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Organic & Biodiversity News


Photos courtesy USFWS & Taylor F. Lockwood

Biodiversity and natural resource conservation are covered in the National Organic Program's (NOP) regulations. Biodiversity conservation is part of the definition of organic farming, and the NOP requires that operators (farmers, ranchers, wild crop harvesters, and handlers) maintain or improve their soil, water, wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife. In addition, seven other NOP regulations relate to biodiversity and natural resource conservation.

Wild Farm Alliance believes it is critical for all players within organic agriculture, including operators, inspectors, certifiers, National Organic Program and the National Organic Standards Board do their part in ensuring that biodiversity conservation is fully developed and put into practice. While changes for the better have been occurring, especially recently, there are still some vital components that need to be implemented. In the meantime, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is stepping up its support of organic agriculture, which is making conservation possible for all sizes and scales of operations. Read more below.

 

Webinar Linking Biodiversity Requirements, Organic Systems, and NRCS Conservation Practice Standards

The National Organic Program (NOP) requires biodiversity conservation and the maintenance or improvement of soil, water, wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife. Conservation Practice Standards offered by Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) can assist operators in meeting these NOP requirements. In this webinar, conservation practice standards that improve soil and water resources, support beneficial organisms and natural functions, and protect and restore wildlife habitat are discussed. Also presented are real life examples of these practices used by an organic farmer on his operations. The webinar was recorded by the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), and was funded by an NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant.

 

 

Webinar on How NRCS TSPs Support Biodiversity in Organic Systems

Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Technical Service Providers can also assist operators in meeting these NOP requirements.

 

Organic Agriculture Just Got Better at Being Nature-Friendly

Organic certification agencies now have to show USDA that they are making sure their farmers and others using the USDA organic seal are conserving natural resources. It’s not like this hasn’t been in the regulations since they were first published in 2001, but the buck is finally stopping here. Organic certification agencies are being held accountable.

USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) updated two sections of their Handbook's Audit Checklists to include the natural resources standard that requires farmers, ranchers, wild harvesters, and processors “maintain or improve the natural resources of the operation, including soil, water, wetlands, woodlands and wildlife.” These Checklists are used by the NOP to accredit certification agencies in the U.S. and around the world.

Lynn Coody, of Organic Agsystems Consulting, who assists many organic certification agencies in maintaining full compliance with NOP regulations, says, “I am so pleased that the NOP has finally revised its accreditation checklists so that they clearly prompt collection of information about certifiers’ efforts to check on biodiversity and natural resources during inspections of organic operations.”

Not Done Yet
Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition says, “Now it could (eventually) get interesting.  For the first time, the conservation "in theory" part of organic certification may actually have to mean something tangible.  Just how tangible remains to be seen, but this is a very important advance.”

If all goes well, detailed direction from the NOP should be coming out later this year. In May, Wild Farm Alliance (WFA) with the help of many organic certifiers and others, submitted draft Biodiversity/Natural Resource Conservation Guidance for the NOP’s consideration for inclusion in their Handbook. Ideally, the NOP would publish this or something similar soon; so that organic certification agencies clearly understand how they are expected to comply and can smoothly pass their accreditation.

The Ice is Melting
Wild Farm Alliance and others have been trying for years to breakthrough to the NOP, so that they would require compliance of the biodiversity and natural resources conservation regulations. In 2005, with our assistance, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) adopted a set of biodiversity inspection questions into their model farm plan. That same year, WFA published Biodiversity Conservation guides for organic farmers and certifiers. The NOP continued to ponder, very slowly embracing conservation when in 2008 with a change in leadership, biodiversity made it to third on their priority list, and we cheered. But then it languished amidst all the competing priorities that had accumulated from previous years.

In 2009 to jump-start the process, WFA published a biodiversity conservation compliance guide for certifiers, and the NOSB took a fervent stance recommending that the NOP comprehensively address biodiversity conservation, from farmers and certifiers to the NOP. It wasn't’t until last year that the ice started to melt and the NOP published their own Organic System Plan to include a list of practices operators can use to comply with this and other biodiversity and natural resource conservation related requirements.

