The National Organic Standards Board has 15 members who serve five-year terms, though the terms are not equally staggered.
The membership is comprised of four farmers, three environmentalists or resource conservationists, three consumer or public interest advocates, two handlers or processors, one retailer, one scientist, and one certifying agent.
In January this year, Dr. Francis Thicke was appointed to the board to replace Barry Flamm in one of the environmentalist positions.
A year ago, five new members joined the board: Harold Austin (handler), Carmela Beck (farmer/producer), Tracy Favre (environmentalist), Jean Richardson (consumer/ public interest), and Andrea “Zea” Sonnabend (scientist).
Miles McEvoy, deputy administrator of the National Organic Program, said that positions on the board are sought after. The U.S. Department of Agriculture received at least 20 applications for Flamm’s position, and when the five positions were open a year ago, it had about 45 applications in total.
Selection criteria include an understanding of organic principles and experience in the organic community, as well as an ability to evaluate technical information. Specific positions have additional criteria. For example, the scientist should have expertise in toxicology, ecology, or biochemistry.
Sonnabend, who was appointed to the scientist position, has a master’s degree in plant breeding from Cornell University and has been a farmer, retailer, wholesaler, and teacher and works as a policy specialist and farm inspector for California Certified Organic Farmers in Watsonville, California. Her biographical information makes no mention of toxicology, ecology, or biochemistry.
However, McEvoy said she met the qualifications for a person applying for the scientist position, as expertise in those fields is just a recommendation.
The Cornucopia Institute made an official complaint to the USDA last year regarding the appointment of Carmela Beck to a farmer/grower position as she neither owns or operates an organic farm but is a full-time employee of Driscoll’s, a fruit marketer, where she manages farmer contracts for berry growers.
Asked if the board members are able to adequately research and understand all the issue that come before them, McEvoy said the USDA is looking at how it could do a better job of summarizing the technical information for them and plans to have more technical experts attend the NOSB meetings to answer the board’s questions objectively.
The Organic Food Production Act authorized the formation of a technical advisory panel, but McEvoy said there is no process to put that in place at this time.
McEvoy said he can understand why growers might feel that the board does not fully understand their situation. “The organic standards are a conglomeration of a number of different perspectives, so that’s the challenge, to get the agriculture perspective to be really understood by consumers and environmental groups.”
He said growers should provide comments to the board to help them understand the issues.
“I think it’s a very good system of having stakeholders that represent various perspectives look at the information and use their best judgment to make a determination of whether it fits into the organic system or not,” he said. “Having a board of this diversity of interests making the decision, I think, is one of the beautiful things about the way that the organic program is set up.”