National Organic Standards Board Still Corrupt after Friendly USDA Audit
The Office of the Inspector General (OIG), at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), released a brief report on July 23 outlining their review of serious allegations of collusion with corporate agribusiness, conflicts of interest, illegal appointments and false information tainting the decision-making on the part of the National Organic Standards Board, the expert panel created by Congress to protect the integrity of the organic label.
The OIG audit was prompted by a congressional request and a formal complaint filed by an organic industry watchdog, The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based not-for-profit policy research organization.
“The limited scope of this review by the OIG simply confirmed that the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) was correctly administering the process of reviewing non-organic and synthetic substances before they were added to the National List,” said Mark A. Kastel, codirector at The Cornucopia Institute. “Their audit made it clear that they did not look into the allegations documented in our heavily footnoted, 75 page-white paper, The Organic Watergate.”
In The Organic Watergate, subtitled Connecting the Dots: Corporate Influence at the USDA’s National Organic Program, Cornucopia documented the allegedly illegal stacking of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) with corporate executives and consultants.
Cornucopia complained that two of the individuals appointed to board seats reserved by Congress for citizens who “own or operate an organic farm” are actually corporate agribusiness executives who did not qualify when appointed.
In their audit, the OIG only interviewed USDA personnel and relied on minutes and resumes to verify the legality of appointments. “We will issue a FOIA request for the resumes of the suspect board members to make sure that truthful and accurate information was reviewed by the OIG,” Kastel said. “We can’t hold them responsible for making the wrong call on this if they were reviewing information that was intentionally deceptive, but we are disappointed they conducted no interviews or looked no further into the specific allegations we made.”
The OIG audit only looked at the NOSB as it was constituted in 2011. At that time, one of the “farmer” members was Wendy Fulwider, who is a full-time employee of the CROPP Cooperative, a $750 million business enterprise that sells the majority of their products on a wholesale basis to other large marketers, with the balance under its Organic Valley label.
“Ms. Fulwider clearly stated at the May 2012 NOSB meeting that her extended family’s farm was just about to qualify, after transition, to market its first organic commodities,” said Charlotte Vallaeys, director of Farm and Food Policy at The Cornucopia Institute. “The intent of Congress is clear in that this seat is reserved for actual organic farmers, not conventional farmers thinking about switching to organic or in the process of converting.”
The Cornucopia Institute has been contacted by a number of highly qualified farmers, who have been passed over for appointment to the NOSB, in deference to corporate “imposters.” These organic farmers are in the process of organizing a lawsuit to remove the apparently illegal corporate appointments.
“By virtue of the fact that they only looked at the 2011 board, the OIG also did not address our complaint concerning Ms. Carmela Beck, a full-time employee of the giant California-based conventional and organic berry producer, Driscoll’s, Incorporated,” added Vallaeys.
According to a July 7 New York Times story, Beck originally applied for a seat on the NOSB earmarked for organic handlers (food processors) but was placed instead in another slot reserved for farmers when the USDA made their appointments.
Cornucopia officials stated that it now appeared likely a judicial review would be necessary to resolve the propriety of the composition of the NOSB.
Cornucopia’s Organic Watergate report also alleged that the Technical Reviews, used by the NOSB to evaluate the health and environmental safety of synthetics allowed in organics, were biased and performed by corporate agribusiness executives or consultants.
“The OIG report specifically alludes to their evaluation of the Technical Review that was prepared for mutated algae and soil fungus-based oils (DHA and ARA), which were approved for use in organic foods by a one-vote margin by the NOSB last fall,” stated Vallaeys. “This is the one factual element in the OIG audit that we categorically disagree with.”
The omega-3 and omega-6 oils were petitioned by Martek Biosciences, a division of the $12 billion Dutch conglomerate DSM, and had the backing of their largest customer, Dean Foods, which adds the nutraceuticals to its Horizon brand milk. Two peer-reviewed and published meta-analyses concluded that, unlike Dean/Horizon marketing claims, the materials, loaded with synthetic additives, are not efficacious in terms of brain development.