Organic Operations and Wild Nature Benefit
Not just individuals, but whole populations of species will now benefit from the USDA accrediting only those certifiers who comply with the natural resource standard. Coody states, “As a result of this change, every certified organic operation will now be documenting their efforts to maintain or improve natural resources.”

Almost 5 million acres were organically managed in the U.S. in 2008. With retail sales growing a third from 2008 to 2011 (from $21.1 billion to $31.4 billion), the land managed organically continues to increase significantly, and will now be havens for ecosystem processes that support soil microorganisms important for food safety, native pollinators that are in decline, and beneficial predatory insects, birds, bats, and four-footed creatures that keep pests in check. More organic lands will be supporting native plants that yield food and cover for these species, and as biodiversity increases, it will lead to an ecological balance between pests and prey. Wetlands and riparian areas will be conserved to help keep water clean for human and wild communities, and will serve as wildlife stepping-stones to wilder landscapes.

Support is Strong
Former NOSB chair Jim Riddle, stated, "The NOSB adopted a recommendation years ago to strengthen compliance with existing conservation and biodiversity requirements, and we encountered no opposition. I'm pleased that the NOP has finally taken action to make it clear that organic farmers and ranchers must 'promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity' as stated in the definition of 'organic production'."  

Ever since WFA started working on this issue, we have suspected that the majority of farmers would support biodiversity conservation compliance because they value ecosystem functions, and this has played out in NOSB meetings. Besides, who in their right mind will stand up and say they are against biodiversity and natural resources conservation, without giving themselves and organic a black eye. Many organic companies tout that their practices are nature-friendly. Kashi talks about “farming practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony,” Nature’s Path discusses “improved farm biodiversity” and Cascadian says their “organic farming methods help protect and nurture the environment.”

There are others who have held the biodiversity conservation banner high for organic agriculture over the years. Independent Organic Inspector Association makes sure biodiversity conservation is covered in their organic inspector trainings, Rodale Institute in their educational efforts, and most sustainable agriculture conferences address some aspect of it every year. Most laudably, some certifiers have been complying with biodiversity regulations since the NOSB first took action in 2005, such as Florida Organic Growers, and others such as the newly merged CCOF/Oregon Tilth, and Idaho Dept. of Agriculture’s Organic Program began complying after that.

USDA NRCS
Another branch of the USDA––Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)––is more recently supporting organic farmers. NRCS now helps farmers who apply with the cost of certification and have reimbursed them more than 6 million dollars. Currently, WFA is part of a team that is helping NRCS serve organic farmers better, and this includes identifying how best wildlife and biodiversity supporting practice standards can work for organic farms and ranches.

Changing the Landscape
Farming is not done in a vacuum. Whatever a good farmer does, whether organic or not, the farm community notices. Organic farmers are innovators by nature, and their practices often serve as models for others. Accordingly, organic certifier compliance with the natural resource standard should have a rippling effect through U.S. farmscapes. Not that long ago ‘organic’ was a seldom-used word––it was a new ‘way’ of farming––a kind of daydream. Born out of a fire in the bellies of people who care for the land and all its inhabitants, organic climbed to 4.2% of U.S. retail food sales in 2010, and has proven otherwise.

Worthy of the USDA Organic Seal
Now there is a pause before more is issued from the NOP. We are glad to see definitive action taken with the audit checklists and are looking forward to the completion of this process with further direction issued from the NOP. USDA’s program is finally starting to speak up for the soil micro organisms, clear flowing streams, wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife; for biodiversity and natural resources conservation that leads to a resilience in our food systems and ecosystems, and helps these farmers and others market a product worthy of its seal.

 

What Has Been Implemented Since the National Organic Standards Board Unanimously Voted in Favor of Biodiversity Conservation

This is where we stand since 2009, when the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), with the help of the Wild Farm Alliance and others, made the following recommendations:

√ Done - Biodiversity is now considered when reviewing materials for use on organic farms.

√ Done - NOP has added the natural resources standard to its Accreditation Checklists and to its Penalty Matrix, used to audit certification agencies and to determine penalties, respectively.

Not Done Yet - NOP publishes Biodiversity Conservation Instruction or Guidance.

Not Done Yet - NOP provides training of biodiversity and natural resources requirements for organic certification agencies and their inspectors.

