Nonprofits laud decision upholding organic integrity as federal court closes pesticides loophole
SAN FRANCISCO— Synthetic pesticides are once again prohibited in compost used for organic production, thanks to a federal court in the Northern District of California. The court issued a decision in litigation brought by several nonprofits challenging the United States Department of Agriculture’s allowance of pesticide contamination in compost used in organic food production. Center for Food Safety, Center for Environmental Health and Beyond Pesticides filed the case in April 2015, arguing that USDA had unlawfully changed organic regulations to create a new pesticide loophole without first undertaking a formal rulemaking and allowing the public to participate in any such decision. Yesterday, Judge Corley of the U.S. Federal Court for the Northern District of California agreed, ruling that USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) violated the law when it issued what it called a “guidance” that weakened the long-standing prohibition on synthetic pesticides in organic compost, and striking it down.
The organic watchdog nonprofits lauded the victory:
“The court’s decision upholds the integrity of the organic standard and is an incredible victory for organic consumers, organic farmers and the environment. On the flipside, the decision is a resounding defeat of industrial food actors trying to sell out organic integrity to pad their own pocketbooks,” said senior CFS attorney George Kimbrell, counsel for the plaintiffs.
“Organic consumers expect the products they buy to be safe and not harmful to the earth. Citizens brought this suit to force the government to abide by the laws designed to ensure the integrity of our nation’s organic production and certification system,” said Ralph Bloemers, staff attorney for the Crag Law Center and counsel for the plaintiffs.
“We applaud the Court’s decision to protect the integrity of the organic program. We will continue to watchdog the USDA to ensure that the program meets consumers’ expectations for meaningful organic standards,” said Caroline Cox, Research Director of Center for Environmental Health.
“The court decision upholds an organic industry that has been built on a foundation of consumer and farmer investment in ecologically sound practices, principles and values to protect health and the environment. USDA has violated a basic requirement of public accountability in the standard setting process, which is fundamental to public trust in the organic label and continued growth in organic production,” said Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides.
Before the challenged decision, organic producers were prohibited from using compost contaminated with pesticides or other synthetic substances not allowed in organic farming. However after California organic regulators, acting with the then-approval of NOP, banned several pesticide-contaminated composts, the producer of that compost, along with other members of the waste management, composting, and large organic industry, insisted that the rule be changed. After consultation with members of these industries, but without public participation, USDA ultimately issued the new decision, allowing the use of greenwaste (e.g. like lawn clippings) compost contaminated with prohibited substances, such as the residential pesticide bifenthrin.
After the plaintiff organizations initiated the litigation challenging USDA’s issuance of this guidance without giving the public and organic stakeholders the opportunity to participate and object, USDA moved to dismiss the case, arguing that it could unilaterally open the new loophole through a guidance document. Last fall the Court denied that motion and the case proceeded. Earlier this spring, over a year after the case was filed, several industry groups (including a group with ties to pesticide giants, and the organic industry lobbying entity, the Organic Trade Association) showed up to argue that the Court should leave USDA’s loophole in place even if it found the agency violated the law in establishing it.
The Court was unconvinced by either USDA or the industry groups, instead finding USDA violated the law when it unilaterally opened the contaminated compost loophole. It also refused to leave the unlawful guidance standing, protecting organic farmers from the unwitting use of contaminated compost listed for use in organic. Should USDA try to change the law again, it will have to do so with public participation, ensuring that CFS and its allies can continue to watchdog the integrity of organic for both consumers and farmers.
The plaintiff organizations are jointly represented by legal counsel from CFS and the Crag Law Center.
Center for Food Safety (www.centerforfoodsafety.org) is a nationwide nonprofit working to protect food, farmers, and the environment. Since its inception in 1997, CFS has defended and protected to organic standards as a major part of its mission.
Crag is a non-profit law center (www.crag.org) that provides legal aid for the environment by representing non-profits and community groups seeking to enforce the nation’s environmental laws.