The Federal Trade Commission has forced Dean Foods to change some of the marketing claims they were making, and the company is facing over a dozen class action lawsuits claiming fraudulent representations to consumers.
Cornucopia prepared an examination of the Technical Review for the NOSB, which clearly outlined biased and unsubstantiated health claims in the document, which violates mandated procedures.
“Making health claims, supporting the petition by Martek Biosciences, without substantiating them with scientific citations in the Technical Review provided to the NOSB is a grave disservice to its members, who generally do not have a scientific background, as well as to the organic community at large,” said Vallaeys.
The OIG report states, “We did not attempt to evaluate the accuracy or completeness of any scientific technical reports or petitions” and “… We are not reaching any conclusion as to the merits of the complaint itself.”
“The real controversy here, concerning what we are calling The Organic Watergate, is all about improper and illegal corporate influence and the outcome of the process that has resulted in illegal synthetic materials being blessed for use in organic food. We are disappointed that the OIG did not take the time to investigate these serious allegations,” Kastel lamented.
“There is a higher authority than the USDA, as to the propriety of how organic food is produced, and I’m not even talking about the federal courts. I’m talking about the organic consumer. And they will vote last in the marketplace in support of organic brands that do not play fast and loose with the goodwill of their customers,” Kastel stated.
To illustrate the brevity of the OIG’s review only about 2 2/3 pages, of the 12 page report actually addressed their audit findings and methodology, including the executive summary. The balance consisted of a cover letter, table of contents, background on the USDA’s organic program and abbreviations used in the document.
“We have a lot of respect for the OIG, and its independence, and are disappointed that this report did not address the serious allegations of influence peddling and corruption in the decision-making process at the NOP,” stated Cornucopia’s Kastel. “To my knowledge, no individual or organization has ever suggested that the USDA was not following legal procedures in the NOSB review process. The allegations are that the process is being followed but has been corrupted.”
Over the past year, the powerful Organic Trade Association (OTA) has partnered with agribusinesses like General Mills, Dean Foods, Smuckers and biotechnology giants like DSM/Martek to grease through a number of gimmicky synthetic ingredients, over the objection of every nonprofit, public interest group that has submitted formal comments to the NOSB.
At the upcoming fall meeting, there will be nine more synthetic materials, including two synthetic preservatives and one synthetic antimicrobial, that the industry is trying to approve for use in organics.
“We hope consumers will continue to seek out locally produced and wholesome organic food, and processed foods from reputable companies, that have not engaged in questionable behavior,” Kastel said.
“Companies like Nutiva, Eden Foods, or Nature’s Path, the largest breakfast cereal company that produces 100 percent organic nutrient-dense foods, are proving that you can be large, multimillion-dollar enterprises, profitable and rapidly growing, without selling-out the values that this industry was based upon,” Kastel added.
Eden Foods CEO, Michael Potter, attended last May’s NOSB meeting to firmly tell the board that they should be operating under the “precautionary principle” when reviewing all additives in organics. He clearly acknowledged in his testimony that he was “not an Organic Trade Association member.”
Consumers seeking out organic foods of the highest integrity can find a series of scorecards and buyers guides to help their decision-making process by clicking here.
After decades on the political periphery, the climate movement is entering the mainstream in 2020, with young leaders at the fore. The Sunrise Movement now includes more than 400 local groups educating and advocating for political action on climate change. Countless students around the world have clearly communicated what's at stake for their futures, notably Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who just finished her yearlong school strike for climate. Youth activists have been praised for their flexible, big-picture thinking and ability to harness social media to deliver political wins, as Sunrise recently did for U.S. Sen. Ed Markey's primary campaign. They necessarily challenge the status quo.
