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and the "National List"

Moving Forward

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Moving Forward:
What is the role for consumers?

President Obama’s 2011 proposed budget would increase the National Organic Program by $3.1 million, meaning that the office’s total budget would reach $10.1 million.  As the organic industry and the governmental programming around it continues to grow, calls for legitimacy of regulation and integrity of labeling grow in turn (Nelson, 2010).

Because of the diversity of legislation and requirements for organic production and handling, better and more consistent interpretation of the regulations need to be made clear.  This is a clear role for the federal government, a role the Obama administration has slowly started to assume.  The Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, has been vocal in their support for stronger labeling regulations. Consumers Union is particularly clear in their support for a “public process” in which consumers are better informed about changes as they occur (Consumer Reports, 2006).  While it is the USDA's custom to open proposed changes to public commentary, the administration must more stringently extend this procedure to the many private corporations and laboratories that contribute petitions or changes to the National List or other organics regulation.  

Rather than rely solely on government regulations, it is equally beneficial to consider the role of the citizen-consumer in this debate.  As consumers are the ultimate deciders of an organic product’s success, the bearers of its price differential, and the recipients of its potential risk and benefits, they too should have a greater role in understanding the reality behind the label (Consumer Reports, 2006).  Mainly, changes to the organic program should be made more apparent with the use of the National Organic Program’s website, allowing interested consumers to more easily navigate their food-buying decisions.  As more and more Americans begin to buy organics, it is all the more important to readily share information with consumers who may not have been familiar with organic products previously.  On the whole, consumers do not expect artificial or synthetic ingredients in an organic product, regardless of the type of the label that is present.  Nor do they expect synthetic fertilizers or chemical herbicides to be used on organic farms (Thottam, 2007).  As consumers begin to invest time, money, and growing interest in responsibly grown food, the label should be their first guide toward more informed food choices (Fromartz, 2006).

The Organic Consumers Association, one of many vocal actors in the debate, offers a helpful perspective on an appropriate role for the National Organics Program.  Primarily, the OCA asserts that the Program must accurately assess how organic produce and products meet the consumers’ vision of what they’re purchasing (and the farming and environmental practices they are thereby supporting).  The USDA could do far better to serve as a liaison between the consumer and the variety of farmers and producers, many of whom want to invest in sustainable farming and production practices.  While synthetics nonetheless hold a valuable place in acknowledging the broad range of constraints on organic production, the OCA maintains that the National List must be carefully and considerately maintained, all with a more careful eye to the authority of the NOP and the safety of the consumer (OCA, 2004) (Cummins, 2005).  In short, the USDA has a definitive responsibility to limit the extent of the National List, as the flexibility of the List has already posed a tangible threat to the safety of consumers.

In light of the Organic Food Production Act’s inclusiveness when the federal standards were first compiled and reviewed between 1990 and 2002, the Act should work to incorporate a broader range of viewpoints.  As the debate continues over the appropriate trajectory for the organic market, whether towards more stringent restrictions to ensure greater integrity, or more flexibility, to encourage greater frequency of conscientious farming practices, the consumer voice should be better represented.  With greater citizen and consumer input, the federal rulings can better accommodate the desires and concerns of the ultimate bearers of the organic label: consumers.  Mark Kastel, founder of the Cornucopia Institute, the family-farm and local and organic foods advocacy organization, offers a useful perspective on the role of authority in the organics debate, "There’s a higher authority than the USDA. And that’s the consumer" (Gray, 2007).

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