INSIDE ORGANIC: Big Push Underway to Make Organic Farming a 2007 Farm Bill Priority (Jan 06)

     by Roger Blobaum · Inside Organics · MOSES Broadcaster · Jan/Feb 2006


Organizations involved in national organic food and farming policymaking are gearing up in the coming months to convince Congress to expand support for the organic sector in the rewrite of farm bill provisions that expire in 2007.

This provides an opportunity for these organizations to kiss and make up after the bitter Congressional fight over Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) amendments adopted in the Capitol Hill follow-up to the Harvey v. Johanns court decision.  Unlike the Harvey amendments fiasco, farm bill proposals must be formally introduced, openly considered at hearings and markups, and debated in public.  The Administration will be an important political player, especially if a push is made to get a new farm bill out before next fall’s congressional elections.

An unprecedented amount of work on organic initiatives, more than can be described here, has been underway in the organic community over the last year.   We may see important differences of opinion about organic sector priorities and support level requests in a new farm bill.  But overall, the organic community is expected to make a special effort to get along, to rally and, to the extent possible, present lawmakers with new approaches and a united front.

The farm bill establishes a maximum funding level for the National Organic Program, but this is an extremely small part of the authorized funding levels needed to increase and expand support for the organic sector.  Other needed changes would increase funding levels for emerging organic programs within the Risk Management Agency (RMA), Economic Research Service (ERS), Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NCRS), Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), and other agencies.

Increases also will be sought for organic-friendly programs like the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, the Value Added Producer grants program, and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Continued federal cost sharing for organic certification, authorized by the 2002 farm bill and running out of money, is expected to be an organic sector priority.

It is important to be realistic, or even skeptical, about funding levels authorized in farm bills.  That is because the appropriated levels are almost always much less than the authorized levels and that new programs, like the Conservation Security Program, can become easy targets during highly-politicized budget-cutting episodes.  The Appropriations committees can, and often do, turn “greened-up” farm bills into big disappointments.

Agency rulemaking and implementation curbs also often distort the intent and impact of new farm bill initiatives.  The first proposed organic program rule in 1977, which USDA was forced to pull and rewrite, is a good example.  Another is the Conservation Security Program (CRP), which has fallen short of providing expected help to organic farmers and endured one budget hit after another. Still another, a 2002 farm bill provision exempting organic farmers from commodity checkoff deductions, has been so narrowly defined through rulemaking that few farmers are able to qualify.

New Larger Themes Get Attention

Some new and larger themes also are being seriously discussed.  One calls for providing organic research, education, and other supporting programs with a “fair” share of support provided for these programs.  If the amount of organic acreage is one percent of total farm acreage, for example, organic food and farming programs would receive one percent of authorized USDA research funding.  Organic research, using this approach, would receive $25 million out of the more than $2.5 billion spent annually for agricultural research.  It is estimated that support for organic specific research now is about $10 million.

Another is to transition from a “market led” organic approach, embodied in the OFPA, to the “government-facilitated” approach that has been so successful in Europe.  The economic impact of these approaches are fully explored and discussed in an ERS report entitled “Market-Led Versus Government-Facilitated Growth: Development of the U.S. and EU Organic Agricultural Sectors.”  European governments promote sector growth with conversion subsidies and direct payments to organic farmers, the authors note, while the U.S. government’s free market approach emphasizes market development.

The U.S. market-led approach says, in effect, that organic farming is no better than conventional farming, that it simply offers consumers another choice, and that  economic incentives should come from the marketplace.   The European government facilitated approach says organic farmers provide significant environmental, social, and other benefits to the public and, as a result, should be rewarded with special subsidies and payments.

The ERS report, issued in August, includes convincing documentation.  “As a result of the different policies,” it concludes, “ the EU countries have more certified organic farmland than the U.S. (4.4 million hectares versus 949,000 hectares in 2001), a larger share of farmland under organic management (2 percent versus 0.25 percent in 2001), and more organic farms (143,607 versus 6,949 in 2001). The EU organic market is larger, but not a lot larger, than the U.S. organic market.

