CORNUCOPIA, WI - The US Department of Agriculture should publicly release the names of applicants for its expert advisory panel on organic food and agriculture practices, according to a farm policy group. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is expected to announce the appointment for five open slots on the 15-member National Organic Standards Board sometime during the next few months.
"We believe a public and transparent selection process for members of this key advisory group is appropriate and will help assure the most qualified people are selected for this important work," said Will Fantle, Codirector of The Cornucopia Institute. Applicants to the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) have been publicly announced in the past, although not in recent years, according to the Wisconsin-based farm policy research group.
The NOSB advises the USDA on organic agriculture and food policy but was charged by Congress with ultimate authority over materials and substances that can be approved in the growing, handling and processing of organic food. Its fifteen members are required by statute to represent diverse segments of the industry, including farmers, organic certifiers, consumers, environmentalists, scientists, retailers, and handlers. Members serve five-year terms.
For more than a decade, annual growth in the organic foods industry had been averaging double digits, with sales now totaling $24 billion. But the severe economic downturn has dramatically slowed this growth and some family farmers, particularly in the organic dairy sector, are now struggling to hang on in the business and keep their land.
"In the last several years, appointments by the previous administration to the NOSB have been heavily tilted towards corporate agribusiness," said Fantle. "Given the struggles we are seeing in the farm community, we particularly want a balance restored - a balance representative of those elements that helped propel organics into a thriving sector. We believe that the public sharing of the pool of applicants will assist this effort," Fantle added.
In 2005 the Bush administration provoked broad discontent and condemnation in the organic community when they were accused of wholly disregarding the will of Congress by appointing a staff member from food industry giant General Mills to fill a slot reserved for a consumer representative on the NOSB. "This was, sadly, the most dramatic example of the tilting of this organic oversight body towards an agribusiness-friendly majority and clearly illustrative of why the appointment process should not be done behind closed doors in secret," Fantle lamented. After a barrage of negative press, the General Mills staff member , Katrina Heinz, withdrew from the position. She was later appointed by the Bush administration to fill the scientist's slot on the board.
Cornucopia has learned that 47 individuals have applied for membership on the NOSB. Twenty-nine farmers applied for the two open producer slots, nine individuals applied for the open handler slot, four individuals are seeking appointment to the open retailer slot, and five people applied for the open environmentalist position.
"We want to help Secretary Vilsack make good selections from the many applicants for the National Organic Standards Board," said Merrill Clark, an organic beef and grain farmer from Cassopolis, Michigan and a past member of the NOSB. "A transparent process, where we know who the applicants are, provides greater meaning to our input," Clark added.