It was a rollicking time for organic in D.C. last week.The Senate AG Committee held a hearing on global & local markets, specialty crops, and organics as they relate to the next Farm Bill. Chairman Pat Roberts gave a hi-five to organic farmers acknowledging that “they are responding to a market signal and increasing their margins.” He also attached some scorn to the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) by stating “… it seems that uncertainty and dysfunction have overtaken the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and the regulations associated with the National Organic Program (NOP).”
What do these seemingly diverging messages from the Chairman of the House Ag Committee mean for organic in the next Farm Bill? For answers, you must understand some of the issues currently vexing the organic seal.
There aren’t enough US organic farmers and supply to meet demand.
In some sectors such as organic grain, supply is critically short. The three-year transition period is precarious for farmers; they take the chance to farm organically, often with lower yields, but must market their products as conventional—getting paid conventional prices. If USDA would finalize the proposed USDA Certified Transitional Program, farmers would work with certification agencies from year one. It would allow them to be recognized as “transitional organic” allowing for a smoother three-year ride to the USDA seal.
Kenneth Dallmier, President and CEO of Clarkson Grain Company, testified that more should be done to assist transitioning farmers. He also stressed the importance of robust funding for the National Organic Program (NOP) which handles certification and enforcement.
Organic fraud beleaguers consumer confidence.
A Washington Post article exposing conventional soybeans sold as organic recently sparked a conflagration of headlines and concerns. As conventional grain prices have fallen, organic prices still remained 30-50% higher. Thus the temptation to cheat has been too great for some unscrupulous traders.
The rise in Eastern European organic imported grain was an early indication something was amiss. While some of the fraudulent grain was identified and certifications were pulled, the number of illegal cases continues to grow. Last week the NOP issued 11 more fraudulent certifications suggesting the problem is far from being resolved.
In response the Organic Trade Association has set up a Global Organic Supply Chain Integrity Task Force to address a vulnerability recently revealed in the organic supply chain.
A philosophical battle wages on the meaning of certified organic.
The organic industry has grown, and the likes of Kellogg’s, General Mills and Coca-Cola have embraced the seal, buying up organic brands and businesses. Wal-Mart, Costco and Kroger all play an important part in the burgeoning $44 billion industry. The USDA seal isn’t just specialty coops or small family farms anymore. But there are organic advocates who think it should stay small.
The notion that big organic is bad cobbled with the perception that large companies want to water down the standards echo in the halls of every NOSB meeting. Should the standards remain as they always have or should they allow for change and innovation?
The role of the NOSB is often fraught with controversy.
The NOSB hears public comment twice each year on the evolution of the organic standards. The meetings often reflect wildly different views on this progression.
The board is currently represented by smaller farmers and one medium sized retailer. Theo Crisantes, VP of Operations, Wholesum Harvest, raised the question at the Senate meeting, “does the current 15-member NOSB board reflect the breadth and diversity of the sector?”
The NOSB recently drafted proposals to eliminate container and hydroponic production even though they have been certified by USDA since the beginning of the organic program. Theo’s company thinks that organic producers should be able to continue using these methods and still be eligible for USDA organic certification. This kind of organic production minimizes the impact on the environment, reduces water use by 80% while providing year-round employment in local communities he said.
Special Interests threaten to disrupt the organic process.
The recent action by USDA to delay The Animal Welfare Standard after over a decade of NOSB deliberations and public comment is an ominous sign. The rule would expand access to the outdoors and give organic animals more space to move about, which is what organic consumers expect.
Without this rule in place, large producers who have followed the specifics but not the intent of the organic regulations are now resisting the changes. Some have enough political clout to ask Congress & USDA to intervene in the process. This is a dangerous precedent for all organic products.
The current political landscape in DC is pro-business
The “Make America Great” philosophy has the potential both to help and to hinder progress for the organic seal.
If the Ag committees truly want to help grow this bright spot in rural communities they must increase funding to improve NOP enforcement and help transitioning organic farmers.
If big business—even organic—is able to change the entire process laid down in the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), it sets a disastrous precedent for the seal.
It’s true that NOSB meetings can be a source of philosophical thumb wrestling, but that is exactly the process Congress adopted in the original regulations. They should not usurp it.
These are some of the issues that must be addressed when Congress passes the next Farm Bill.