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USDA's Robinson talks on organic certification

Earlier this year, organic coffee roasters launched a caffeine-fueled organizing drive when they heard organic coffee supplies might dry up due to a new ruling in the USDA organic program.

The National Organic Program made clear it was clamping down on the certification of "grower groups," such as farmer co-ops in the Third World. The NOP felt that each farm in these groups should be visited and inspected annually, rather than only a part of the group, as had been the practice in the past.

This would have raised certification costs so sharply as to curtail organic products such as coffee, cocoa, and spices that are grown in the developing world.

Well, the organizing campaign questioning this new policy worked, and the NOP decision was put on hold earlier this month. A solution will now be worked out between the NOP and its citizen advisory panel, the National Organic Standards Board.

Curious about this course of events, I called Barbara Robinson, USDA's Deputy Administrator for the NOP to see the reasoning on this decision and where things stood now.

Although the initial flurry of publicity focused on grower groups in Central America, the system is also used in China, where organic exports are fast growing. Concerns have been raised about whether Chinese certification standards are adequate. I asked Robinson about this directly.

"The program does have concern about how grower groups are overseen, and it's interesting to us that the folks who are concerned about [organic] imports and whether or not they received adequate oversight also are strong advocates in some cases of grower groups," Robinson told me. "We're puzzled by that."

She added that no region of the world, and no commodity, would receive a special pass when it came to applying standards. "You can't have a different standard in China than you do in Idaho," she said.

The Organic label was designed, she said, so that consumers had assurances that the products they were buying reflected a set of standards. "It was not designed to help a small farmer in a country with a low income … to survive," she said. Although she was sympathetic to those farmers — "who isn't?" — it doesn't mean that "they have an entitlement under the NOP and the NOP should change its standards for them."

Certifiers and advocates on this issue told me they believe that a system can be set up that achieves these two goals: giving adequate assurance that the products are organic through a certification system affordable to these farmers.

Robinson, however, made clear that any solution would affect all farms everywhere.

"Why couldn't a cooperative in the United States do the same thing?" she asked. "Is it OK for all the small dairy farmers who supply a large dairy in the US — they're small, only have 20 cows — is it OK for them to be a grower group?"

She also pointed out that small coffee farms in Hawaii were certified organic, and inspected each year, as were sugar producers. Should that change as well?

What was clear from the discussion was that the NOSB and NOP have their work cut out for them on this issue — one which touches on farmer livelihood in the Third World, adequate access to global organic products, and consumer assurances about a label.

"Maybe there is a way to satisfy everybody's objectives but not at the cost of weakening the standards," Robinson said. "If there's a way to get there, I'm all for it. And I think the [NOSB] board would be for it too."

In the meantime, a recommendation made by the NOSB in 2002 on grower groups now holds force.

"I would be pretty satisfied with certifying agents really following carefully the NOSB recommendation in this interim period until we have a chance to work out our differences, get our concerns out there, do some rule-making and let the public weigh in on this," Robinson said.

Samuel Fromartz is the author of Organic Inc ( ) and blogs at Chews Wise ( )

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