Saturday, September 17, 2016

A Conversation with Miles McEvoy of the National Organic Program

Heidi Peroni 
Organic Outreach and Education Coordinator 

As deputy administrator (aka Head Guy) for the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) and former program manager of WSDA's Organic Food Program, Miles McEvoy has a unique insight into both past and present of the organic industry in Washington state and nationally. His journey began as WSDA’s first organic inspector in 1988 and spans nearly 30 years of work in the organic certification world.

Recently, I had a chance to speak with Miles. Here are a few excerpts from that conversation.

Tell me a little bit about yourself. 

I’ve been at the NOP since fall 2009. Before that, I worked with WSDA, from 1988 to 2009, seeing the change from about 63 farms that first year to the thriving organic industry that it is now.

What was the intention of organic certification originally?  
The driver for Tilth was to protect farmers and create a level playing field and consistent standards.  Also consumers wanted to make sure that organic product really was organic.

Is that intention the same today? 
Pretty much, 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 everyone selling organic products is meeting the same requirements.

What was the drive behind taking the standards to a national level?  
Standards were very inconsistent between states and certifiers who didn’t accept one another’s certification. There were a lot of barriers to trade. The market started to grow significantly, and retailers and consumers also wanted a consistent standard.

What benefit do you feel comes from national organic standards?
Organic means one consistent set of standards throughout the country, the world, really. Enforcement creates a mechanism to ensure that standards are being met. National organic standards also ensure the verification of standards throughout the supply chain and create market confidence for consumers, and all investors-the farmers, handlers, and processors.

What issues are most critical in organic today? How is the NOP addressing them?
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 (NRCS).

Where do you think the organic industry will go from here? What are the greatest barriers to its growth? 
It’s growing strongly-there’s a lot of energy, vitality, and excitement. Organic products account for about 5-11% of sales—I think it will continue to grow. In terms of challenges, 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.

Where do you see agriculture in the next 20 years?
Farmers will more closely reflect the diversity of the US population.  More farms will provide food for local and regional markets. I see farmers, both organic and non-organic, becoming more sustainable in terms of energy use, inputs, and environmental impacts, and less use of toxic pesticides.  Organic is at the cutting edge of the trend towards a sustainable food system.