Watchdog Calls on USDA to Boost Transparency in Organic Governance

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Will Fantle, 715-839-7731

Watchdog Calls on USDA to Boost Transparency in Organic Governance

Secretary Vilsack Asked to Balance Public's Interest with Corporate Involvement

WASHINGTON - In a move to protect the growing organic industry
from undue corporate
influence, a leading organic watchdog group released a letter,
dated June 7, calling on the USDA to collaborate with the organic
community on
pending appointments to the National
Organic Standards Board
(NOSB).

The
Cornucopia Institute
, and other organic advocates,
have long
been concerned that representatives from corporate agribusiness have
obtained a
disproportionate influence on rulemaking at the USDA.

"During the Bush administration we saw crass
politics, at its
worst, in play during the NOSB appointment process," said Will Fantle,
Codirector of The Cornucopia Institute.

In one instance, an employee of General Mills
was nominated to fill a slot on the board that Congress had earmarked
for a
consumer representative.  "Abuses of this nature are repugnant to the
organic community and certainly betray the letter and spirit of the
Organic
Foods Production Act, the law passed by Congress giving the USDA
authority to
oversee the industry," added Fantle.

Although Cornucopia and other independent
industry observers have been
overwhelmingly satisfied with the new direction the Obama administration
has
taken in staffing the National Organic Program, and responding to
criticism
over past ethical lapses in management, including a recent audit by the
Inspector General's office, not all stakeholders have been pleased with
the
NOSB nominating/appointment process.

In 2009, the first time the Obama/Vilsack
administration at the USDA
named new NOSB members, they continued the Bush administration policy of
keeping secret the nominees and the related corporations or
organizations they
work for or represent.

Some in the organic community feel that the
lack of openness in the
appointment process has resulted in some important missteps that have
hurt the
credibility of the board and its work.  "Keeping nominees and their
affiliations secret raises questions of the process that is a slap in
the face
to organic principles," said Rebecca Goodman, a certified organic dairy
farmer from Wonewoc, Wisconsin.

Goodman had been nominated to the farmer-slot
on the board.  But
instead of choosing one of the legitimate certified organic farmers,
widely
respected and viewed as qualified and who were under consideration at
the time,
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack chose an animal husbandry specialist employed
by one
of the largest organic livestock product marketers in the country. 

While this appointee had grown up on a
conventional farm, her immediate
occupation is not that of an active organic farmer.

"The PhD scientist chosen for that NOSB
producer-slot certainly
can add an important perspective, but her appointment reduces the voice
of
actual organic farmers on the board who are, arguably, the most
important
stakeholders in the industry," lamented Fantle.

There is widespread concern that these
appointments marginalize the
voices of consumers and farmers who have built this industry, and places
a
disproportionate control of national organic policy in the hands of
board
members working for multinational for-profit enterprises like Whole
Foods,
Earthbound Farms, Quality Assurance International, Organic Valley,
Philips Mushrooms and Campbell Soup.

"Those serving on the NOSB would most ideally
be producers and
consumers who are on the front line of implementing and reviewing the
rules,
not those who would appear to have a financial interest in the outcome
of the
rules implemented," said Goodman. 

"Many of the corporate organizations that are
represented on the
board sell just a few percentage points of their product lines as
organic," said Fantle.  "Other marketers and farmers, whose
livelihoods are dependent upon the effort to maintain the integrity of
the
organic label, might view this as a conflict of interest."

The Cornucopia Institute’s
letter to Secretary Vilsack said the reason they are calling on the USDA
to
make these nominations public is because they, and many other
stakeholders in
the industry, know that many eminently qualified candidates have in the
past
been passed over because they did not have the political clout to be
appointed. 

"We simply want the organic community to be
able to help Secretary
Vilsack choose the very best candidates available for the NOSB," added
Fantle.

Cornucopia's letter went on to say that
although they are an aggressive
governmental and corporate watchdog they are in no way
"anticorporate."  They state there are many examples of larger
corporations that subscribe to the ethical foundation of the organic
movement.  But both the Bush and Obama administrations have given
disproportionate prominence on the NOSB to major corporate players. 
"Without denigrating Whole Foods, and their commitment to organics, you
have to question why this giant corporation again has a seat on the
board,
whereas the approximately 275 consumer-owned cooperatives, with hundreds
of
thousands of members and shoppers, have again been shut out," Goodman
said.

###

The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit farm policy research group, is dedicated to the fight for economic justice for the family-scale farming community.  Their Organic Integrity Project acts as a corporate and governmental watchdog assuring that no compromises to the credibility of organic farming methods and the food it produces are made in the pursuit of profit.  Their web page can be viewed at www.cornucopia.org.  

 

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