Here’s a quiz: What is organic?

A. Farming practices that don’t use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.

B. A philosophical, ever-improving approach to produce food as sustainably as possible.

C. A certification that boosts the value of crops.

D. A Byzantine list of allowed materials in farming and food production, painstakingly reviewed regularly by a board of volunteers from across agriculture.

The April meeting of the National Organic Standards Board in Seattle showed the correct answer is all of the above.

The 14-member board grappled with diverse topics — from seed purity to sausage casings — in order to rule on what organic should mean when it comes to questions both broad and minute.

How should we measure what we mean by biodegradable when it comes to plastic mulch?

Is the harvesting of ocean algae for fertilizers having a negative impact on the ocean ecosystem?

Do growers need access to another chelating agent to increase micronutrient availability?

The answer to that final one, at least, was a clear no. The other questions remain under discussion.

This meeting was a listening session intended to gather information and public comments and discuss the issues at hand; votes on material reviews are expected at the fall meeting.

Overall, the board appeared to lean conservative — very reluctant to approve new petitions to the National List of synthetic substances allowed for use in crop production or handling, but also protective of the currently listed tools that growers and packers rely on.

Several areas of importance to the tree fruit industry are under review this year: horticultural oils, pheromones, and the sanitizers hydrogen peroxide and peracetic acid. The board’s discussion was largely supportive for all the industry-priority materials up for review.

This meeting was calmer than others in recent years — when debates over hydroponic production grew heated — and largely positive for tree fruit growers, said Marisol Oviedo, regulatory information specialist for the Northwest Horticultural Council.

Having a tree fruit grower on the board certainly doesn’t hurt. Steve Ela grows peaches, apples and cherries on an 80-acre farm in Colorado and joined the board in 2017. When he explained how growers use horticultural oils as a soft, targeted pest control, in response to a public comment expressing concern about their use, board chair Harriet Behar remarked, “It always helps to have someone who knows.”

“I was just putting them on earlier this week,” Ela replied.

But having a tree fruit grower on the board doesn’t diminish the importance of broad industry engagement, said Harold Austin, orchard administrator for Zirkle Fruit, who served on the board from 2012–2017.

“One thing our industry needs to remember is that the NOSB doesn’t really know our industry and what we do, why these materials are important to us,” he said, describing the need for engagement as an ongoing process, with materials returning to review every five years and changing faces on the board. “As the materials get renewed, so do members of the board. Terms are only five years.”

Several representatives from Northwest tree fruit growers spoke at the meeting, and others submitted written comments. There’s also a new option to comment during webinars, for those who can’t travel to meetings.

At this meeting, the discussions were good as far as tree fruit growers and handlers in the Northwest are concerned, Austin said, but ongoing discussions about sanitizer needs and marine materials will turn into proposals based on what the board hears from stakeholders about how these products impact their livelihoods.

It was clear in the discussions how much the board relied on the comments they received, said Marshall Talbot, a fieldman for McDougall and Sons Inc., who was attending his first NOSB meeting to learn more about the process. In the future, he plans to urge all his growers to submit comments on key materials, he said.

In fact, when the board received no comment on obscure materials, they seemed unsure how to proceed. After all, if producers don’t depend on a material, why should it stay on the list? •

—by Kate Prengaman

Discussing sanitizers

Of all the synthetic products allowed in organic food production, sanitizers required for food safety are some of the most important for all producers and handlers.

When the National Organic Standards Board put a technical review of sanitizers on its agenda, some producers worried that the proposal would be a steppingstone toward the National Organic Program further limiting the options.

But board chair Harriet Behar addressed the concerns raised during public comments and stressed that the proposal was not aimed at taking away needed tools from producers but, rather, developing a reference for the board to use going forward in evaluating new sanitizer petitions and sunset reviews.

“The goal is not to limit sanitizer use but to better evaluate the petitions we get by how they fit into the constellation of sanitizers,” she said, adding that she is a Produce Safety Alliance trainer and understands the Food Safety Modernization Act requirements. “I don’t hate sanitizers. I understand about biofilms and pathogens and how they can hide and grow and cause a food safety crisis.”

Several other board members recommended that the review be used as a framework to help the board approve more sanitizers in the future, rather than to limit them. No vote was taken following the discussion; more work is needed to develop a detailed statement of work for the desired technical review.

A petition to add a new antimicrobial product, silver dihydrogen citrate, was rejected by the board by a vote of 5 to 9, primarily due to concerns about disposal and wastewater treatment.•

—by Kate Prengaman

Related: Organic community honors David Granatstein