OPN recently spoke with Miles McEvoy who served as Deputy Secretary at the USDA National Organic Program for eight years. Miles retired this past fall and his service will be remembered as one that protected organic integrity, while building the organic sector. While he will be missed in DC; the organic community has not heard the last from this organic champion.
OPN Connect: The eight years under your leadership at National Organic Program witnessed incredible change. What were the most important accomplishments you feel transformed the NOP?
Miles McEvoy: The three things that really stand out are:
1) Implementing a Quality Management System which provides the foundation for the global organic control system. We created a quality manual and NOP handbook that provided clear procedures and guidance for all aspects organic global control systems. The QMS includes, for example, certification audit criteria, instructions for conducting unannounced inspections, guidance on compost tea, and who needs to be certified. The QMS provides a consistent framework that enables the NOP to be effective in protecting organic integrity for many years to come.
2) The Age of Enforcement- using civil penalties for serious violations and working with the Department of Justice (DOJ) to address fraud. DOJ has additional resources and authority to address economic fraud in the organic sector. Our work on some significant fraud cases ended up with people doing jail time as a result. It is also important to recognize that the majority of organic complaints are concerning labels or certification status and are resolved without civil penalties or DOJ involvement. NOP´s focus on complaint investigation, supporting compliance with the USDA organic regulations, is a critical function.
3) The Organic Integrity Data Base (OID) is a worldwide data base of certified producers and handlers. It’s really a state of the art product. No other country has anything like it. It has names, addresses, certification status and the organic products produced or handled by the operation. Consumers can use it to find information about organic operations and it’s very helpful for certifiers to use the data base to rapidly find information about an operation if there is a complaint.
OPN Connect: What future enhancements would you recommend for the NOP or the NOSB to continue to grow and protect organic agriculture?
Miles McEvoy: I think there is an opportunity to have more investment in the organic control system. The NOP is small with a $9 million budget for a $50 billion market. We need more investment in the NOP and associated control systems to insure there is integrity throughout the supply chain. Certifiers also need adequate financial resources to hire quality staff and do the work to insure there is integrity in the system.
IT solutions in particular have great possibility to improve integrity of the control system. There are many possible IT solutions such as Bit-Chain, radio frequency tracking, and other types of electronic tracking systems. India and the European Union have implemented systems to track international organic shipments. Mexico is developing a tracking system. The NOP has some initial concepts under development and these could improve integrity and potentially reduce some of the certification costs.
There is a need to improve the quality and thoroughness of the certification process, it’s a good process but there are some weaknesses. We need more training and more accountability to insure all certifiers and inspectors are doing an adequate job at all operations. We need further professionalization of the entire certification process.
OPN Connect: There was significant division within the organic community during your tenure. What words of wisdom would you impart to help the community to work better and closer together?
Miles McEvoy: The organic community is united on the majority of organic standards. There is some significant division regarding what materials can be used in organic production and more recently organic hydroponics. This is rooted in some groups opposition to large scale organic production and their attempts to use organic standards to push their own agendas.
We all need to listen to each other and continue to be open to all voices within the organic community. Not to characterize people as not being part of the community because of production methods. There is an incredible diversity of people around the world that come in all different sizes of operations, ethnic backgrounds, political and religious diversity. We should be embracing and listening to the different perspectives so we can support our global community and create as much organic production around the world as we can. We need more successful organic farmers and more consumers who can buy these products no matter what their level of income is.
It’s also important to recognize that there are people with very loud voices that are not open to ideas or other perspectives. They criticize others who they don’t agree with or don’t fit into their view of what people should look like or be like in organic. These individuals and organization misrepresent and repeat information and it sounds reasonable to some. It’s critical that we don’t allow misinformation to derail progress on organic improvements.
It’s important to speak out with accurate information so that farmers and consumers have a clear perspective on organic policy and production.
OPN Connect: Why do you feel it is critical that we embrace organic diversity in all its sizes, shapes, and colors at this time in the history of organic?
Miles McEvoy: It’s important because of the growth potential, there is an opportunity for all types of people in communities to be involved and we can learn so much by including them and embracing their wisdom.
The world is under stress from climate change and political conflict. Organic offers a life-enriching way of moving into the future so embracing diversity of organic systems is important right now.
OPN Connect: Now that you have returned to public life, how do you plan to be engaged in the organic community?
Miles McEvoy: I want to contribute to strengthening the organic control system and helping certifiers to improve their systems.
I am developing an Organic Training Institute that will provide education and training world-wide to all people working in the certificate trade. We are preparing an Advanced Inspection Training for 2018. We want to provide opportunities to certify inspectors to do various types of organic inspection work. Ideally the vision is to have it attached to a University so people can receive academic credit for the various courses.
OPN Connect: You will be giving a Keynote Address at the Organic Growers Summit. What key message do you hope to impart?
Miles McEvoy: I will be stressing the importance of the organic control system to everyone’s success. Its important to have a robust effective control system.
I want to address the challenges around organic fraud that we have and talk about some strategies to minimize that problem.
Lastly I want to stress the importance of engaging in organic policy debates and the various levels and avenues where that is important: with NOSB, Congress and USDA. People should be engaged in policy work because it’s important to understand the growers’ perspective in all aspects of organic policy.