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Have faith in the NOSB


By Jim Pierce

The National Organic Standards Board [NOSB] system, particularly the transparency and public accessibility of the process, is the envy of standards setters around the world. The organic community, particularly those of us who interact with the NOSB, are historically more critical than appreciative of the Board and the process. The unfortunate truth is that the community and the NOSB are both so passionately dedicated to the future success of organic that we threaten our own success. What’s lacking from the process is not ability, intelligence or dedication but compassion, forgiveness and respect.

The constantly present and more often than not critical comments directed toward the National Organic Standards Board appear to be taking a self-destructive turn. The recent theme of this criticism is that a small group, a “super-minority” has become the uncompromising party of NO, as in “no new materials will be approved on our watch.” It is tempting and alarmingly analogous to compare the current paradigm in the NOSB with the Tea Party. Such a comparison is not true however and is the same unhealthy rhetoric that is destroying our national politic. 

In response to this perceived threat has coalesced a counter assemblage of odd bedfellows, status quo supporters, convinced that the prudent addition of suitable material “tools” is essential to the continued growth and success of the organic movement. Both sides are convinced of their correctness and both passionately trying to “save” the country, or rather the future of the organic movement, from the corruption, disparity and pitfalls of the conventional food systems.

An anomaly to Washington as usual, staying surprisingly and refreshingly neutral and long-term solution focused, is the National Organic Program [NOP], particularly it’s director Miles McEvoy, who repeats the mantra that we need, and need to celebrate, the diversity contained in the NOSB.
The NOSB is a deliberately diverse group of representation from throughout the organic sector, not a congressional committee of millionaire narcissists. Unlike elected officials, NOSB members are appointed for a single five-year volunteer, time sucking, largely thankless, often emotionally and sometimes physically it would seem, scarring term, trying to do what they honestly believe is right. Nobody would agree to such a “sentence” (as board members refer to their appointment) if they were not totally committed to bettering the organic movement. Add to this the fact that the obligations, expectations, skill requirements and workload of the NOSB members have increased dramatically in the last decade since the NOP became law. The NOP to their credit, has stepped up its engagement and assistance, but still, the workload is exponential.

What is not working, what so often fails with groups of dedicated people, from church councils to teams of athletes, is that although decisions are seldom unanimous, leadership must be. At the end of the day, after all the discussion is transcribed and archived and the votes are tallied, the NOSB “team” needs to come back to the huddle, appreciate each others efforts, get behind the decision, and move on. This is where the NOSB, like so many Church Councils, often falls short. And this is where we, the passionate participants and end users of their decisions, also have to practice the lost art of compromise and respect for the outcome, even though we remain convinced that our view is the correct view.

Discussion, debate and heated discourse among intellectuals are necessary parts of difficult decision making. The system and process of rulemaking through the NOSB and the NOP can and does work, more so when all the participants create an atmosphere of respectful solidarity. Remember that what we are watching is the creation of law, and as they say about the making of laws and sausage, it is not for the feint of heart to watch.
United we stand, united we win.

Jim Pierce is Oregon Tilth’s Global 
Certification Program Manager,

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