Happy New Year: Congress Lays a Golden Egg While USDA Doles out a Lump of Coal

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The end of the year has come and gone – a new year is upon us. I spent the holidays as a serial hostess, whipping up fine organic fare for friends and family. Yet the feasting and frolicking did not distract me from the news that affects the things I hold dear – Food and Agriculture.

While we were all preparing for the holidays, we at once received great tidings from Congress alongside a grimy gift from our dear Administration.

This then is the story of The Golden Egg and Lump of Coal that ended 2018.

There is no goose in the story, but instead, a Congress that reached beyond its partisan fluttering to deliver a golden gift — one that will hatch many benefits in the future. In the 11thhour of the year, Congress managed to pass a Farm Bill that included big wins for organic farmers and consumers.

Capitol Hill

Most notably the Farm Bill establishes permanent funding for organic research by authorizing $50 million in annual funding. Baseline permanent funding for The Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) is an important resource for organic farmers. The research it funds will help future organic farmers innovate, increase yields, manage soil fertility and use resources more efficiently.

Part of this funding supports “extension services.” USDA’s Extension Services have offices near most of the nation’s 3,000 counties. Their agents help farmers grow crops and assist young people in learning skills so that they can become our next agricultural leaders. These services assist farmers transitioning to organic farming gain a greater understanding of organic growing systems and methods.

We need more organic farmers, and we need them to thrive if we are going to create a sustainable agriculture system in our country. Permanent baseline funding for OREI is an important step towards this future.

The Bill also funded the organic certification cost-share program which incentivizes small and beginning farmers to transition to organic by offsetting the costs of annual organic certification fees.

The Farm Bill also addresses the organic fraud that has become apparent in recent years. As in any successful system, there are bound to be a few bad actors, and organic is not immune to those who want to cheat the system.

The 2018 Farm Bill has funding for improved oversight of organic trade that will ensure integrity throughout the entire local supply chain. These tools will protect organic market prices for farmers and assure organic consumers they are getting what they pay for when they see the USDA seal.

This golden gift will reap benefits for organic farmers and consumers for years to come and was delivered with resounding bipartisan support. There were many champions in Congress who protected organic priorities in this $867 billion Farm Bill. I especially thank the Organic Trade Association and its members who worked long and hard to get organic priorities included.

And then USDA delivered a lump of coal the weekend before Christmas.

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We held high hopes for a GMO labeling rule that was mandated by Congress in 2016. They passed a compromise bill with the intention of giving Americans the right to know what they were eating. It was to inform consumers about the GMO content in their food.

What the current USDA issued as the final rule is a far cry from that intention. The transparency it was supposed to guarantee is as murky as a lump of coal.

First of all, the rule prohibits the use of the terms we all understand and know. For years we have been using “Genetically Engineered,” “Genetically Modified” and “GMO.” Instead, the rule mandates the use of “bioengineered” which is unfamiliar and will confuse consumers. Is it a GMO or it isn’t it? Dictionaries up!

The rule stipulates several other ways a company can disclose the presence of GMO’s. One is a four-pointed starburst symbol. This image means nothing to consumers with its upbeat imagery and is misleading at best.

Another way a company can disclose GMO presence is through websites or a digital code, but the rule gives no guidance to assure these are effective or practical. Not everyone has a smartphone, and we all deserve the right to know what’s in our food despite the technology we possess.

It goes on to exempt highly-refined ingredients such as sugars and oils even if they are derived from GMO’s. Most GMO products contain GMO oils and sugars, so this exemption will create a loophole for up to two-thirds of all products in the marketplace. Transparency begone!

The rule also exempts new genetic engineering techniques like CRISPR and RNAi which is clearly a betrayal of its intention.  An entirely new generation of gene editing substances will not be identifiable in our food.

F160471_SpaghettiOs_New_Labels-0091It’s heartening to know that companies such as Campbell’s, Mars, Danone, Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola and Unilever have pledged to go beyond USDA’s weak standard and voluntarily disclose all GMO foods. Just Label It is calling on the rest of the food industry to join their lead.

 

In the end, I believe this rule will be contested in the courts, so the battle isn’t entirely over.

So, we got a bit of gold and a ration of coal at the end of the year. What this tells me is we must stay politically involved and keep up the good effort. Both were delivered because we all took action to further organic agriculture while demanding our right to know what’s in conventional food.

Besides, we all know that coal is outdated and must someday be abandoned. Let’s strive for the gold in our food and agricultural systems.

It’s the only path to our sustainable future.

Rising Sun

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