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Standards chairman to resign, charges for-profit firm maintains copyright

by John S. Niblock | June 10, 2010
The chairman of a committee developing voluntary national standards for sustainable agriculture, including flowers and potted plants, told The Produce News June 10 that he would resign in frustration when the 58-member committee meets Monday, June 14, because a for-profit firm continues to hold copyright on standards developed by the committee.

Marty Matlock, a professor at the University of Arkansas who was elected to head the committee almost two years ago, said in an exclusive interview that a for-profit firm which initiated the standards process, Scientific Certification Systems in Emeryville, CA, has failed for two years to deliver on its promise to turn copyright over to a non-profit firm.

"I finally drew a line in the sand and told SCS it had to be done by this April," Dr. Matlock recounted. “All I got was another deadline. They said maybe they'd do it in June.”

Leonardo Academy of Madison, WI, an accredited standards development organization, was named by the American National Standards Institute, which oversees development of voluntary standards and assessment systems, to shepherd the process. The academy has unsuccessfully sought foundation funding to underwrite the committee’s operations.

“No foundation is going to give a grant to a project where a private, for- profit firm holds copyright,” Dr. Matlock explained. SCS has been sole funder for the work of the committee, aside from a recent donation to cover some travel expenses to the upcoming meeting. A Leonardo Academy spokesman declined earlier to disclose how much SCS had paid the academy.

“I cannot ask the taxpayers of Arkansas to continue to support my work for this committee when its product will benefit only a private for-profit company,” Dr. Matlock said. He is stepping down as chairman of the committee and resigning as a member, he said, but is proud of the work it has accomplished.

“The members were aggressive in finding common ground among the wide range of interests represented on the committee,” he said. “We developed principles that our standards will be outcomes-driven, informed by science, neutral on technology and encompass social, environmental and economic impact.” He added that the committee could complete its recommendations to the American National Standards Institute in about a year, and expected the final standards to include an annex specifically for cut flowers and potted plants.

The group is scheduled to hold its third face-to-face meeting June 14-15 at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, home base for Dr. Matlock, who is also director of the Center for Agricultural & Rural Sustainability there.

At the June 14-15 meeting, subcommittees will present draft statements for approval. For example, the labor rights subcommittee will offer principles on wages and benefits, working hours, child labor, forced labor, discrimination, freedom of association, violence and harassment, and work contracts.

Yet to come from that subcommittee are statements on health and safety, migrant workers and access to justice, followed by development of criteria and indicators to measure compliance. Even when completed, the standards will have to go through a series of review and comments by the industry and general public.

The process began in April 2007 when SCS proposed that standards it had developed for the “VeriFlora” label, and charged fees to certify, be adopted as U.S. standards. The American National Standards Institute, which oversees development of voluntary standards and assessment systems, turned to Leonardo Academy, a non-profit in Madison, WI, to shepherd the process.

At the committee’s first meeting in 2008, one of its early actions was to start with a clean slate and set the SCS standards aside as a resource document. The committee met in St. Charles, IL, in 2009. Other meetings and subcommittee meetings took place via conference call and the Internet.

Will Healy, research and technical manager at Ball Innovations, the research and development arm of Ball Horticultural Co. in West Chicago, IL, serves as secretary of the committee. Other floral industry representatives are Metrolina Greenhouses in Charlotte, NC; Asocolflores, the Colombian flower exporters group in Bogotá; Stan Pohmer of Pohmer Consulting in Minnetonka, MN; the Department of Environmental Horticulture at the University of Florida in Gainesville; the Horticulture Department at the University of Wisconsin in Madison; and SCS.