Take Action to Protect High Conservation Value Areas


Tell the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to Eliminate the Incentive to Convert High Conservation Value Areas to Organic Production.




Talking Points for Comments to the NOSB (Due March 30th)

Tell the NOSB who you are and why this is an important issue for you. For example:

  • An Organic Farmer might say they are required to and/or want to conserve biodiversity for the pollinator and pest control benefits it provides to the farm, and don’t think it is fair and/or wise for others to destroy areas of high value conservation.
  • An Organic Business might say they are concerned about the integrity of organic being upheld, and that the USDA organic label represents environmental stewardship in the marketplace and should not encourage the destruction of these valuable ecological areas.
  • An Organic Certifier or Inspector may share examples they have seen of conversion of High Conservation Value Areas. 
  • An Organic Consumer may say that they expect the extra money they spend on organic products means that biodiversity is being conserved, instead of the NOP regulations incentivizing the conversion.

Address the NOSB's questions with the following points: 

Question 1: Please provide specific data on the occurrences of organic agricultural conversion of high value lands or fragile ecosystems. 

  • [If you have information on specific conversion of high conservation value land that was later organically certified, share it with the NOSB.]
  • As mentioned in the Discussion Document conversion of 1.6 million acres of grassland, that was in place for at least 20 years, occurred between 2008-2012. Some of that land went into organic production as the document also stated, and more organic conversion undoubtedly occurred.

Question 2: What definition of high value conservation land or fragile ecosystem should be used ? 

  • The definition of “High Conservation Value Areas” should be used, and nowhere in the Rule Change should it exclude land coming out of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). What wasn’t mentioned in the above report is that 42 percent of 1.6 million acres of the converted grassland may have come from land exiting the CRP, and again some undoubtedly went into organic production. Land coming out of CRP should be considered to have High Conservation Value if there are declining or protected species present, or if the land or area is not suitable to be cropped or grazed.
  • This four-part definition of “High Conservation Value Areas” (HCVA) is a variation on what many organic and ecolabels currently use and should be adopted by the NOP:
    • Lands or aquatic environments that are habitat for vulnerable, threatened or endangered plant, mammal, bird, amphibian, reptile or other species as identified by the IUCN Red List, including the federal and state lists and those compiled by NatureServe;
    • A large landscape-level ecosystem which is significant at global, regional or national levels, and that contains viable populations of most of the naturally occurring species in natural patterns of distribution and abundance;
    • Rare ecosystems as protected by local law or defined by the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems. In the U.S., refer to NatureServe’s Terrestrial Ecological Systems of the United States;
    • Areas that provide critical ecosystem services (e.g. watershed protection or erosion control, and areas providing barriers to destructive fires).

Question 3: How can high value land and fragile ecosystems best be protected under in USDA organic certification. Should the NOP issue Guidance on conversion of high value land, or fragile ecosystems? Should a Rule change, such as an addition to 7 CFR 205.202 be recommended in order to address conversion of high value lands or fragile ecosystems? 

  • A Rule Change is required. The NOP has already said that they would not address this issue in Guidance because converting HCVA into organic production takes place before the land is certified. All NOP regulations apply to land that is already certified, except the one about land which has had any prohibited substances applied during the three years immediately preceding the harvest.
  • Converting land is a costly investment and non-compliances issued by certifiers for conversion of HCVA may be challenged if this issue is only addressed in Guidance, whereas a Rule Change would make it clear that conversion is not allowed.

Question 4: What incentives, and/or disincentives could be implemented within current USDA organic regulations to prevent the conversion of high value land and fragile ecosystems? 

  • There are numerous ways to discourage the conversion of High Conservation Value Areas to organic production, including complete prohibition or prohibition during an extended waiting time. We recommend that land should not be eligible for five years between first requesting organic certification from an accredited certifier to the allowance of that ecosystem to be transformed to organic production.
  • NOP should encourage producers who want to become organic to apply for assistance through USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Conservation Activity Plan 138 for transitioning lands. They should also suggest that some producers may find the USDA Certified Transitional Program authored by the Organic Trade Association to be helpful in their transition.

Question 5: Should there be an extended waiting period for land seeking organic certification that has recently been converted from high value land or fragile ecosystems? If so, what duration should the waiting period be and why? 

  • Yes, High Conservation Value Areas should not be eligible for five years in order to make the three-year transition of conventional land easier and cheaper than converting HCVA. This will eliminate the incentive to convert HCVA, and will encourage producers to transition the right land - the 99% of US agriculture that is still conventionally managed.


Don't forget to tell us you submitted your comments with the form below.  Thank you!

Tilling_prairie.jpgBackground on this Issue

The National Organic Program’s (NOP) three-year waiting period for land to be free of prohibited substances unintentionally incentivizes producers to convert High Conservation Value Areas (HCVA) since this land is instantly ready for organic production. While organic agriculture is an ecological management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, it offers no environmental protections prior to certification.

NOP needs to catch up with the rest of the organic and environmental ecolabels of the world. Twenty of them (13 organic and 11 ecolabels) do not allow the conversion of HCVA or native ecosystems for agricultural production. 

Wild Farm Alliance and partner organizations are encouraging the NOSB to make a recommendation to the NOP to add a rule for bringing new land into organic production. The goal of a rule change is to protect High Conservation Value Areas in a way that defines them clearly and dissuades organic producers from converting them.

This critical issue will save countless wildlife and native plants, and preserve the integrity of organic agriculture - Your comment will make a difference!

The NOSB has published a Discussion Document (pages 1-2 and 79-86 shown) asking the public to answer five questions. They will review and discuss public comments at their Spring April 2017 meeting in Denver, CO. Help the NOSB decide to make the right decision. 

Comments are due Thursday, March 30th.