An Interview with Dr. Jean Richardson,
Chair of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB)
By NODPA Staff
Added September 8, 2014.
NODPA: Your appointment to the NOSB was widely applauded by those who know and appreciate your unique qualifications. What skills do you bring to the Board? Why do such a “thankless job”?
Jean Richardson: Actually it is a great honor to be able to serve the organic community. Like most of the 15 member volunteer board I donate 12-15 hours every week, reviewing materials, calling experts, and endless conference calls, because we want to ensure the integrity of the organic label. We get no reimbursement for time, but our direct expenses are covered when we attend the two national meetings a year. So the public gets a lot for its tax dollars! The work is a really interesting mix of science, agriculture, policy, law, politics and personalities! This fits well with my background: Small diverse family farm and electric fence franchise in northern Vermont, in the 1970,s and 80’s, building on ideas we had gathered while we worked in New Zealand; Professor at University of Vermont where I taught environmental studies and environmental law - I have a PhD in Biogeography, which is a lot of science, and extensive training in Law; At UVM I received generous funding ($1.5 million dollars) from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for the Environmental Partnerships in Communities (EPIC) project which included work in the 1990’s on pasture management, where grad students like Lisa McCrory and Sarah Flack did some of their research work. I also did some research with Sarah on the long distance transport of dioxins in air pollution and their contamination of dairy feed and milk. In 1994 President Clinton appointed me to the first Commission on Environmental Cooperation in NAFTA, so I am no stranger to Washington politics! Then over the last 14 years, following additional training, I have been an organic inspector, visiting farms and businesses and maple syrup producers primarily in Vermont where it has been amazing to watch organic grow and thrive.
N: With your recent election as Chair of the NOSB what are your goals for the Board?
JR: In April this year NOSB membership elected me chair because I have a pretty balanced view of organics, and the ability to listen to opposing views and work with all stakeholder groups. So my hope is that I can help smooth the presently rough path we are treading in our relationship with the Washington, get some better press for organics, and do a great job reviewing all the synthetics.
N: The first day of an NOSB meeting is generally more interesting to those that aren’t knowledgeable about the details of NOSB work. Do you have any suggestions or ideas that might encourage producers/farmers/ranchers to attend at least 1 day of an NOSB meeting when it is in their area?
JR: The NOSB meeting is a great opportunity to meet like-minded people from all over the nation and all branches of organic production. People gather the day before to attend the NOC meeting, and the first day of the NOSB meeting includes updates from the NOP. It can be empowering for everyone.
N: Most producers find it difficult to shorten their remarks to the 3 minutes allowed at NOSB meeting. In the past the chair of the Board used to extend a courtesy to those that are obviously not professional speakers to assist them to get their point over. Do you have any thoughts on this positive discrimination to try to level the playing field of public comment sessions?
JR: The NOP chair always has the flexibility to extend time for a speaker. By stating a time limitation upfront it encourages people to think carefully about what is the most important point they want to make. One person can REALLY make a difference.
N: The USDA NOP has mandated a change in the relationship between the NOP and the Board, what is your opinion of this, and what steps will the Board be taking under your leadership to try to reclaim its independence and ensure the integrity of the Organic Seal?
JR: Many will remember that one of the hard fought compromises in establishing the NOP was that the NOSB should be more than the typical Federal Advisory Committee (FACA), and have greater independence. There was concern that the government would take over organics and the role of public input, especially small farmers would be diminished or lost. So from 2002-2013 the NOSB had considerable independence, developed and took public comment on policies and procedures, wrote annotations for materials at Sunset, and put items on its Workplan. In 2013 and early 2014, that changed. The AMS determined that it would be more efficient and streamlined, given the cumbersome nature of Rule Making in Washington, to have a new Sunset Policy, and the NOSB should have the same scope of responsibility as all other FACA committees. Much of this change was probably pushed by the fast-growing big farms and food manufacturers who, understandably, need predictability to run their businesses. A volunteer board, like many aspects of democracy, is messy and time consuming and not always predictable. Please note here that some aspects of the new Sunset procedure are an excellent improvement over the previous Sunset procedure, requiring that the highly complex reviews start early, with increased opportunity for public input. How the final step will work will be seen in October as we complete some of our first reviews under the new Sunset process. It is not a perfect procedure, but we will try to make it work well. As Chair I talk regularly with the Deputy Administrator, Miles McEvoy, and I have met with Senator Leahy and continue to interact with his staff. I am concerned that some of these changes have decreased the ability of the NOSB to carry out the mandate of the original OFPA. But I am hopeful that we will see an increase again in the collaboration between the NOP and the NOSB.