Not Done Yet - Biodiversity conservation be more fully developed and implemented in the Organic System Plan (OSP) by organic farmers, ranchers, wild crop harvesters, and handlers.

Not Done Yet - Conversion of native habitat to crop production is discouraged.

 

Biodiversity Conservation Guidance and Instruction Submitted to the
National Organic Program

In May 2012, Wild Farm Alliance and others submitted a Summary Cover Letter and Biodiversity Conservation Guidance for consideration of inclusion into the National Organic Program (NOP) Handbook. The Guidance assists certifying agents and certified operations in understanding how to comply with requirements related to the conservation of biodiversity including natural resources, in crop, livestock and handling operations that are certified as organic under the National Organic Program.

The Biodiversity Conservation Guidance will help the NOP fulfill its stated commitment to biodiversity as a priority in organic agriculture. This guidance will also allow the NOP to respond positively to the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB)’s 2009 recommendation that biodiversity conservation be comprehensively addressed, and further tie into the NOSB’s 2005 recommendation that biodiversity be part of the model Organic System Plan (OSP). 

While we would like to see this Guidance implemented in the long term, we submitted Biodiversity Conservation Instruction to the NOP for their consideration in August 2012, due to a potentially quicker turn-around time. The Instruction only explains procedures, whereas the Guidance interprets the regulations and so must go through many more steps before it can be adopted.

We felt it was important for the NOP to promptly give advice to the certification agencies on how to comply with the biodiversity and natural resources conservation, since the natural resources standard was added to the NOP’s Audit Checklist used to accredit certifiers this past July. The Instruction lacks definitions currently used in the regulation; such as biodiversity, riparian areas and wetlands; does not give explanations of practices; and does not go into important detail regarding the conversion of high value conservation areas. It is critical that these pieces are incorporated into the NOP Handbook eventually, so that there is a common understanding of terms, practices and actions.

 

National Organic Standards 2009 and 2005 Biodiversity Conservation Recommendations

In 2009, with the help of the Wild Farm Alliance and others, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) adopted comprehensive recommendations for biodiversity conservation. They required that biodiversity be considered when reviewing materials for use on organic farms. Additionally, they recommended that biodiversity conservation be more fully developed and implemented in the Organic System Plan (OSP) by:a) Producers outlining their strategy for biodiversity conservation in their OSP; b) Inspectors being trained in biodiversity conservation; c) Certifiers verifying producer's efforts to address the NOP's requirements for biodiversity; and d) NOP emphasizing biodiversity conservation in its trainings and revising its checklist used to audit certifiers so that questions about the NOP's biodiversity standards are in every audit.

In 2005, with assistance from Wild Farm Alliance and others, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) adopted questions related to biodiversity into their model Organic System Plan (OSP). Until that time, the organic community had no common understanding of what the National Organic Program's biodiversity requirements meant. Click here to see the biodiversity conservation additions into their Organic System Plan Template.

 

Updated Organic System Plan

Some certifiers have adopted questions from the 2005 OSP, and others are incorporating questions from the 2011 OSP updated by the NOP(section A5). While these steps represent considerable progress, a number of inspectors have yet to check for biodiversity compliance as part of the inspection process. This in turn can put farmers in the untenable position of not being in compliance and not even knowing it.

 

Biodiversity Conservation Guides for Organic Farmers and Certifiers

Biodiversity guides developed by Wild Farm Alliance and partners are available for farmers and certifiers which lay out a range of farm management possibilities for a variety of situations that maintain and enhance biodiversity at the farm level and contribute to biodiversity conservation outside of farm borders at the regional or watershed level. Download summary,

complete farmer guide, complete certifier guide, or

contact us, if you would like to receive a hard copy of one or both of the guides.

 

Biodiversity Compliance Assessment for Organic Systems

The Preamble to the National Organic Program rule states "Compliance with the requirements to conserve biodiversity requires that a producer incorporate practices in his or her organic system plan that are beneficial to biodiversity on his or her operation." This document was created in 2009 to assist farmers and certifiers in assessing compliance. A quick one-page overview examines the most problematic biodiversity issues, while the rest of the document provides a slate of beneficial practices that comply with the rule. Download Biodiversity Compliance Assessment in Organic Agricultural Systems.

 

 

       


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