US organic rule tightening could squeeze small suppliers

A US Department of Agriculture ruling to increase organic certification inspection levels could negatively impact farmer cooperatives in third-world countries. Organic certifiers and groups who work with these farmers say the ruling could restrict the ability of small grower co-ops to produce organic coffee, as well as organic bananas, cocoa, sugar and botanicals.

"This ruling could wipe out the organic coffee market in the US," Kimberly Easson, director of strategic relationships for fair trade certification group TransFair USA, told It is feared the new ruling will increase small-scale production costs as annual inspections will now be required on every farm in a co-op, rather than a sample of about 20 per cent as the former National Organic Program (NOP) policies allowed. Co-ops were expected to self-regulate between official inspections, but when a Mexican grower was found to be using a prohibited insecticide and empty fertiliser bags for crop storage, the NOP took what some certifiers believe is an extreme stance, resulting in the USDA rule change in January.

"The previous system was a mechanism for the low-resource global south to afford organic certification," Michael Sligh of Rural Advancement Foundation International USA told The old system kept costs down in places like Ethiopia, which has 80,000 coffee-growing members, as well as for tea and spice farmers in India, organic sugar co-ops in Brazil, and organic cocoa farmers in Costa Rica.

Some companies expressed concern the NOP response to the Mexican situation was overcooked, and that punishment of the rule-breakers was a better solution.

"We need to have open comment on this and have a dialogue; we need to take a step back and look at the whole thing," Patty Vincent, coffee product and certification manager at Vermont-based Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, an organic and fair trade coffee company, told

A certification agency operating in Central and South America said the new ruling would mean certification times for growing groups would increase from 30 days to up to a year. Daily inspection rates can be as much $270, it said.

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