For its size, organic agriculture creates a lot of press as well as consternation with farmers, especially cotton producers. Unlike food crops, which often go from the farm to the supermarket, growing organic cotton is only the first step in cotton's long road to the consumer.

Cotton farmers recently let the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's organic certification program hear about how organic cotton is considerably different from other organic crops.

The establishment of the Organic Foods Protection Act was among the myriad of new agricultural policies and directions included in the 1990 farm bill. The organic program was geared to create national standards for organic designation. After 12 years of developing program standards, the National Organic Program began in 2002. The program administration is under the auspices of the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service.

At the Cotton Board annual meeting held Sept. 6-8 in Scottsdale, Ariz., NOP's leader, Barbara Robinson, explained the need for the NOP. “Having national standards brings uniformity while eliminating the patchwork of organic standards, provides reciprocity among certifying agents and brings assurance of organic integrity. In addition, organic producers receive a label to distinguish their products in the market. Consumers gain a full choice of products that reflect desired attributes and label integrity.”

Organics is the fastest growing U.S. food segment (15-20 percent per year), said Robinson who serves as the AMS deputy director of transportation and marketing programs. In 2005, U.S. organic sales were almost $14 billion, representing 2.5 percent of total U.S. food sales.

Current marketing channels include mainstream grocery stores and supermarkets — 46 percent; natural food stores — 47 percent; and farmers markets and restaurants — 7 percent. The USDA has certified over 11,000 farms, processors and retailers as organic. In 2003, 2.2 million acres of crop and pasture were certified organic.

The USDA's role is to accredit certifying agents, compliance and enforcement, promulgate new and amended regulations, recognize foreign governments and approve state organic programs. The National Organic Standards Board, a 15-member advisory board appointed by the USDA Secretary, includes farmers/growers, handlers/processors, retailers, scientists, consumers/public interest, environmentalists and certifying agents.

The group reviews and recommends materials to be included on the USDA's national list of allowed and prohibited substances, and advises on other aspects of implementation of the NOP regulations.

Robinson said, “Organic is a production claim and is about how an agricultural product is produced and handled. Organic is not a content claim and does not mean that a product is free of something,” she noted.

Organic is not a food safety claim and is not a judgment about the quality and safety of any product. It does not mean a product is superior, safer, or more healthful than non-organic products.”

While cotton production is covered under the NOP organic crop standards, fiber processing is not, Robinson said. The lack of organic processing language drew pointed questions from half a dozen Cotton Board members.

“The regulations stop short and do not certify organic cotton beyond what happens at the farm. The guidelines are bogus,” according to importer John Clark of Paul Davril Inc., which licenses sports brands. “They stop short on how cotton is processed. A gin can process regular and organic cotton. Food is certified all the way through. It should be a level playing field for everyone.”

Cotton Board member Jimmy Johnson of Vanduser, Mo., said, “I can't believe it can be called 100 percent organic because you can't clean out a gin.”

Robinson said organic enforcement is the same under the NOP whether the cotton is grown in the United States or another country.

Breaking NOP guidelines is punishable, including civil penalties up to $11,000 per violation, revocation and suspension, plus the loss of certification for five years and accreditation for three years.