A Convergence of Issues<p>The unequal impacts of a changing climate have become extremely clear in 2020, so equity has come to the fore of climate conversations in every corner of the country. A global deadly pandemic continues to rage out of control in the U.S., heat waves are setting new temperature records, wildfires are scorching American Western states, and the hurricane season has already made it to the end of the alphabet for naming storms. In all cases, low-income, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities are bearing a disproportionate amount of the impacts.</p><p>"Today, the scab is off, the ugly reality of injustice is hitting us up close and personal, made more realistic by this COVID pandemic," Bullard says.</p><p>This year the decidedly youthful focus on intersectionality is a big part of what defines the transformation of the climate movement. Climate is not just an environmental issue, according to youth activists. It's also a racial justice issue, an economic issue, and an access-to-health care issue.</p><p>"Environmental justice is really seeing the intersection of these issues," says Alex Rodriguez, a community organizer with the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters, which aims to make environmental issues a priority for the state's elected leaders. The group is now focusing their efforts on the coming election and recently succeeded in persuading the state to allow absentee voting in November. "We want people to be safe when casting their vote," says Rodriguez, 26, whose fellow grassroots committee members range from age 16 to 60.</p><p>Rodriguez, who also serves on the equity and environmental justice working group for the Governor's Council on Climate Change, says, "We see our programmatic work as a way to help lawmakers see what they can do to improve the dignity of those suffering from environmental racism, systematic racism, and economic oppression."</p><p>Seeing the overlap and bringing these issues together is a strength that Bullard says was missing from the civil rights organizing he was involved with in the 1960s. He says 2020 is unique in many ways.</p><p>"The number of marchers is unprecedented, from different economic, ethnic, and racial groups—an awakening unlike any that I've seen on this Earth in over 70 years," Bullard says. "Today, the different movements are converging, and I think that convergence makes for greater potential for success."</p>
Young and Old<p>But young people are one essential demographic among many when it comes to climate action. With all that's on the line for climate in the coming elections, up and down the ballot, collaboration becomes key. Bullard says previous generations of climate activists can now play the critical role of mentoring, assisting, and supporting. Standing with, not in front of, youth.</p><p>"Youth are leading us and taking on frontline activity," says Jayce Chiblow, the community engagement lead for Indigenous Climate Action, a Canadian organization that works for Indigenous-led climate justice solutions. But in doing so, she says many young Indigenous activists are experiencing the trauma of violence, getting arrested, and being taken away from their land. "All of our older people are supporting those youth: Elders, mentors, people trained in nonviolent action," Chiblow says. "The youth aren't alone."</p><p>That support can go a long way. "There's a lot of anger and a lot of fear, and that's understandable," says Wazer of Sunrise Connecticut. "I definitely feel those things, too, just considering the ways that our future has been threatened and kind of trashed by older generations."</p><p>Under the Trump administration, the number of environmental rollbacks alone can be disheartening, not to mention new <a href="https://www.yesmagazine.org/video/arctic-national-wildlife-refuge/" target="_blank">drilling permits in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge going up for auction</a>.</p><p>Wazer is frank about the risks of burnout, depression, and anxiety from the stress of it all, but draws inspiration from the example of the late U.S. representative and lifelong civil rights activist John Lewis. "That forgiveness and that ability to keep fighting and stay motivated … I think that that is something really powerful to learn from older generations."</p><p>An intergenerational approach can leverage the individual strengths of youth and older people in all their diversity.</p><p>"The elders hold our stories," says Chiblow, who is Anishinaabe from Garden River First Nation, Ontario. Those stories include lived experiences, culture, history, and generations of adapting to changes in climate. Such collective experience continues to inform Indigenous knowledge and connections to the land, as well as how people manage and govern themselves in relation to it. This knowledge is passed on through relationship-building and storytelling.</p><p>"Every time you hear that story, you're at a different point in your life, and you'll pick up something else … something new," Chiblow says.</p><p>Changes in perspectives that come with time and experience are among the reasons why intergenerational learning and coalitions are critical to the climate movement. To combine that living and learning is to expand the reach and meaning of the message exponentially. As part of her research for her master's degree, Chiblow brought together youth, community leaders, and knowledge keepers in her community to workshop climate action. "Those relationships are vital to keep that movement going," Chiblow says.</p>
