When Miles McEvoy was put in charge of the USDA’s National Organic Program in 2009, the appointment was strongly applauded by organic and environmental groups.
Six years later, some of those same organizations are facing off against McEvoy in federal court over his administration of the program.
While the criticisms of his policies are numerous, most boil down to the allegation that McEvoy has weakened independent oversight of the program to make life easier for large agribusiness firms.
“There is a decisive split in the organic community and McEvoy is right in the middle of it,” said Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, an organic watchdog group, who once praised the deputy administrator as “a true believer, not a PR figurehead.”
Prior to joining USDA, McEvoy was instrumental in shaping the organic inspection program at the Washington State Department of Agriculture and was involved in launching other organic programs and organizations.
“I don’t know if we had higher expectations than McEvoy deserved or if he changed,” Kastel says now.
A spokesperson for USDA said the agency “values and has faith in Deputy Administrator Miles McEvoy’s leadership of the National Organic Program.”
The program thoroughly investigates any complaints about non-compliance with organic protocols and it’s inaccurate that USDA’s internal auditors are investigating McEvoy or his department, as claimed by the Cornucopia Institute, the spokesperson said.
A major point of contention is McEvoy’s decision to change the decision-making process for which synthetic substances are allowed to remain in organic production.
Traditionally, synthetic substances were removed from the list of approved organic materials unless two-thirds of the members of the National Organic Standards Board voted to retain them.
In 2013, the USDA changed the procedure so that two-thirds of the board must vote to remove a substance. In effect, a nine-person majority of the 15-member board can vote to remove a substance and its use would still be allowed.
Earlier this year, a lawsuit was filed against McEvoy and his superiors at USDA for allegedly violating administrative law by implementing the new rule without public comment.
Among the 14 plaintiffs were the Cornucopia Institute, the Organic Consumers Association and the environmental groups Center for Food Safety, Beyond Pesticides and Food & Water Watch.
A federal judge recently dismissed the case, ruling the plaintiffs lack legal standing to challenge the rule, but they will be allowed to re-file their complaint to correct the issues identified by the judge.
The dispute over synthetic materials is just one example of heavy-handedness during McEvoy’s tenure at USDA, Kastel said.
Kastel said McEvoy has disregarded recommendations by NOSB to prohibit the use of nanotechnology and hydroponics in organic production, failed to sufficiently investigate large livestock farms for compliance with organic rules and concealed the identities of scientists who review the safety of materials.
It’s possible that McEvoy is simply carrying out orders from USDA leaders, but he is implementing these policies with zeal and a “big smile on his face,” Kastel said.
“We have a government agency operating by fiat,” said Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides. “Miles just happens to be the man at the helm.”
Beyond Pesticides is involved in another lawsuit against McEvoy and USDA that alleges the agency has unlawfully permitted compost that’s contaminated with pesticides to be used in organic production.
A federal judge recently rejected USDA’s motion to dismiss the case.
Feldman said the National Organic Program under the Bush administration ignored recommendations by NOSB but at least followed procedures that allowed for public input on policies.
The situation under the Obama administration is “clearly worse. It’s a clear violation of process and law,” he said. “This is just bad for business because it undercuts public trust.”
It appears that McEvoy is acting at the behest of large corporations that want to capitalize on the growing popularity of organics, said Barry Flamm, a former chairman of the NOSB who once considered McEvoy a “breath of fresh air.”
“Organic has grown. It has become a money-maker,” said Flamm.
McEvoy’s policies seem aimed at removing obstacles to the way he wants to run the National Organic Program, such as when he disbanded a key policy-setting committee, stripped the NOSB of the ability to set its own agenda and otherwise undermined the board’s authority.
“I was totally shocked, surprised and angry,” Flamm said. “They really cut back on the public transparency. All these changes were made unilaterally.”