The federal government shutdown is going on its fourth week with no clear resolution in sight. According to estimates from S&P Global, the shutdown has already cost the U.S. economy $3.6 billion, and If it continues two more weeks, the economic damage could surpass $5.7 billion.
The shutdown is causing issues for farmers across the nation. Local Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices have been closed, affecting farmers with agency loans. Food safety inspectors are working while missing paychecks, and important Ag data isn’t being collected. What does the shutdown mean specifically for the Organic Sector?
Many organic programs are left without moorings in this uncharted territory.
The National Organic Program (NOP) and all of its activities have been completely shuttered. This is the agency that enforces the organic standards.
NOP employees are at home unable to answer industry emails or phone calls.
If someone files a complaint about possible fraud in the marketplace, no one sees it. As complaints and investigations mount, the backlog of problems will only grow. Making timely resolutions for farmers and consumers will be an ongoing issue.
Certifiers and farmers can’t reach out to NOP for clarifying questions and technical assistance related to the organic standards.
“The Organic Trade Association is monitoring closely the impact of the shutdown on organic producers and handlers,” said Laura Batcha CEO of the Organic Trade Association. “The longer it goes on the more likely the impact reverberates out to the consumer and the integrity of the seal” the association underscored.
Future rulemaking on the organic standards is not getting done by NOP staff.
Official travel has ground to a halt. Meanwhile, there is an Accredited Certifiers Association (ACA) training scheduled at the end of January in Charleston, NC. These trainings ensure consistent implementation of USDA Organic Regulations by educating accredited certification agencies.NOP employees will be unable to travel to this training and any upcoming conferences where their input and guidance is needed.
BioFach is the world’s largest trade show for organic. It’s the place where global organic suppliers and buyers meet to do business and stimulate organic trade. This year’s show is fast approaching, February 13-16thin Nuremberg, Germany.
US Organic producers typically attend the show and use the NOP/USDA booth to help grow their markets in other countries. It’s now unclear if NOP staff will be able to travel to the event and if funding will be there for the USDA booth that’s so important to US producers.
Organic had big wins in the 2018 Farm Bill that passed in December. Implementation of the organic provisions, including increased oversight and enforcement measures for the global organic supply chain, will be delayed. This is especially problematic because once the bill became law, it mandated the work must be completed within 12 months.
The shutdown will greatly impact and delay the implementation of these important enforcement measures to fight fraud in the marketplace.
To add insult to injury, increased funding for the NOP and organic research contained in the Fiscal Year 2019 spending bills will not go into effect until a spending deal is reached by the White House and Congress.
Certification cost-share dollars were also authorized in the 2018 Farm Bill. These dollars typically get pushed out to states and are replenished as farmers use them to offset the cost of certification. If states run out of money and USDA is delayed in requesting more funds, there could be a lag in reimbursements to organic farmers.
Organic is unique in that not paying for certification is grounds for revoking certification. In fact, non-payment is one of the most common reasons farmers get decertified. If the funds aren’t there to reimburse small and transitioning farmers, we could see a rash of revoked certifications across the country.
The Farm Bill increased funding for organic research in the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI). There will be delays in getting requests for proposals out—and we are already 5 months late because the Farm Bill should have been passed last September. This means there will be at least a half year without active research funding for organic farmers.
Meanwhile, the collection of organic market and agricultural production reports has stopped which puts farmers in economic limbo. This crucial data helps organic farmers plan future crops, obtain loans and collect on insurance.
Mark Lipson was the organic and sustainable agriculture policy adviser at USDA during the last prolonged shutdown.
He remembers that “The shutdown had a major impact on the overall accomplishments of Obama’s USDA. Not so obvious from the outside, but the continuity of progress was badly interrupted. The immediate, daily impact of the shutdown lasted for weeks more than the actual time without appropriations, and many things were altered for the worse. For the NOP, the most obvious thing was cancelling an NOSB meeting. Of course, this was very disruptive and added to the cascade of challenges for NOP. During my time in the administration, the windows for really accomplishing change, when all the pieces were lined up, did not last very long. Without a doubt, the 2013 shutdown closed some of those windows altogether.”
Organic is a small sector of the total US agriculture landscape. However, its effects on rural prosperity and farm income are mighty—representing a bright spot for farmers across the country.
If you are an organic farmer or consumer and you are directly affected by the federal shutdown, the Organic Trade Association wants to hear from you. Email your story to firstname.lastname@example.org.
As the shutdown grinds on, organic farmers have a lot to lose as their programs remain adrift. Let’s demand the shutdown ends soon, and programs can be restored so organic can continue to prosper and flourish.
© 2019, Melody Meyer. All rights reserved.