The Organic Committee of the Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture (“the Campaign”) also has had a task force that has been working for nearly two years on a U.S. organic action plan patterned on the European Action Plan for Organic Food and Farming adopted by the European Commission in mid-2004.  The European plan lays out a vision, establishes objectives and goals, and lists 21 policy actions to be implemented.  A related goal is replacing organic imports with domestic organic production.

Several European countries also have their own action plans that include specific organic farming goals and timelines.  Finland, with 7.2 percent of its farms under organic management in 2003, for example, has a policy target of 10 percent organic farms by 2006 and 15 percent by 2010.  Germany, with 4.3 percent in 2003, is shooting for 20 percent by 2010.  Several other countries have organic goals in the 10 to 20 percent range.

The Campaign’s organic action plan initiative was discussed at several organic conferences in 2005, including a well-attended session at the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference.  The task force working on it includes representatives of consumer, environmental, and other public interest organizations.  Although still pretty much in the discussion phase, the national action plan approach is expected to stimulate some organic-focused discussion during the farm bill debate.

The Campaign, representing several hundred grassroots organizations, will also urge Congress to provide liability protection for organic farmers against GMO contamination and to increase support for research on seeds and breeds important to farmers using organic and sustainable agriculture practices.

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) also has borrowed from the European experience in proposing a national organic agriculture initiative.  It would have Congress establish U.S. targets of 5 percent of U.S. acreage under organic management and 10 percent of retail food sales by 2012.  This initiative also calls for a study to determine what specific policies are needed to facilitate organic sector growth to established targets.

Experienced Organizations Gear Up

In addition to the Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture and OTA, which were much involved in supporting and promoting organic farm bill provisions in 2002, other organizations with farm bill experience and savvy and nationally recognized organic policy expertise are also gearing up for farm bill action.

The Organic Farming Research Foundation, (OFRF) which since 1997 has provided recommendations for organic farming research and data collection and other areas of agricultural policy, has been circulating a draft 2007 farm bill concept paper  entitled “Initial Concepts for the 2007 Farm Bill.” OFRF has traditionally taken the lead in mobilizing public support for higher organic research authorizations and appropriation levels.

“It is important for Congress and the USDA to work together to strengthen public investment in organic research, extension, education, and economics,” the OFRF paper states.  “These programs should receive a share of USDA resources that reflects the growth and opportunities of the organic sector.”  The same principle should apply, it noted, to natural resources, risk management, and all other USDA mission areas.

Another major farm bill player for many years is the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (SAC), which has outlined plans to strengthen three national NRCS programs it has made a priority.  They are the Conservation Security Program (CSP), the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQUIP), and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).  In addition to helping shape and pass these programs, SAC has provided a high level of expertise and leadership in rulemaking and in attempting to have organic farmers fully included.

The CSP, added to the 2002 farm bill to reward farmers for good stewardship and conservation farming practices, has fallen far short of expectations due to insufficient funds and over-bureaucratic rules.  In addition to pressing the last three years for rules and appropriations needed to make this a nationwide initiative, the SAC has worked hard to get organic farmers included in this conservation reward and incentives system.  SAC’s CRP initiative is aimed at making it easier for farmers to transition CRP acreage coming out of contract to meet NOP organic management rules and become eligible for certification.

SAC has worked for several years to raise the priority of organic production systems in EQIP and last June, in response to an NRCS request for program revision recommendations, urged NRCS to establish an EQIP national priority for farmers and ranchers making the transition to organic production systems.  Currently Minnesota, Iowa, Montana, and Nebraska NRCS state conservationists are supporting EQIP “organic transition” incentive payments and outreach.  The 2007 farm bill provides an opportunity to make these “green payment” pilot initiatives nationwide.


by Roger Blobaum

This article was first printed in the Jan/Feb 2006 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service