CHICAGO — A new scorecard put out by nonprofit research group the Cornucopia Institute, a self-proclaimed organic watchdog, calls into question the role that corporate lobbyists play in shaping organic policy and highlights key differences between stakeholders within the organic sector.
Cornucopia’s National Organic Standards Board Voting Scorecard, issued Aug. 19, analyzes votes of the members of the governing committee, which, among other things, determines which substances are allowed under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic label. It comes two years after Cornucopia released a white paper titled “The Organic Watergate—Connecting the Dots: Corporate Influence at the USDA’s National Organic Program,”which claimed that certain members of the 15-member NOSB were unfairly appointed due to the influence of corporate lobbyists.
“The 10,000-pound gorilla is the Organic Trade Association ,” says Mark Kastel, Cornucopia’s co-founder and senior farm policy analyst. OTA membership, he argues, has “virtually no farmers” but instead is dominated by industrial players that are largely subsidiaries of conventional food and agriculture companies.
The OTA strongly denies the accusation. “Our membership is incredibly diverse,” says Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of the OTA. She cites the organization’s thousand-plus members, who represent both large and small businesses and farmers, and a recent small-farmer initiative that reaches out to small farmers through regional farming associations. Small businesses are defined as having under $1 million in annual sales. It is unclear how the OTA defines small farms.
Though lobbying by organic agriculture interests pales when compared with that of traditional agribusiness—total organic lobbying in 2013 was around 0.3 percent of total agriculture lobbying—it nonetheless plays an important role in shaping organic policy.
Based on figures from Opensecrets.org, a website that tracks campaign contributions and lobbying dollars, the OTA is the predominant organic lobbying client, spending over $315,000 on lobbying efforts in 2013. The other significant organic lobby client identified by Opensecrets.com, the National Organic Coalition, which more often aligns with the Cornucopia Institute’s positions, spent only about a quarter of that amount.
However, it is difficult to get a clear picture of organic lobbying activities in the U.S. since organic issues are often bundled with more general agriculture or food lobbying. For example, WhiteWave, which produces the Horizon Organic and Earthbound Farm organic brands, is a subsidiary of Dean Foods, which also has conventional brands, ranging from Purity to Land O’Lakes. Dean Foods spent $750,000 on lobbying efforts in 2013, only a portion of which was dedicated to organic issues. In cases like these, it can be difficult to determine the influence that non-organic lobbying spending exerts on non-organic issues.
The Cornucopia Institute’s scorecard provides evidence to support its claims that “a number of [NOSB] appointments have violated the letter and spirit” of the law, representing corporate, rather than farmer, interests.
It does this by detailing NOSB member voting records over the past five years and showing that by appointing so many corporate affiliates, the board allowed “risky and/or gimmicky synthetic or non-organic materials” to be approved for continued use under the USDA label. Corporate affiliates on the NOSB, including but not limited to Whole Foods, Organic Valley, WhiteWave and Driscoll’s, most often took positions opposed to those of members who represent academia, public interest groups and independent farmers.
Without this strong corporate presence, at least some of the materials under review would likely have been discontinued under the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act’s “sunset” provision.
For example, at its spring 2014 meeting, the NOSB recommended, by an 8-7 vote, extending the expiration date of streptomycin, an antibiotic that was one of four substances up for review as permissible under the USDA organic seal. Proponents of the extension said it would allow farmers to have a little more time to develop alternatives to streptomycin so there would be no disruptions to existing supply chains. Among other things, opponents of the extension pointed out that streptomycin is already prohibited for organic production in Europe, Canada, Japan and other countries. They noted that those countries had already identified possible alternatives.
The NOSB’s role takes on particular significance this fall, as Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack will appoint four new representatives to the board for a five-year term beginning in January 2015. By analyzing the voting records of members, the key question the Cornucopia Institute raises with its scorecard is whether these potential appointments will be fair to the entire organic community.
The OTA’s Batcha does not dispute the corporate backgrounds of some NOSB members. “The whole idea of the NOSB is that there is a range of interests,” she says. “When 85 percent of organic agriculture goes to wholesale markets, they are stakeholders as well.”
She acknowledges, though, that there have been tensions between those stakeholders in the past. “The system has pitted producers vs. processors, historically to the disadvantage of the farmers,” she says. Batcha maintains that this old way of thinking no longer holds up. In the same way that the organic movement has “revamped” farming practices, it has also revamped relationships between different players, she claims.
The differences in opinion on substances approved by the NOSB for use under the USDA organic label—substances like streptomycin—are just that: differences in opinion, according to Batcha. She says that most stakeholders agree on other issues, from increasing funding for organic research to expanding support for organic farmers.
Cornucopia’s Kastel, on the other hand, dismisses these areas of convergence. “Those are not where the rubber meets the road,” he says. “There is no controversy there.” He notes that even if stakeholders agree on some things, the differences that do exist are serious ones. “We are in essence an organic truth squad. They [the OTA] really hate us.”
But Batcha’s attitude doesn’t seem so much hateful as annoyed—annoyed with debates that, the OTA feels, hamper progress. “It’s funny that it gets as emotional as it does,” she says. The OTA has been more frustrated with delayed progress on issues that “are bigger than any tiny little material,” issues like the rules on global organic trade standards, she says.
In essence, the two groups differ when it comes to their priorities. What are, to some, small compromises or delays in phasing out a “tiny little material” go to the core of the USDA organic label’s integrity for others. Both sides want growth, but disagree about what cost is acceptable to achieve that growth—especially when it comes to actions that may compromise the purity of the organic product or minimize the role of small, independent farmers. Given the organic industry’s rapid expansion, the debate over the role and influence of different stakeholders in organic policy is not likely to go away any time soon.