A new era for organic leadership in California

For the first time in over a decade, the California Organic Products Advisory Committee (COPAC) has a nearly full roster of appointed committee members. The reinvigorated committee will provide critical leadership and elevate the voice of California’s organic sector in public policy and programs.

In recent years, COPAC struggled to keep its 15-member committee filled despite its important role in advising the Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). The committee advises the Secretary on administration of the California State Organic Program (SOP), which enforces national organic standards in California. Appointed by the Secretary, committee members represent organic stakeholders, including farmers, processors, retailers, consumers, and, most recently, accredited certifying agencies.

COPAC was established in 1990 when the SOP and state law regulated organic production in California. It played a critical role in building the integrity of the organic seal, overseeing organic enforcement for nearly a decade before the establishment of the National Organic Program (NOP). Today, the SOP enforces national organic standards with the approval and oversight of NOP. While still playing an important role in advising the Secretary on SOP administration, COPAC has less discretion than when it was the sole advisory committee for organic standards and enforcement in California.

Recognizing the need to update the role of COPAC and make other reforms to the SOP, CCOF sponsored the California Organic Food and Farming Act (COFFA). Governor Jerry Brown signed COFFA into law in September 2016, and it took effect January 1, 2017. Among other reforms, COFFA gives COPAC authority to advise the Secretary on outreach, education, and technical assistance for organic producers. This new authority increases the opportunity for organic leaders to participate in policy and programs for organic producers.

CCOF is also working with CDFA to improve communication about COPAC to organic stakeholders. CCOF staff have participated in several working groups on outreach and program priorities for COPAC and the SOP. Additionally, CCOF regularly publishes notices of upcoming COPAC meetings and available committee seats.

The changes to COPAC’s authority and increased outreach efforts have been successful—COPAC now has a nearly full roster of appointed members. The Secretary was expected filled one of the last two remaining seats at the COPAC meeting in May, and several alternate seats are available for those interested in providing support when a primary seat holder is unavailable to attend a meeting. CCOF has supported several successful applications, including the appointment of CCOF-certified farmers Karen Archipley of Archi’s Acres and Vernon Peterson of Abundant Harvest Organics, plus President of CCOF Certification Services LLC Jake Lewin in the certifier seat. The technical representative seat remains open.

With a full roster of engaged committee members, COPAC can advise the Secretary on support for organic producers in a variety of ways. For example, it could advise on organic alternatives for invasive pest and disease control, coordination of the state Organic Inputs Material program, and CDFA’s new program to incentivize soil-building practices on farms. It could weigh in on CDFA’s farm bill priorities or discuss ways to increase organic research at California’s land grant universities. Some stakeholders see potential for COPAC to provide comments to the National Organic Standards Board on materials and practices. Some are interested in exploring whether COPAC could provide organic perspectives on state regulations affecting agriculture, including water and nutrient management requirements.

COPAC will also continue to play an important role in advising the Secretary on organic enforcement. Its most basic function is to direct the SOP on spot inspections, residue tests, and special enforcement projects like GMO testing. With a growing organic sector and an increasing amount of organic imports entering the marketplace, COPAC will ensure that the SOP is prioritizing key enforcement actions.

Overall, the direction of COPAC will depend upon the leadership of its members. Since its inception, many organic leaders have helped steer the committee. Melody Meyer, Vice President of Policy and Industry Relations for United Natural Foods (UNFI) and an OTA Board member, has served on the committee for over a decade and provided strong leadership as the committee chair for many of those years. COPAC recently welcomed its new Chair, Mindee Jeffery of Good Earth Natural Foods, who will help lead COPAC in its efforts to advance organic agriculture and protect the integrity of the seal. 

Better leveraging the influence of an organic advisory committee to the Secretary of CDFA is within the interest of all organic stakeholders. Although California produces the highest volume of organic sales, organic still represents less than 3.5 percent of agricultural land in the state. Therefore, CCOF is committed to working with COPAC to advance organic agriculture, and encourages other stakeholders to engage with this important committee.  //

Kelly Damewood is Policy Director for CCOF, Inc.