The Unique Value Proposition of Elders<p>Older activists bring unique strengths to the table, according to gerontologist Mick Smyer, who designs strategies to move people from anxiety to action on climate. He calls himself "the aging whisperer to climate groups" and "the climate whisperer to aging groups." He is quick to point out that the learning can go in both directions.</p><p>"I think older adults are untapped resources," Smyer says. "Older adults bring several resources, one of which is their circles of influence. Just by virtue of having lived longer, older adults are going to have denser and richer networks," Smyer says. "The second is, when it comes to voting and civic engagement, older adults, as an age group, outperform all other age groups."</p><p>He uses the 2016 presidential election to illustrate his point: "The older age groups, 70% of them voted. Nobody [else] came close." He is cautious about making sweeping statements about older people broadly, but he says that ageism is alive and well. And that can deter the kind of collaboration that would beget necessary progress on climate action.</p><p>As the twin global patterns of an aging population and a changing climate continue arm in arm, Smyer says a good place for starting this work is within one's family.</p><p>"We each have that power to use in our circles of influence, particularly in our families, and we don't realize it," Smyer says. Whether it's via Zoom or FaceTime or a phone call or a chat in the living room, Smyer says, family members have a superpower: They will listen to each other, and they'll at least start the conversation.</p><p> "Intergenerational collaboration around climate issues, particularly in this election season, starts at home, and then goes to the polling booth," he says.</p>
Speaking the Same Language<p>As an individual's network of family, friends, and connections becomes wider and more diverse, the more work will need to be done to have them all working toward the same goals. That is equally true for the climate movement at large.</p><p>In bridging the gaps among baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials, Bullard says, "Each generation will have some idiosyncrasy and uniqueness about it that another generation will not understand or comprehend."</p><p>If everybody in a group or institution is similar, then there's no need to explain a lot, Bullard says. There's usually a fair amount of shared knowledge and values. But the more diverse that group gets, in age, race, gender, or culture, he says, the greater the potential for making mistakes, stepping on people's culture, and causing pain. But the potential for learning also increases exponentially.</p><p>Chiblow says successful collaboration comes down to being able to speak in shared concepts. The term "justice," for example, is an English word that's hard to translate into the Anishinaabe language. Chiblow says that because her community sees itself as belonging to the land, and being part of the land, the Anishinaabe worldview, and therefore their understanding of justice, is necessarily more holistic than the mainstream.</p><p>"Indigenous people have been feeling [the effects of climate change] for so long," Chiblow says. Today, as wildfires rage across the West, the mantra of "I can't breathe" is being driven home on a grand scale. For better and worse, climate justice is finally a front-page story.</p><p>"It's affecting the broader society," Chiblow says. "We're finally at the turning point where we could start to make real change because … people are really starting to feel that urgency."</p><p>The urgency will be tantamount in the coming election. A lot is at stake, says Chiblow: "Incentives, funding, all-around agreement, and also the way we're able to manage our lands and ourselves as people."</p><p>Bullard, too, is insistent on urgency. "This election is one of the most important elections of a generation, because there's so many things at stake," he says. "We can't wait another 40 years on climate. We don't have that much time. We don't have 40 years to get justice."</p><p>Issues of climate justice will be on the ballot in state and local elections this fall, such as Nevada's proposed renewable energy standards and Louisiana's proposed disaster funding. And the topic has finally made it onto the national stage. Joe Biden called Trump a "climate arsonist" for not acting on or even admitting that the wildfires in California are clearly climate-related. The frequency and intensity of such disasters is indisputable.</p><p>"Hurricanes don't swerve to avoid red states or blue states. Wildfires don't skip towns that voted a certain way," Biden <a href="https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/biden-address-west-coast-fires-confront-growing-threat/story?id=73000218" target="_blank">said in a speech on Sept. 14</a>. "The impacts of climate change don't pick and choose. That's because it's not a partisan phenomenon."</p><p>In many ways, the results of the upcoming elections will reflect the ways youth activists and older activists are able come to a common understanding of what climate justice means and what they want the future world to look like. </p><p>"There's a lot of knowledge built up in experience, and there's a lot of energy that's stored in young people," Bullard says. "When you put those two together, you have … an excellent recipe for potential success."</p>
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By Simon Montlake
For more than a decade, Susan Jane Brown has been battling to stop a natural gas pipeline and export terminal from being built in the backcountry of Oregon. As an attorney at the nonprofit Western Environmental Law Center, she has repeatedly argued that the project's environmental, social, and health costs are too high.
