When you bite into an organic apple, you expect that the apple is meeting a standard that not only is it grown without harmful chemicals, but that it also is grown in a way that protects (not harms) wildlife and critical habitat.
For most, the USDA organic label conjures up images of pastoral beauty, co-existence of wildlife and livestock, and fields of diverse crops. For some organic farmers, this too is the expectation they set for themselves when they certify their land and crops. However, the actual rules are woefully lacking efforts to protect our wildlands.
Certifiers shared with us about the conversions of native sagebrush in OR and WA, prairies in CO, a wetland in NM, a forest in CA, native desert and sub-tropical scrub forests in Mexico, and grasslands and wetlands in China. These areas, that were once delivering critical ecosystem services and providing essential habitat for wildlife, are no longer performing the same functions and would take hundreds of years to reverse the damage.
NOP needs to catch up with the rest of the organic and environmental ecolabels of the world. Twenty-four of them – 13 organic and 11 ecolabels – already do not allow the conversion of Native Ecosystems into agricultural production. These programs are models that can be learned from and emulated.
We are advocating for a rule change that does not aim to limit the growth of organic agriculture, but rather redirects the growth to transitioning the 99% of agriculture that is managed conventionally. It is not fair to organic producers, who have waited three years to transition land that had been managed with prohibited materials, to have to compete with those farmers who convert Native Ecosystems overnight. Our work to update the organic rules puts all organic producers on the same playing field and ensures that the products bearing the organic label are upholding the intention behind the rules.
Our work is building upon the theme that the organic label means more than just pesticide-free; it means food and farms that carry this label are actively working to create healthier ecosystems; it means organic food and farming embody more—supporting the beauty and functionality that biodiversity provides on the farm and to our plate.
Thanks to WFA's leadership, and our partners, we have successfully encouraged the National Organic Standards Board to make the following new rule recommendation to the USDA National Organic Program:
Add to §205.2 Definitions
Native Ecosystems: Native ecosystems can be recognized in the field as retaining both dominant and characteristic plant species as described by established classifications of natural vegetation. These will tend to be on lands that have not been previously cultivated, cleared, drained or otherwise irrevocably altered. However, they could include areas that have recovered expected plant species composition and structure.
Add to §205.200 General
- 205.200 The producer or handler of a production or handling operation intending to sell, label, or represent agricultural products as “100 percent organic,” “organic,” or “made with organic (specified ingredients or food group(s))” must comply with the applicable provisions of this subpart. Production practices implemented in accordance with this subpart must maintain or improve the natural resources of the operation, including soil and water quality.
(a) A site supporting a native ecosystem cannot be certified for organic production as provided for under this regulation for a period of 10 years from the date of conversion.
In an effort to jumpstart the process of implementing the NOSB's recommendation, we have submitted a Draft Native Ecosystem Guidance to the NOP, and have created a complementary Organic Native Ecosystem Application and Verification Toolkit and corresponding videos to demonstrate how to use the online tools.