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Reading the NOP Leaves

By Samuel Fromartz

Added May 12, 2008. Back during the Cold War, political scientists known as Kremlinologists tried to interpret all the personnel shake-ups in the Soviet Union to figure out where policy was headed.

Well, the National Organic Program isn’t the Kremlin, but given a recent reorganization and a proposed budget increase, it’s worth a look to see what’s happening and what it means to the organic community.

First off, the news.

On February 5, the NOP announced that it was undergoing a major reorganization. At the same time, the Bush administration proposed to increase NOP’s budget by $800,000 in fiscal 2009 from the current level of $3.12 million - notable given the tight climate for federal spending.

Lloyd Day, administrator of Agricultural Marketing Service, which oversees the NOP, said in a press release that the changes were made “to keep up with growth in the organic industry.”

The organic industry had been advocating for a better-funded, swifter-acting regulatory body for years, but getting any movement had been difficult. But Organic food has been getting on the radar screen of lawmakers and that may have contributed to this movement.

Under the reorganization, the NOP, under the direction of the Agricultural Marketing Service’s Barbara Robinson, will be reorganized into three divisions:

  • Standards Development & Review, headed up by Richard Mathews, formerly deputy administrator for the NOP. This division will be responsible for the actual rule writing – a job that in the past never had a dedicated full-time person.
  • Accreditation, Auditing & Training, headed up by Mark Bradley, who had followed Mathews as deputy administrator in 2006.
  • Compliance & Enforcement, a post that remains unfilled at the moment.

Industry participants are guardedly hopeful, since the shake-up charges specific officials with specific tasks. In addition, the budget boost could bring much-needed personnel to the department, which had about nine people, including clerical staff.

“It’s good they’re bringing in resources to take care of these issues,” said Dave Carter, a former chairman of the National Organic Standards board.

“In the long run it may strengthen the position of the program to have three divisions,” added Jim Riddle, also a former NOSB chairman.

But Riddle also expressed concern that no one was appointed head of compliance – an area that he feels needs more attention.

Riddle and others noted that the NOP has moved at an extremely slow pace on important issues. They view the long-languishing pasture rule as a litmus test for the new effectiveness of the organization.

“It would be very helpful to the industry if we could get a dairy rule out there,” said Caren Wilcox, executive director of the Organic Trade Association.

But she and others held out hope that putting the rule writing in the hands of one person – Mathews – would streamline the process. All those interviewed agreed that Mathews knows how to write rules and could be an asset. “Most agencies have a group of people who do their rules,” Wilcox noted, “and until now the NOP had no one.”

Robinson said in November that the pasture rule was nearly ready to go to the Office and Management and Budget for review. But as of now, it still has not been passed off to the OMB, which will take at least three months for review.

Down the road, the NOP could gain stature if Senate language for a budget increase is approved as part of the current Farm Bill. The Senate voted to grant the NOP $5 million in the 2009 fiscal year and raise it to $11 million by 2012.

The House, however, included no funds for the NOP administration in its version of the Farm Bill so it’s an open question what the final result will be. The bill is currently in conference to merge the Senate and House versions.

Although the increased budget will help the NOP, Wilcox – a former USDA official – said it would take a strong commitment from the secretary of agriculture’s office or the White House to get a significant rise in stature in the program. And perhaps the best hope of that happening is with a new administration.