Q&A for Organic Certification of Research Sites and Facilities

eOrganic author:

Jim Riddle, University of Minnesota

eOrganic Author:  Jim Riddle, Organic Outreach Coordinator, University of Minnesota www.organicecology.umn.edu
Last Updated:  March 20, 2008

Question 1.  Some scientists evaluating pest controls and yield losses feel it would be desirable to include a comparison treatment with prohibited materials in order to assess potential yields of organic crops vs. crops produced using non-organic methods. While these scientists agree that products from such studies could not be marketed as organic, they would like to relax rules regarding buffer zones or the requirement for an additional three-year transition after such applications. Is this possible?

Answer 1.  The rule for the three-year transition period for land following any prohibited material applications is contained in §205.202 and cannot be ignored. Under current rule, research trials such as these on certified organic farms would cause the land/plots in question to lose organic certification. However, distinct plots for comparative research could be used to allow the farm/site to maintain it’s certified organic status and researchers to access organic research grants. Distinct plots are designated areas of non-certified plots that are managed organically other than the prohibited material applications to be tested. Buffer zones would need to be maintained between organic and non-organic plots. Buffer zones must be described in the research operation’s Organic System Plan and agreed to by the certifying agent. The size of the buffer depends on site-specific risks and steps taken to prevent contamination of organic crops and land used to raise organic crops.

Question 2.  Scientists studying nutrient cycling in soils often use radio-isotopes (e.g., P-35) as tracers. The radio-isotope would clearly be a prohibited material, but the half-life for these isotopes is well known and in many cases, they will disintegrate to background levels in one season. Can radio-isotopes be used for research on organic land with reduced transition periods?

Answer 2.  This is the same situation as question #1 with the same answer.

Question 3.  Buffer zone requirements consume large amounts of land when replicated comparisons of conventional and organic treatments are done in a randomized field experiment. Can the buffer zone rules be relaxed in order to increase research efficiency and reduce the cost of such experiments?

Answer 3.  Buffer zones requirements depend on the research operation’s ability to prevent chemical and/or genetic drift from occurring in order to protect the validity of the research. Buffer zones must be described in the research operation’s Organic System Plan, agreed to by the certifying agent. The size of the buffer depends on site-specific risks and steps taken to prevent contamination of organic crops and land used to raise organic crops.

Question 4.  Certain experimental monitoring processes, although considered state-of-the-art from a scientific standpoint, may not be allowed under current NOP rules, e.g., neutron probe for soil moisture measurements, chemicals used for extractions in soil, genetically-marked microorganisms, etc. In some cases these are considered standard methods, and failure to use them makes it more difficult to publish research results in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Can research variances be authorized to allow such methods in state-of-the-art organic research?

Answer 4.  Monitoring technology that does not introduce a synthetic substance into the crop environment, such as neutron probes, is not a factor. Products produced using an experimental non-synthetic substance can be marketed as organic, unless the substance is listed on §205.602 or §205.604 as a prohibited non-synthetic substance. Land exposed to prohibited materials, including experimental synthetic substances not found on the National List, excluded methods, irradiation, or sewage sludge, would need to be free of prohibited substances for 36 months prior to harvest of crops or products to be sold as organic, in order for the land to be certified.

Question 5.  Trials of experimental materials to aid organic production, including but not
limited to those for pest and disease control, weed control, soil fertility and crop nutrition, and post-harvest handling and storage, that are still under development often involve products not yet approved or even submitted for review by the NOSB. In some cases, such substances may contain inert ingredients not yet approved. Many companies developing commercial products are hesitant to invest in the necessary development costs until a product has proven efficacy over more than a limited range of sites. This creates a “Catch-22” that slows the commercial development of production and handling inputs and delays their availability for organic producers. Can research variances be granted to speed commercialization of such products?

Answer 5.  See answer 4.

Question 6.  A researcher conducts vegetable variety trials. It is often not possible to get untreated seed of new varieties or breeding lines, making it impossible to integrate the treated seed varieties/lines into the organic plots. Instead, the treated seeds are planted in a separate but adjacent block. This prohibits the researcher from analyzing the data as one data set and directly comparing variety performance in the studies. The researcher would like to have a temporary variance that would allow treated seeds to be planted in the variety trials. In addition, seed companies need efficacy data of their varieties in organic systems before they are willing to make untreated (let alone organic) seeds available. A similar situation exists for organic seed breeding programs, where foundation seeds may only be available as treated with prohibited substances. Can non-approved seed treatments be used in certified organic breeding under a research variance?

Answer 6.  No. Seeds treated with prohibited materials become a method for applying a prohibited substance to the land in which they are planted. This is no different than any other application of prohibited materials. Land where treated seeds were planted would need to be free of prohibited substances for 36 months prior to harvest of crops or products to regain certified organic status.

Question 7.  Organic livestock health standards mandate that sick animals that do not respond to organic methods must be treated with synthetic medications to restore the health and well-being of the animals. While this standard is an essential animal welfare requirement, it is sometimes a constraint in research evaluating animal health treatments. For crop plants, an untreated control can simply be plowed under, but no ethical option exists for untreated controls in animal veterinary research. Any livestock research funded by USDA must pass animal welfare committee reviews. While these may have less stringent requirements than the NOP rule, they are designed to prevent research abuses of animals in experiments. Some researchers would like their animal welfare review committee approval of experimental protocols to be deemed adequate for organic certification purposes. Is this possible?

Answer 7.  Yes. Since organic livestock must be treated humanely, there is no need for a variance on §205.238. If a synthetic substance is used for livestock health care that is not on the National List, however, the animal or its products cannot be sold as organic, per §205.238(c)(7) and §205.105.

Published March 16, 2010

This is an eOrganic article and was reviewed for compliance with National Organic Program regulations by members of the eOrganic community. Always check with your organic certification agency before adopting new practices or using new materials. For more information, refer to eOrganic's articles on organic certification.