2016 26.3 Then & Now: Miles McEvoy Addresses Organic Agriculture and Certification in WA State

ED. NOTE: This is the second installment of a three-part series for the Tilth Producers Quarterly—celebrating the past, present, and future of the organic agriculture movement and organic certification in Washington state and beyond. As Deputy Administrator, leading the USDA National Organic Program (NOP), as well as former Program Manager of WSDA Organic Program, Miles McEvoy has unique insight into both past and present of the organic industry in Washington state and on a national level. His journey began as WSDA’s first organic inspector in 1988, and spans nearly 30 years of work in the organic certification world. Heidi Peroni from WSDA Organic Program elbowed her way into Miles McEvoy’s busy schedule for an interview.

Miles! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Miles McEvoy: I’ve been with the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) since the fall of 2009. Before that, I worked with Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) from 1988 to 2009, seeing the change from about 63 farms that first year to the thriving organic industry that it is now. During that time, I’ve done just about everything that you can do in the organic certification arena: hundreds of inspections, audits of certifiers, compliance work—under state authority before the NOP came into effect, then under federal authority since 2002. We did a lot of standards development, because the standards were very… short back in 1988 (laughs). I think our rules were one page long in the WAC (Washington Administrative Code) back in 1988. Now we have hundreds of pages of regulations and explanations, guidance and instructions for the standards.

What was the climate like when you started?
MILES: There was a real lack of information and knowledge, especially in government institutions. Organic was very novel, so a lot of people were skeptical, and some a little hostile, to the concept—they considered organic to be not very high quality in terms of production systems. But there were also people within the government who were very interested, open minded and supportive of all types of farmers and growing systems. I also worked a bit with Washington State University (WSU) extension and there were skeptics there—again, not a lot of information was available. Mostly people were interested to learn. But it was so small back then, it was very much a niche. Organic food was only sold in specialty shops, so it was hard to get people interested.

What was the intention of organic certification originally?
MILES: The driver for Tilth at the time was to protect farmers— there were claims that one farmer wasn’t following the standards as closely as another, but also from those who were making organic claims without going through the certification process. The farmers wanted to create a level playing field and consistent standards. There was also an interest from Puget Consumers Coop (PCC). As the major marketplace for organic food at the time in Seattle, they wanted to protect their consumers, and make sure consumers were getting what they paid for—that the organic product really was organic.

Do you feel that the intention remains the same today? How has it shifted?
MILES: It’s pretty much the same, in terms of the purpose of certification: to verify organic claims, to protect farmers so that they have a level playing field, and to ensure consumers that there is a consistent standard and that everyone selling organic products is meeting the same requirements.

What was the drive behind taking the standards to a national level?
MILES: At the time there were very inconsistent standards between states. A lot of uncertified product was in the marketplace. Washington state required that anything sold as organic had to be certified, but most states didn’t have those requirements. The other problem was that we had certification agencies around the country with different standards, and they didn’t accept one another’s certification. So if you wanted to create a processed product with ingredients certified by another certifier, your certifier wouldn’t accept those ingredients as organic. There were a lot of barriers to trade.

The market had started to grow significantly, and retailers involved in organic sales wanted a consistent standard, for their out-of-state sourcing. Consumers also wanted a consistent standard—it was right after the Alar controversy* in the Winter of 1988-89. Congress was getting a lot of interest in creating a consistent standard.

What benefit do you feel comes from National Organic Standards and accrediting to a federal level?
MILES: Organic means one consistent set of standards throughout the country, throughout the world really. There is also enforcement so that when there are violations, there’s a mechanism to ensure that the standards are being met. National organic standards also ensure the verification of the standard throughout the supply chain, from the farm to the marketplace. They have created confidence in the market by consumers—they see the USDA Organic seal and know that it meets a consistent standard that’s verified. Finally, it gives confidence to investors—the farmers, handlers, and processors—because they know that fair standards will be enforced that protect their interests.

How would you describe the current state of the organic industry?
MILES: It’s growing strongly—there’s a lot of energy, vitality, and excitement because of that. There are growing pains because of supply shortages, especially in organic feed, but in general it’s an exciting time to be involved in organic agriculture.

What do you feel are the most critical issues in organic today, and how is the National Organic Program addressing them?
MILES: There are supply constraints—USDA is doing many things to try to support the industry’s growth. We provide technical assistance through resources created for the Sound and Sensible Certification Initiative, cost share for organic certification costs, organic crop insurance, and conservation programs through Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRC S). We created the Organic Literacy Initiative to train USDA employees about the organic standards and the certification process, which 30,000 USDA employees have taken. We facilitate trade to ensure that foreign markets will accept USDA organic products; we have equivalency arrangements with Canada, the European Union, Switzerland, Japan, and Korea, and are working with Mexico.

Where do you think the organic industry will go from here? What are the greatest barriers to its growth?
MILES: Organic products account for about 5% of overall sales. In certain categories it’s significantly more—11% of fruit and vegetable sales. I think it will continue to grow. Premiums for organic may start to moderate a bit as organic becomes a more significant part of the market. Overall, it seems the future is bright and abundant for the organic sector.

In terms of challenges, supply meeting the growing demand is a challenge. Organic producers have unique soil management, pest, and disease challenges, so we want to ensure that good research occurs to continue to provide state-of-the-art soil and pest management for the organic products being produced.

As Deputy Administrator of the National Organic Program, what do you actually DO?
MILES: In the broad sense, I lead efforts to protect organic integrity. That’s our focus here—organic integrity from the farm to the market. We do that through effective enforcement, oversight of certifiers, work on international arrangements, and partnerships with foreign governments. We also develop standards, supporting the work of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and moving that into a regulatory framework.

We provide technical assistance to certification agencies, farmers, and advocacy groups. I do a lot of advocacy at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, and answer questions from Congress.

One of my favorite tasks is to conduct assessments of foreign government programs—traveling to foreign countries and auditing their systems to certify, accredit, inspect and enforce organic

Where do you see agriculture in the next 20 years?

MILES: I think farmers will more closely reflect the diversity of the U.S. population. More farms will provide food for local and regional markets. It’s very vibrant now, and that will continue to expand. I see farmers, both organic and non-organic, becoming more sustainable in terms of energy use, inputs, and environmental impacts, and certainly a lot less use of toxic pesticides. Organic is at the cutting edge of the trend towards a sustainable food system.

*Alar (daminozide) was used on conventional apple trees in the 1980s to prevent
pre-harvest fruit drop, promote color development, and extend storage. When
a study released results that it was carcinogenic, it devastated the conventional
apple industry.

Heidi Peroni is Outreach and Education Specialist for the Washington State
Department of Agriculture Organic Program and has been farming organically
in Washington state for the past 18 years. [email protected], 360-480-6318.

Tags: Apples, Certified Organic, NOSB, Organic Certification