Speaking at the sold-out inaugural Organic Grower Summit , Miles McEvoy has a unique vantage point from which to address the world of organic produce — having recently retired from his role as Deputy Administrator for the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP).
Appropriately titled “The Future is Abundant, the Sky is Falling.” McEvoy lamented that while the demand for organic continues to grow there is concern about climate change’s impact on agriculture, loss of habitat and biodiversity, a few high-profile instances of fraud, and on-going debates in the organic community about specific organic standards.
McEvoy helmed the NOP during a time of incredible opportunities as well as challenges. A small agency within USDA ($9 million budget and 35 employees), NOP is responsible for supporting one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy ----with more 80 certifiers, trade support with 130 countries, enforcement of nine trade agreements and overseeing the National Organic Standards Board and the organic regulations, as well as 39,000 organic operations.
A prevailing theme of many of the sessions at OGS — and certainly of McEvoy’s talk — was the need to protect the strength of the organic brand, that continued growth of the category depends on strong, enforceable and enforced organic standards.
McEvoy also heralded research by Penn State Agricultural Economist Dr. Edward Jaenicke that uncovered “organic hot spots” – 225 counties in the United States with concentrated organic agriculture and other organic activity. In these “organic hotspots” boost household incomes (by more than $2,000 on average) and reduce poverty levels (by as much as 1.35 percentage points) — at greater rates than general agriculture activity, and even more than major anti-poverty programs.
During McEvoy’s tenure, NOP put strong programs in place both to support the industry’s growth and to address its concerns. Among the major initiatives and accomplishments during his tenure were:
- Implementing a Quality Management System (QMS) which includes a quality manual and NOP handbook that provided clear procedures and guidance for all aspects organic global control systems. The system provides a consistent framework that enables the NOP to be effective in protecting organic integrity for many years to come.
- Enforcement — using civil penalties for serious violations and working with the Department of Justice to address fraud and some violations have resulted in jail time
- The Organic Integrity Database is a worldwide database of certified producers and handlers.
- Organic Literacy Initiative providing training and outreach materials on what organic means, how certification works, and how to connect current and potential organic farmers, ranchers and processors with helpful resources.
- Sound and Sensible Initiative, which is designed to protect organic integrity pragmatically while making certification accessible, affordable and attainable.
- And, importantly, the agency has reduced the average appeal time from two years to six months.
McEvoy also detailed highly publicized instances of fraud, the most widely reported recently being the shipment of corn and soy from Turkey (some of which was grown in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Romania and Russia, but exported from Turkey). USDA identified weakness in the chain of organic integrity, and this has since been corrected and additional control measures have been instituted:
- Each export shipment is reviewed and approved by the certifier
- Samples are taken for residue testing
- Amount of organic product received is now reconciled with amount shipped
- Unannounced inspections
- Additional audits of certifiers by NOP
- Ongoing investigations
Maintaining his focus on organic integrity, McEvoy will launch an Organic Training Institute in 2018, offering advanced training for certification professionals.
Closing his talk, McEvoy made a plea for more open-minded collaboration. “We all need to listen to each other and continue to be open to all voices within the organic community. We should not characterize people as not being part of the organic community because of their organic production methods, “he said. “We need more successful organic farmers and more consumers who can buy these products, no matter what their level of income…It’s critical that we don’t allow misinformation to derail progress on organic improvements. The organic sky is not falling; it’s actually quite promising in the future.”