Organic Should Must the Way in Environmental and Health Protection

(Beyond Pesticides, September 13, 2021) The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is receiving written comments from the public through September 30. This precedes the upcoming public comment webinar on October 13-14 and online meeting October 19-21—in which the NOSB deliberates on issues concerning how organic food is produced. Written comments must be submitted through

As always, there are many important issues on the NOSB agenda this Fall. For a complete discussion, see Keeping Organic Strong (KOS) and the Fall 2021 issues page. In the spirit of “continuous improvement,” we urge you to submit comments (please feel free to use our comments on the KOS page) that contribute to an increasingly improved organic production system.

The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) requires that all synthetic materials used in organic production be approved by the NOSB, included on the National List, and reassessed every five years. Among those up for sunset review this Fall are some controversial materials—copper sulfate, carrageenan, and list 3 “inerts.” In addition, the NOSB is once more considering a petition to allow the antibiotic kasugamycin in fruit production.

Copper sulfate is used in organic rice production to control algae and an invertebrate known as tadpole shrimp. It poses health threats, particularly to workers—including damage to the gastrointestinal tract, liver, kidneys, and the immune system resulting from inhalation exposure. Respiratory effects have been seen in animals exposed to copper sulfate aerosols (such as might be experienced by workers). Copper is considered the etiologic agent in the occupational disease referred to as “vineyard sprayer’s lung.” Copper sulfate is also a reproductive toxicant.

Copper sulfate is hazardous to aquatic plants, animals, and aquatic ecosystems. This is particularly important in rice production, where rice paddies replace natural wetlands and provide alternative habitat for animals threatened by the loss of wetlands. For example, one animal inhabiting rice paddies is the western toad (Bufo boreas).  Tadpoles of the western toad feed on filamentous algae, detritus, and may even scavenge carrion. Application rates of copper sulfate exceed levels that are lethal to tadpoles of Bufo boreas by up to two orders of magnitude. Other amphibians at risk are the bullfrog and Pacific treefrog, whose tadpoles consume algae, organic debris, and small aquatic invertebrates.

The negative impacts on amphibians found in rice fields not only have a negative impact on biodiversity, but they also reduce possibilities for biological control of algae and tadpole shrimp.  Thus, the use of copper sulfate in an aquatic environment like a rice field is inconsistent with a system of organic and sustainable agriculture. In addition, since copper sulfate is water soluble, when the fields are drained, it is released through drainage ditches to streams, and ultimately, the ocean.

The NOSB has previously discussed alternative growing systems that would eliminate the need for copper sulfate and made such alternatives a research priority. Most of the world transplants rice seedlings into paddies. Dryland rice is also grown. Neither of these systems requires killing algae and tadpole shrimp—in fact tadpole shrimp are regarded as a biological control for algae. It is time to eliminate the use of copper sulfate, bringing organic rice production in line with organic principles.

List 3 “inerts” should be removed from the National List. One of the most egregious failures of the National Organic Program (NOP) has been its repeated lack of action on so-called “inert” ingredients. Because of that failure, every sunset brings to a new NOSB a listing that has not been changed in response to over a decade of NOSB recommendations. Fifteen years ago, EPA stopped updating the “inerts” lists upon which the NOP relies. Ever since EPA’s action in 2006, the NOSB has been recommending the review of individual “inert” ingredients, but has instead been given the option by NOP of relisting the outdated lists.

In 2012, the NOSB has already recommended an expiration date for these chemicals, but NOP refused—in violation of the law—to codify this recommendation. The NOSB identified the “inerts” formerly on List 3 that were covered by this listing. They are BHT (antioxidant), 2-Hydroxy-4-n-octyloxybenzophenone (UV absorber), and 2-(2-Hydroxy-3-tert-butyl-5-methylphenyl)-chlorobenzotriazole (UV stabilizer). In addition to the three List 3 “inerts” identified in 2012, a fourth chemical formerly on List 3 has been identified as being in use in passive pheromone dispensers in organic production—benzaldehyde, CAS #100-52-7. Benzaldehyde is not approved for food use. It is approved for nonfood use and as a fragrance in nonfood uses. The addition of another chemical to the known List 3 “inerts” used in organic production shows a hazard of delaying the review of these chemicals as recommended by the NOSB. The NOSB must insist that List 3 “inerts” be delisted and that the individual chemicals be specifically reviewed.

Carrageenan is a controversial food additive that most organic processors have removed from their products. The NOSB voted in 2016 to remove carrageenan from the National List. In 2018, NOP announced that it was refusing to remove carrageenan. The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) §6517(d)(1) requires that, “The National List established by the Secretary shall be based upon a proposed national list or proposed amendments to the National List developed by the National Organic Standards Board.” The National List is not “based on” the recommendations of the NOSB if it is directly contradictory to those recommendations. NOP based its decision on testimony received by the NOSB and should not be second-guessing the advisory board for which establishing the National List is an expressly stated statutory responsibility.

The NOSB should insist that carrageenan be removed from the National List. The evidence summarized by the 2015 Technical Review came up with a verdict of mixed results on virtually every issue regarding food grade (high molecular weight) carrageenan. However, there is widespread agreement that poligeenan, which contaminates food grade carrageenan at unknown and uncontrollable levels, does cause adverse effects, including cancer. The production causes adverse environmental impacts. And it is not necessary–organic processors have been moving away from the use of carrageen because of consumer pressure since it was last considered for sunset. This is made more urgent by the fact that NOP ignored the recommendation of the NOSB in spring of 2012 to remove carrageenan from infant foods, as well as the 2016 recommendation to remove carrageenan from the National List altogether.

Kasugamycin is an antibiotic used in fruit production. The NOSB is considering a petition to allow it to be used in organic apple and pear production. Earlier NOSB members struggled long and hard to erase the stigma of antibiotic use in organic fruit production—something that was left over from the transition of so many chemical-intensive fruit orchards after the Alar “scare” in which apple and apple products were contaminated with the cancer-causing plant growth regulator daminozide. Do we now want to step on that treadmill again? The reasons for rejecting the kasugamycin petition are the same as the reasons for eliminating the antibiotics streptomycin and tetracycline in crop production.

Now that we have learned what a pandemic looks and feels like, with the astounding levels of infection, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19, we must take serious steps to prevent another pandemic on the horizon—this one tied to bacterial resistance to antibiotics. An important article in The Lancet points to a “looming potential pandemic” resulting from a “rise in multidrug-resistant bacterial infections that are undetected, underdiagnosed, and increasingly untreatable, [which] threatens the health of people in the USA and globally.”

When streptomycin and tetracycline were presented for their final votes by the Crops Subcommittee, the committee was unanimous that the antibiotics needed to go—the question was how fast. How fast could growers of these crops get over their dependence on these antibiotics that pose threats to human health and the environment and are unpopular with organic consumers? Streptomycin and tetracycline are gone, and we do not need another antibiotic.

We said “No!” to antibiotics in organic fruit, and now we must affirm that we mean it. Kasugamycin does not meet any of the OFPA criteria for the National List—it poses health and environmental dangers, is not necessary, and is incompatible with organic practices.

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Thank you for keeping organic strong!



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