For those of you who want a condensed TLDR version of how organic did in the 2018 Farm Bill, here is what you need to know.
* WINS — More money: for organic research; to fight against organic fraud; for technology upgrades; and to help fund the organic certification cost-share program (helps offset certification expenses for farmers).
* LOSSES — Changes to the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) will make it harder (1) for small organic farmers to be fairly represented and (2) to remove synthetic ingredients in organic.
* OVERALL — Some definite wins and increased funding in important areas, which should help the industry grow its top-line revenues. However, changes to the NOSB may very well hurt the integrity of the organic seal, and interests of corporate agribusiness were put ahead of organic consumers and small organic farmers.
For a more detailed analysis of how organic did in the Farm Bill and what it means for our industry, a longer explanation is below.
With the 2018 Farm Bill having been approved by Congress and now awaiting President Trump’s signature, organic saw some real victories, suffered significant defeats and dodged a few bullets which could have been utterly disastrous.
Here are the key points:
* The Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) got a big boost and saw an increase of its funding to “baseline” status ($50 million annually) by 2023, which will help ensure the continuation of this program beyond the life of the current Farm Bill. This money will be used to help fund cutting-edge research into organic practices and production systems.
* The incredibly important National Organic Certification Cost Share Program was saved. Between funds that were not used in the last Farm Bill and new funds in this Farm Bill, $40.5M is available to help offset the costs of organic farmers obtaining organic certification.
* $5 million for technology upgrades and data-tracking for fraudulent organic imports, along with increased enforcement authority to crack down on fraudulent organic products from abroad.
* $5 million for the Organic Production and Market Data Initiative, which is critical for policymakers, researchers and industry participants to understand organic production and market data, track trends and create risk management tools.
The National Organic Standard Board (NOSB), the 15-member advisory board that makes recommendations to the USDA about rules, regulations and ingredients, suffered two key losses in the Farm Bill.
1) Executives of farm companies are now allowed to sit in farmer-designated seats on the NOSB. This has the potential to dilute the voice of independent organic farmers while favoring the interests of large organic production companies. For example, an executive at a large farm company with zero first-hand knowledge of farming could now be holding a farmer-designated seat on the board.
2) There is a new provision about NOSB voting procedures which govern decisions about which synthetic materials are allowed in organic production and processing. This will make it easier for synthetic materials to stay on the National List for decades.
THE BULLETS WE DODGED
* A House version of the Farm Bill earlier this year wanted to eliminate the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program, which would have resulted in a good number of farmers dropping out of organic altogether. With less than 1% of American farmland grown as organic and our heavy reliance on organic imports, this would have been beyond disastrous. Fortunately, this cost-share program was spared.
* Two proposed measures to further weaken the NOSB never made it into the Farm Bill.
1) A provision requiring the NOSB to establish a task force to review any petition regarding materials that have been approved by FDA or EPA and to allow the agency to consult with the NOSB about these materials. This would have given the EPA and FDA undue influence over the NOSB, particularly in regards to approving synthetic materials in organic.
2) A provision that allows the Secretary of the USDA to create an expedited process for reviewing materials for inclusion on the National List that are related to post-harvest handling and food safety. This could have prevented the NOSB from spending the appropriate amount of time researching, discussing and analyzing a proposed ingredient or material.
Without question, there were some major victories in this Farm Bill — organic research funding, certification cost-share for organic farmers, and more money for data collection and to fight fraud — and these wins must be celebrated.
However, as organic continues to grow, it is imperative that the integrity of the organic seal be protected ever more fiercely. Yet, the interference of Congress in procedural issues at the NOSB level will only weaken the organic seal and make it that much easier for synthetic ingredients to stay in organic. And the only reason that Congress is taking these measures is because of corporate lobbyists who want to weaken organic standards.
“What Congress is doing is codifying what the NOP (National Organic Program) has been doing already — putting agribusiness representatives in farmer-designed seats. Previously, it was illegal, and now they have made it legal. Furthermore, the NOP didn’t follow the standard review process when it changed voting procedures for the Sunset provision (the process for allowing synthetic and other specially-approved materials in organic for a 5-year period). Now, Congress has changed the law to provide legal cover to the USDA,” said Francis Thicke, former member of the NOSB and Policy Committee Chair of the Organic Farmers Association.
What politicians and many current NOSB members seem to forget is that organic is a voluntary program. No company or farmer is forced to participate in organic. A common phrase that is echoed far too often among a select number of current NOSB members is that “we shouldn’t take away another tool from the toolbox.” This is the absolute wrong approach.
In no way should organic be discriminatory in terms of who participates. Instead, it should be very selective in the methods and ingredients that are allowed in the program.
The 2018 Farm Bill will undoubtedly help facilitate organic’s top-line growth in the years ahead but at what expense is the real question that remains to be answered.
Numerous organic trade and farmer groups played a critical role in advocating on behalf of organic interests in this Farm Bill, and tremendous gratitude goes out to these organizations. Their tireless work paid very big dividends.
In terms of timing, both the Senate and House passed the Farm Bill, and all indications are that President Trump will sign the legislation once it lands on his desk, which could happen this week.
To see a full scorecard of the Farm Bill, which was produced by the National Organic Coalition, click HERE.
Have a great day!
Max Goldberg, Founder
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