All that was before this month's deadly wildfires in Oregon shrouded the skies above her home office in Portland. "It puts a fine point on it. These fossil fuel projects are contributing to global climate change," she says.
Moderates Feeling the Heat<p>If elected, Mr. Biden has vowed to stop new drilling for oil and gas on federal land and in federal waters and to rejoin the 2015 Paris climate accord that President Donald Trump gave notice of quitting. He would reinstate Obama-era regulations of greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, the largest component of natural gas.</p><p>The Biden climate platform also states that all federal infrastructure investments and federal permits would need to be assessed for their climate impacts. Analysts say such a test could impede future LNG plants and pipelines, though not those that already have federal approval. </p><p>Climate change activists who pushed for that language say much depends on who would have oversight of federal agencies that regulate the industry. Some are wary of Biden's reliance on advice from Obama-era officials, including former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who is now on the board of Southern Company, a utility, and a former Obama environmental aide, Heather Zichal, who has served on the board of Cheniere Energy, an LNG exporter. </p>
The Push for U.S. Fuel Exports<p>As vice president, Biden was part of an administration that pushed hard for global climate action while also promoting U.S. oil and gas exports to its allies and trading partners. As fracking boomed, Obama ended a 40-year ban on crude oil exports. In Europe, LNG was touted both as an alternative to coal and as strategic competition with Russian pipelines.</p><p>That much, at least, continued with President Trump. Under Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the agency referred to liquified U.S. hydrocarbons as "<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/29/us/freedom-gas-energy-department.html" target="_blank">freedom gas</a>."</p><p>Mr. Trump has also championed the interests of coal, oil, and gas while denigrating the findings of government climate scientists. He rejected the Paris accord as unfair to the U.S. and detrimental to its economy, but has offered no alternative path to emissions cuts. </p><p>Still, Trump's foreign policy has not always served the LNG industry: Tariffs on foreign steel drove up pipeline costs, and a trade war with China stayed the hand of Chinese LNG importers wary of reliance on U.S. suppliers. </p><p>Even his regulatory rollbacks could be a double-edged sword. By relaxing curbs last month on methane leaks, the U.S. has ceded ground to European regulators who are drafting emissions standards that LNG producers are watching closely. "That's a precursor of fights that will be fought in all the rest of the developed world," says Mr. Hutchison. </p><p>Indeed, some oil-and-gas exporters had urged the Trump administration not to abandon the tougher rules, since they undercut their claim to offer a cleaner-burning way of producing heat and electricity. "U.S. LNG is not going to be able to compete in a world that's focused on methane emissions and intensity," says Erin Blanton, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. </p>
Stepping on the Gas<p>In July, the Department of Energy issued an export license to Jordan Cove's developer, Canada's Pembina Pipeline Corp. In a statement, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said the project would provide "reliable, affordable, and cleaner-burning natural gas to our allies around the world."</p><p>As a West Coast terminal, Jordan Cove offers a faster route to Asia where its capacity of 7.8 million tons of LNG a year could serve to heat more than 15 million homes. At its peak, its construction would also create 6,000 jobs, the company says, in a stagnant corner of Oregon.</p><p>But the project still lacks multiple local and state permits, and its biggest asset – a Pacific port – has become its biggest handicap, says Ms. Blanton. "They are putting infrastructure in a state where there's no political support for the pipeline or the terminal, unlike in Louisiana or Texas," she says. </p><p>Ms. Brown, the environmental lawyer, says she wants to see Jordan Cove buried, not just mothballed until natural gas prices recover. But she knows that it's only one among many LNG projects and that others will likely get built, even if Biden is elected in November, despite growing evidence of the harm caused by methane emissions. </p>
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