N: The NOSB and its two meetings a year is seen by many organic stakeholders as their only avenue for commenting on and influencing the future of organic certification. What potential do you see for ensuring that there is transparency and accountability in how the NOP operates, and what role does the NOSB play in this process?
JR: It is unfortunate that stakeholders perceive that the two meetings a year are the only way to get their opinions heard. This is really not the case. Anyone can contact board members or the NOP staff by phone or e-mail. The NOSB has recommended many times that we set up an ongoing Blog for comment but this keeps coming up with problems to set up and staff. I would encourage you to keep asking questions, and sending out your NODPA News publication, which is influential and read by the NOP staff. I would also encourage you to give regular feedback to your Washington Congressional Delegation.
N: Organic certification is the biggest growth area in agriculture and a billion dollar industry. What are your thoughts about the dynamic and inevitable conflict between the need for more synthetic materials to assist the growth of manufactured organic products while maintaining the integrity and uniqueness of organic certification?
JR: When it comes to the subject of synthetics, and the increase in demand for synthetics from companies proposing new organic products, I would ask everyone to have confidence in the NOSB’s work on this issue. You will see quite a few synthetics being proposed by the NOSB to be removed from the National List this year, next year and 2017; we are working on all these right now. Every substance gets reviewed in minute detail, and certainly in far more depth than when many of them were placed on the National List in 1995. There will be rigorous debate and more transparency.
N: Under the leadership of Deputy Secretary, Kathleen Merrigan, the Board was encouraged to look at issues like animal welfare which is so important to producers and consumers alike. The new leadership at USDA AMS is more inclined towards marketing and expansion of organics as a brand.
JR: The USDA is a huge agency. The Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) component is small, and the NOP is a tiny part of AMS. It is unfortunate in some ways that organics were placed in marketing, but that is what we have to work with, and yes the present message from AMS to NOP is marketing related and lobbied by big business. Organics is a 35 billion dollar industry and marketing is critically important for all of us, local and national, big and small. That is how US agriculture works. And we have a cheap food policy in the U.S., which reduces slim profit margins and increases competition. So if marketing is the present emphasis, we need to determine what we can do to get the most out of it for our farm businesses. We do need to boost consumer confidence, improve labels on products, reduce consumer confusion, and have clear signs at Farmers’ markets. And I would suggest you look at what AMS has to offer and take advantage of the opportunities to do better marketing for your products. Pick your battles!. Working together, building partnerships is the only way to go.
N: Would it not be a better use of NOP staff and resources to have all meetings in DC, perhaps have 3 meetings a year, so there could be more time for them to conduct business rather than to travel around the country? Perhaps the money saved could be put into a competitive grant program for producers to obtain travel grants to attend NOSB meetings?
JR: Actually, I think it is a good idea to move the national public meetings to different locations around the country. It helps the NOSB and NOP get a flavor of the geographic diversity of organics. Washington is a good location for politics and lobbying opportunities, but it is a much more expensive location to hold meetings. Even though NOP staff would not have to fly, there would be no cost savings in holding meetings in DC. Our NOSB budget is tiny. The annual total is only $190,000, the ceiling set by USDA, based on total allowed funding across all USDA committees. This must cover staff salary and benefits, Board travel, and all meeting costs. Please note that we are hoping to hold the late October 2015 meeting in Stowe, Vermont and I encourage a huge turnout! Maybe I will still be chair!
Dr Jean Richardson will be on a panel on Thursday evening at the NODPA Field Days, talking about ‘The Future of Organic Certification’ and on Friday morning she will be participating in the panel ‘What’s happening in Washington?’ Click here to see the full NODPA Field Days Agenda.
Read an article written by Cheryl Cesario for our January 2012 NODPA News titled ‘Get to Know Jean Richardson: New NOSB Member from Vermont'. To reach Jean, you can email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.