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Protect Biodiversity and Native Ecosystems in the Organic Rule

By Harriet Behar, Sweet Springs Farm and Jo Ann Baumgartner, Wild Farm Alliance

Destruction of native ecosystems in the Amazon rainforest

Our organic regulations mandate that soil and other natural resources are protected and enhanced over time. Yet one aspect of the USDA organic rule that works against environmental stewardship and promotion of biodiversity is the requirement that land cannot be certified for organic production until it has been free of prohibited substances for three years. While this rule makes sense on land that has been farmed conventionally, it is problematic because it incentivizes the destruction of native ecosystems.

When a farmer is looking to get into organic production, this three year wait time is a costly barrier, leading many to seek land that has been fallow and/or has otherwise not had the application of synthetic pesticides for three years. This chemical-free land gives immediate access to the certified organic marketplace. Unfortunately, this rule unintentionally hurts the integrity of the label in the eyes of the consumer who are paying extra for environmental protections, and it is unfair to those farmers who patiently waited three years for their land to transition to organic.

Native ecosystems are fewer in the developed world, including the U.S., Canada and Europe, and are under great pressure in the developing world. Native forests, grasslands, and wetlands offer refuge for many species, including those that are endangered, threatened and at-risk. Once extinct, plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, fungi and more are lost forever, and their place in the elegant balance of nature has been annihilated, forever degrading the interacting functions provided in our world. Many plant species in these biodiverse areas could harbor the next miracle drug to cure a variety of human and livestock diseases. We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction on this planet. In the past 50 years, animal populations worldwide have declined by 70%, songbirds in North America have decreased by 3 billion, and untold numbers of insects have been lost.

Creating habitat for animal predators, such as owls, hawks and coyotes, can do wonders when field mice are eating a crop. Providing for insect parasitoids, such as beneficial wasps, can keep aphid and worm damage on crops to acceptable levels. Building a diverse and healthy soil food web teeming with soil biological life by growing diverse cover crop mixes or inter-seeding diverse species in cash crops, increases organic matter, and supports nitrogen fixation, carbon sequestration and the smothering of weeds. Planting diverse strips of native prairie plants into large row crop fields provides habitat and food for pollinators and beneficial insect and bird predators, as well as protects soil and water quality. Much of our understanding of how each of these systems work is based upon knowledge gained by researching native ecosystems that have not been destroyed by agriculture, development or other means.

Despite information being kept confidential on whether newly entered land into organic production was previously a native ecosystem, we have reports from organic inspectors who have seen them destroyed in order to grow organic crops. Through an informal survey, they shared many instances, including thousands of acres of short grass prairies in the Colorado Plains, of sagebrush steppe in Oregon and of oak woodlands in California being destroyed for organic production. Even though families may have enjoyed these areas for the wildlife and beauty they provide, when the land changes hands, new owners may only be seeking out a chance for high value crop production. Often, this land had been left undisturbed because it is too hard to farm – there’s no water to irrigate, the soils are too wet, too steep or too rocky.

Taking a closer look, native ecosystems are anything but wastelands. Instead, they are repositories of many beneficial organisms, from small pollinating insects to large predators, providing food and cover for them when they aren’t on the farm. Reliance on nature’s tools and mimicking the interaction and interdependency within native systems is a foundation of organic agriculture.

When considering climate change, there is no comparison between the superior capacity of perennials systems, such as forests and grasslands, to sequester carbon compared to annual cropping systems. When converted, these lands will lose 30 to 50 percent of their soils’ carbon into the atmosphere over a 50-year period. We are all aware of our climate crisis and global warming in causing extreme weather events. Organic agriculture should not compound the problem by further adding carbon to the atmosphere through destruction of these native ecosystems.

We can protect native ecosystems through organic regulation. In May 2018, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) sent a formal near-unanimous recommendation to the National Organic Program that would change the organic regulation and eliminate the incentive to convert native ecosystems to organic production. https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/CACSNativeEcosystems.pdf

This recommendation went through three NOSB public comment periods over 18 months with overwhelming support from farmers, ranchers, certifiers, retailers, processors, environmentalists and consumers—basically all stakeholders in the organic community. The recommendation defines a native ecosystem as follows:

Native ecosystems can be recognized in the field as retaining both dominant and characteristic plant species as described by established classifications of natural vegetation. These will tend to be on lands that have not been previously cultivated, cleared, drained or otherwise irrevocably altered. However, they could include areas that have recovered expected plant species composition and structure.

The organic regulation was proposed to have this addition as well.

A site supporting a native ecosystem cannot be certified for organic production as provided for under this regulation for a period of 10 years from the date of conversion.

Numerous other organic certification bodies around the world have bans in place to keep recently destroyed native ecosystems from ever being able to grow and market certified organic crops from that area. The NOSB and the public felt the forever designation was too restrictive because, for example, a farmer may not have had control of their land when its ecosystem was destroyed, and they should be able to heal and improve it through the use of organic practices. A ten year waiting period was recommended as a strong disincentive. Allowing the converted land to eventually reap the benefit of organic certification in ten years was considered acceptable because it would not have to be conventionally managed forever.

Land that has been changed from a native ecosystem due to human use may or may not recover its biodiversity. In order for the native ecosystem to recover, it would depend on the severity of impact and if there are characteristic species nearby that could move into the disturbed area. Many ecosystems may never regain their original biodiversity, especially if the process of natural succession is hampered due to impacts to soil, water, or the availability of native species that could recolonize that area.

Some organic production could be allowed on lands with native ecosystems, as long as their dominant and characteristic plant species are kept intact and the lands are not irreparably damaged. Low-impact grazing, hay production late in the season, mushroom or maple syrup production, rubber tree tapping and the harvest of wild medicinal crops are all examples that could be compatible with the protection of native ecosystems, when done correctly. Forested areas cut to provide for more pasture in the Northeast, were typically areas of secondary growth, and did not have the same diversity and species found in areas that were native ecosystems.

Wild Farm Alliance, who is the lead nonprofit guiding the education and outreach on this issue, has published Organic Native Ecosystem Application and Verification Toolkit which lists the best online tools for determining if a native ecosystem is or was present, most with analog counterparts for those lacking internet access. The toolkit gives examples of how to use the tools in different types of operations around the country and world. Many provide easy-to-access aerial photos before and after the 10-year waiting period. Once this regulation is implemented by the National Organic Program, certifiers would review only the new areas being requested for organic certification, not all fields currently certified. This proposed rule would not be difficult to implement or enforce.

The National Organic Program told the public in April 2021, that this recommendation was not considered high priority and they would not make it part of the USDA organic regulations. We later heard they are willing to reconsider. Many stakeholders are pressing the NOP and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in the fall of 2021, to make this important recommendation part of our organic requirements. The Organic Farmers Association and the Organic Trade Association along with many other organizations support this improvement to our organic rules. A short statement to the National Organic Standards Board supporting rulemaking on the disincentive to destroy native ecosystems would be helpful to this cause. Make your voice known here https://www.regulations.gov/document/AMS-NOP-21-0038-0001. For more information and to sign a petition, go to the Wild Farm Alliance. https://www.wildfarmalliance.org/native_ecosystems_petition

Harriet Behar, Sweet Springs Farm, Gays Mills, WI, can be reached at harriet.organic@gmail.com and Jo Ann Baumgartner, Wild Farms Alliance, Watsonville, CA, can be reached at joannb@wildfarmalliance.org Wild Farm Alliance's mission is to promote a healthy, viable agriculture that protects and restores wild nature.