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Organic 101: Role of the National Organic Standards Board

This is the sixth installment of the Organic 101 series that explores different aspects of the USDA organic regulations.

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is made up of dedicated public volunteers appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture. It advises the National Organic Program (NOP), a part of the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), on what substances should be allowed or prohibited in organic agriculture and recommends standards, policies, or guidance to help shape the organic regulations and the organic certification process. 

Established by law, the Board is made up of 15 members that represent the organic community according to the following categories:

  • 4 farmers/growers
  • 3 environmentalists/resource conservationists
  • 3 consumer/public interest advocates
  • 2 handlers/processors
  • 1 retailer
  • 1 scientist (toxicology, ecology, or biochemistry)
  • 1 USDA accredited certifying agent

Members of the Board generally have other full-time responsibilities outside of their advisory roles, so their willingness to serve demonstrates a real commitment to the organic community. Some of these members work for non-profit organizations, some for cooperatives others for small or mid-sized companies, while others represent large operations. Learn more about the current Board.

What they do: The Board provides recommendations to the Secretary of Agriculture that help shape organic standards. The members have a specific responsibility to review substances and make recommendations about their use in organic production and processing. Learn more about allowed and prohibited substances.

If the NOSB recommends adding a substance to the National List, USDA reviews the recommendation and determines whether to move forward with the rulemaking process. After a substance is added to the National List the Board must review the listing every five years. This five-year review, called a “sunset review,” is required by law and ensures that regulations remain relevant considering the changing dynamics of agriculture. The National List is constantly being reviewed and refined to keep up with new information and organic innovations.

In addition to the Board’s responsibility of reviewing substances, it also assists in recommending standards for the organic program. For example, their recommendations for pet food standards are currently being used by the National Organic Program to develop this new area of USDA organic certification.

How they do it: Members serve for a period of five years, with two meetings each year: one held in the spring and the other in the fall. These meetings are an open forum where the public and the Board can engage in a transparent discussion before the NOSB members vote on their final recommendations.

Through this process, Board members devote countless hours to discussing the range of perspectives surrounding each substance under their review. Additionally, members serve on subcommittees that support other areas of the organic standards, such as crop and livestock production.  Learn more about the NOSB subcommittees.

Since this citizen advisory board represents all key sectors of the organic community, the NOSB’s recommendations provide NOP with invaluable insight into pursuing rulemaking or establishing policy—a necessary step by NOP to implement the Board’s recommendations into enforceable regulations.

How they’re selected: Board members are selected to represent the diverse interests and composition of the organic industry, demonstrate qualifications to review technical information, and come with strong backgrounds in organic agriculture.

The National Organic Program invites nominations to the National Organic Standards Board, and applicants can self-nominate or be recommended by other individuals or organizations. All nominations are vetted through the Secretary’s office and reviewed by the White House to ensure they represent the diversity of the organic community as well as the diversity of geography, race, gender, and other social considerations that make up the American public.

Given the breadth and scope of Board responsibilities, members have to demonstrate a commitment to the integrity of the organic industry. Many of them have a personal stake in the organic community that equates to their dedication of service, whether they operate family farms, participate in mid-sized cooperatives, or work for larger-scale businesses. By its very nature the Board represents the diversity of the organic community to help ensure that all perspectives are considered before final recommendations are presented to the Secretary. Learn more about the nomination process.

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