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Grower-group certification in Third World countries may change

An appeals decision by the National Organic Program regarding certification of a Mexican grower group throws into question how the NOP will certify such groups in the future, and whether these groups will be able to afford organic certification, primarily of coffee.

This, in turn, casts doubt on whether U.S. consumers will have easy access to organic, fair-trade, shade-grown coffee to get them started in the morning.

The decision came in October and was posted on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Web site in March. Tucked into a list of appeals summaries, is the statement that an appeal to certify a community grower group in Mexico, which had been denied certification "for improper personnel structure of the Internal Control System and lapses in its administration," was denied. Specifically, this Internal Control System "failed to detect the application of a prohibited insecticide by one producer and to provide evidence that the use of empty fertilizer bags for crop storage was confined to one producer." The decision goes on to say that the operation's internal oversight mechanisms for maintaining organic processes "were inadequate."

Most importantly, the decision upholds a provision in the national organics standards that requires each grower within a grower group to be inspected and certified annually for the growers group to receive certification.

Cutting through that governmental jargon, it means this: Before the NOP, organic-certification inspectors annually certified only 10 percent to 20 percent of the growers in large grower groups in the Third World and developing nations. The other 80 to 90 percent of the farmers in the cooperative were self-policed by the co-op's Internal Control System. Every year, another 10 percent to 20 percent were inspected; every five to 10 years, everyone was inspected.

"The USDA has been accrediting this way for five years [since the NOP was created]," said Michael Sligh of Rural Advancement Foundation International U.S.A. based in Pittsboro, N.C.

The 20 percent solution has been recognized by the USDA and international markets, Sligh said, because a single growers group, such as one coffee grower in Ethiopia, sometimes contains as many as 80,000 farmers. Certifying all 80,000 is cumbersome at best and cost-prohibitive at worst. The 20 percent solution allows the certifying process to happen both cost- and time-effectively.

Even though the 20 percent solution was never codified in the organic standards, the NOP allowed its use for certification. Its recent appeal decision seems to indicate that it will begin enforcing the 100 percent rule now, disallowing the other.

Joan Shaffer, spokeswoman for the NOP in Washington, D.C., has not commented yet on a list of questions sent to her April 6. People like Sligh and Sam Fromartz, author of Organic, Inc. (Harcourt, 2006), say the appeals decision creates many ambiguities:

1. Is it being interpreted correctly? "We're hoping it's a misunderstanding," Sligh said. Is the NOP stating in a roundabout way that it will enforce the rule that all growers within a group, regardless of size or wealth, be inspected annually? Or is this decision applicable to this isolated appeal alone?

2. If the NOP has decided to enforce the 100 percent rule, why hasn't it done so from its inception; why has it tolerated the practice for five years? And what, if any, have been the NOP's concerns with the 20 percent solution before this decision?

3. Will the increase in required inspections mean there will be more inspectors? Or, perhaps that the inspections won't be done to the same high standards? Or will the grower groups in poor countries who can't afford the added inspections forgo U.S. organic certification altogether? And will this spell an end to, or a shortage of, U.S. organic coffee supplies?

4. Can group growers develop legal partnerships in these other countries so that they can get by with just one inspection as one plantation with many partners?

5. How were the problems in the Mexican farm group discovered? And isn't discovering them simply an indication that the current practice of inspections is working? Fromartz, who has researched this ruling, says he doesn't know how the problem was discovered and is considering filing a FOIA request to find out.

6. Is there any way to appeal this decision further? "We are encouraging dialogue to bring this to some resolution," Sligh said. He, and several "partners in other parts of the world" are concerned that the ruling has "thrown the baby out with the bathwater." Is there a way to keep the 20 percent solution, but ensure that organic standards are being met?

7. Were there problems with the group-grower certification in the past, and what ramifications do they have on the coffee Americans have been drinking that has been certified organic? Does the NOP have confidence that certified-organic coffee from growers groups is truly organic?

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