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Lunch & Learn: Carolyn Dimitri and Politics of the National Organic Standards Board

September 25, 2012

Coming to us from the NYU Steinhardt Food Studies Program, Professor Carolyn Dimitri led an engaging discussion on her current work in progress, which delves into the politics of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), an advisory group to the United States Drug Administration (USDA).  Carolyn is a leading applied economist in the areas of organics, local food systems and distribution who brings years of experience working for the USDA in its Economic Research Service. This paper is in development with research assistance led by Wagner alum and former WFPA Co-Chair Christina Bronsing,

When published, this specific paper will shed light on NOSB selection, a mystifying and potentially politicized  process that pulls together a thirteen-member group representing multiple sectors in the food chain including retailers, farmers, academics, scientists, environmentalists and certifying agents. This committee holds significant responsibility: although in-person meetings take place only twice a year, Carolyn described a substantial workload of “15 to twenty hours of work per week” for each unpaid member in order to keep up with research and new inquiries.  The official NOSB charge is to maintain and govern the National List, which identifies ingredients either allowed in or barred from inclusion of organic crops, livestock production and in processed foods carrying an organic label. The intensive review process includes a comprehensive review every five years and an option to amend and remove individual listings. For those interested in diving in, the list can be viewed here.

The organics movement and mass-marketing of “organics” as a desirable, value-added food commodity, has gained enormous public traction, leading to an industry scramble to meet demand. For this reason, understanding NOSB is important, given that “there are people that have a lot of money to gain” (Carolyn) depending on NOSB rulings—the magnitude of the Board’s decision leads to significant media buzz after each NOSB meeting. One goal of the paper is to map out the specific ties of NOSB members past and present to learn about their affiliation with organics as well as their ties to private industry. This timely study displays the competing interests in the organic movements: an interest in maintaining honest and rigorous standards for organic ingredients, while recognizing new players in the organic world such as manufacturers, larger farms and international regulators. The current organics landscape includes vigorously marketed “organics” products in Target and Walmart, manufactured by food giants like Kellogg, with ingredients grown on industrial farms. Carolyn hopes to provide transparency and insight into this vitally important, contentious process.

To learn more about Carolyn’s work, please visit her blog.

National Organics Board site.

PolicyMic piece on the need for NOSB reform

New York Times piece on big organics

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