at different places around the country to encourage broad public input, and Portland was selected as the venue for this meeting specifically to allow public input concerning oxytetracycline.
When considering whether to approve a material for organic use, the NOSB considers the following:
—Are there adverse impacts on either humans or the environment?
—Is it essential for organic production?
—Is the substance compatible with organic production practices?
The board also considers the following criteria, as specified in the Organic Foods Production Act:
—The potential for detrimental chemical interactions with other materials
—The toxicity and mode of action of the substance and of its breakdown products or any contaminants and their persistence in the environment
—The probability of environmental contamination during the manufacture, use, or misuse or disposal of the product
—Its effect on human health
—Its effects on biological and chemical interactions in the agroecosystem, including the physiological effects of the substance on soil organisms, crops, and livestock
—Alternatives to using the substance in terms of practices or other available materials
—Compatibility with sustainable agriculture systems
McEvoy said some members of the board place great emphasis on whether a product is really necessary because of the unavailability of wholly natural substances. They have questioned whether tetracycline is really needed for fireblight control in apple and pear production and whether it is consistent with organic farming and handling.
NOSB proposals can be viewed at www .ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/NOPNational OrganicProgramHome under the National Organic Standards Board section.