It’s been just a few weeks since our political world took a turn into uncharted seas. We had been progressing along swimmingly, making progress on the likes of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, local organic food hubs and vibrant conservation programs. We had the luxury of squabbling over the recommendations of the NOSB wrangling over every nuance of organic production. We took the National Organic Program for granted as an institutional “holy maceral” that would carry us someday into regulatory utopia.
All of that came to an abrupt halt last November when the new political tide rolled in. These uncharted waters are like nothing we have navigated before, and the good food movement should take heed and consider rowing with a united stroke if we are to remain afloat.
Members of Congress (MOC)
The changes in both the House and Senate present some very real challenges for the organic movement. Some members of Congress view Organic as elitist, not borne of traditional agricultural norms. They see it as a process fraught with cumbersome regulations and controversy.
They may find it difficult to distinguish the more rational organic voices from the hardline activists in the vocal milieu. All the while, the influence of the large conventional trade associations and check-off programs is growing.
Decidedly it is clear this Congress is bent on reducing government funding and downsizing many programs, including food, agriculture and nutrition. Agricultural research and development funds have been stagnant for years, and MOC could choose to send Ag research adrift.
What’s at Stake for Organic?
Early murmurs and shudders tell us they may try to cut funding for the National Organic Program in the next Farm Bill. If this were to occur, the NOP would have fewer resources to update regulations, investigate complaints, and train and accredit certifiers. The entire premise of trust in the organic seal is upheld by the work the NOP performs. Without their good work, the seal becomes meaningless.
Additionally, some MOC look at the work of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) as a waste of time and energy. The sometimes controversial meetings lead to extra work and costs for the USDA. There are rumblings that “reform” is needed for the entire NOSB process. What public transparency would we continue to have under these new “reforms”?
The New Administration
Within days of taking office, the Trump administration took swift action, pausing ongoing work on the issuance of new rules, clawing back rules that have been finalized but not yet published in the Federal Register, and directing agencies to extend for 60 additional days the effective date of regulations that have been published.
These freezes, delays and restrictions directly impact the future of several organic initiatives the last administration worked hard to complete before the high tide went out.
What’s at Stake for Organic?
The Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices Rule is a final rule but not yet effective. Also known as the organic animal welfare standard, it comes after 12 years of careful consideration and rigorous stakeholder comments. This final rule reflects animal welfare standards consumers expect in organic production. It’s now uncertain whether the final rule will be affected and for how long.
The Organic Research and Promotion Order Proposed Rule is also impacted. Comments on the proposed rule, originally due on March 23rd have now been extended an additional 60 days to May 20th. After the end of the extended comment period, USDA will not be obliged to take further action.
Now more than ever, with funding cuts imminent, we need to generate resources for organic. It’s important to build a strong record of support for the Organic Research and Promotion Order in order to convince the incoming administration to move from a proposed to a final rule (subject to industry vote) to establish the Organic Check-off. If you haven’t already, please make a comment here to batten down the hatches so organic can weather the current storm.
The hotly contested GMO labeling law which caused deep divisions in the food community may die a slow death through lack of funding. It could also be repealed and replaced with another bill which would take out the word mandatory and make it a voluntary standard. If either occurs, any meager wins we enjoyed in that bill would certainly be washed away.
Beyond the animal welfare and proposed checkoff rules, there are numerous important regulatory actions at risk including proposed revisions to the National List (Sunset 2017) and draft guidance from the NOP on Calculating Organic Percentages. It’s a murky picture on how new NOP regulations will be handled going forward, for every new regulation must another one go.
USDA Leadership and Direction
At this moment, the USDA Agriculture Secretary nominee Perdue has not been confirmed. As a result, many teams have been left adrift without leadership in place. It isn’t unreasonable to think some of our career champions at USDA could leave for ideological reasons and the hiring freeze in place for all government agencies could cause the end of an ideological legacy.
Farm Bill 2018
Everyone concerned about the future of food and agriculture and its nexus with the climate should pay attention to the next Farm Bill. This is what dictates funding for Ag research, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), certification costs share and the National Organic Program. We need to have all hands on deck to assure that our priorities are included and funded for the next 5 years. We must assure that sustainability in agriculture and fair food security are simultaneously addressed.
It’s important that we reach out to not only our champions but all MOC on both sides of the aisle. Let them know that Organic produces jobs and invigorates economies.
If you can make the trip to DC, the OTA Policy Conference provides an excellent opportunity to educate our MOC on the importance of organic. Be part of the advocacy and education on May 22-25th 2017.
This sea change will not take the wind out of our sails.