INSIDE ORGANIC: Expanding and Mainstreaming Organic Without the Loss of Integrity: The Proposed National Organic Action Plan Can Help Make That Happen (July 06)

       by Roger Blobaum · Inside Organics · MOSES Broadcaster · July/August 2006The formal launching of a National Organic Action Plan process this summer has the potential to provide a community-wide response to the challenge of steering organic 20 years into the future and beyond and deciding how it can be expanded and mainstreamed without losing its integrity.

This new initiative is patterned on the organic action plans put together in 15 countries in Europe in recent years and used successfully to support and expand organic food and farming.  It may also draw on experience with the long process that led to adoption two years ago by the Commission of the European Communities of the European Action Plan for Organic Food and Farming.

The 33-page Commission plan includes 19 specific governmental actions that would support the organic sector.  It also officially cites the many positive environmental, social, and economic benefits of organic farming, something never acknowledged by U.S. policymakers.  “The general principle is that where farmers provide services to the environment beyond the reference level of good agricultural practices,” the all-Europe plan states, “these should be adequately remunerated.”

The country-specific plans in Europe typically include land conversion targets plus the combination of policy changes needed to make these goals achievable.  The more detailed plans also include an assessment of the current situation plus specific steps needed to achieve the changes.  These steps typically include transition payments, farmer training, more organic research and demonstration projects, and consumer education initiatives.  These tend to be five-year plans, for the most part, with 10-year goals and 20-year visions.

Finland, with 7.2 percent of its farms under organic management in 2003, for example, has a policy target of 10 percent by 2006.  Germany, with 4.3 percent in 2003, is shooting for 20 percent by 2010.  Several other countries have goals in the 10 to 20 percent range.

One of the newest country plans, announced by the United Kingdom, addresses a situation where 70 percent of the organic food consumed in the country is imported and only 30 percent is produced by a fast-growing organic sector.  The action plan lays out a strategy for reversing this trend so that 70 percent of the organic food consumed in the U.K. is produced there and only 30 percent is imported.  A stakeholder group representing a wide range of farmer, trade, consumer, and other interests shaped this government-sponsored plan.

The groundwork for the U.S. initiative was laid more than two years ago by a task force established by the Organic Committee of the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture.  The first public input came during a series of workshops in 2004 and 2005, including one at the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference that was well attended.  Information from these workshops is being used to move this process forward.

The next opportunity for community-wide input is a series of national dialogue meetings beginning with one at this summer’s annual conference of the Northeast Organic Farming Association in Amherst, Mass.  A similar dialogue meeting is planned over the next few months in all regions of the country, including the Upper Midwest.  The overall national plan effort has been strengthened by the addition of the National Organic Coalition and Rural Advancement Foundation International as primary sponsors.

“After years of reacting to the implementation of the Organic Foods Production Act and USDA’s National Organic Program, it is time for the entire organic community . . .  to take a step forward and begin the development of a vision for the future of organic,” the sponsors noted in announcing the first dialogue meeting in Amherst.  ”We are coming together to listen to the broad organic community regarding the scope of a national action plan that looks 10 to 20 years into the future.”

The sponsoring organizations also expect the dialogue process to provide input from organic farmers, consumers, and others on 2007 farm bill issues.

The Organic Trade Association also has borrowed from Europe in proposing that the 2007 farm bill include a government-sponsored National Organic Initiative.  “Despite the decades-long growth of organic production and sales, there is currently no national strategy for solidifying, maintaining, and enhancing the development of the sector,” an OTA farm bill fact sheet explains.  “Neither USDA nor Congress has offered a vision of what the organic sector should look like in the future.”

All of the country-specific initiatives in Europe were government funded and administered, providing a guarantee of community-wide participation and status as a government recognized process.  Sponsorship of this action plan initiative is in the hands of three national organic nonprofit entities with no guarantee that all stakeholders will become involved or that policymakers will either acknowledge or help implement a final plan.

However this will be the first opportunity for the organic community to go through a process that may lead to adoption of broad organic principles, a consensus organic definition, a set of priorities and targets, and an appropriate level of government support.  There was no community-wide process involved in shaping the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act, which developed on the national scene with little advance notice.  And there have been no meetings since to deal with overall strategy, set national goals, or develop a long-term vision.

An immediate challenge is whether the dialogue at the Amherst meeting and those that follow will rise above discussions related to replacement heifers, the National Organic Program, Chinese imports, and similar hot topics and think strategically about larger policy-focused themes sure to have a much greater impact on the future of organic food and farming.  The relationship of the government to organic is one big theme, for example, and organic integrity is another.

About the only thing the U.S. and European governments have in common in regard to organic is government-defined organic standards.  It would make sense for the dialogue participants to discuss the many European policies being used successfully to support and expand the organic sector and help determine if any would fit into an overall U.S. action plan.

Dialogue participants, for example, may want to challenge the federal policy that refuses to acknowledge the many public benefits provided by organic farmers.  USDA’s organic program recognizes the market demand aspect of organic but does not acknowledge organic as inherently better in delivering public benefits.  The result is that USDA narrowly defines organic simply as a marketing differentiation defined by a set of standards.

Participants may want to challenge the fairness of an agricultural appropriations system that fails to provide the organic sector with its proportionate share of federal funding for research, marketing, data collection, extension, and other support.  As a result of being denied a fair share of billions in federal support, the organic community is forced every year to beg the agricultural appropriations subcommittees in both houses for what adds up to little more than a few crumbs.

The dialogue also provides an opportunity to challenge the 1990 decisions that stripped out all references to health and environment in the final version of the Organic Foods Production Act and has allowed USDA to implement it primarily as a marketing program.  Government support is not tied to specific environmental, health, or social goals.  This “market-led” approach has resulted in a U.S. sector still pushing to reach a level of 10,000 certified organic farmers while the much different “government-assisted” approach in Europe has pushed its total beyond 150,000.

Wal-Mart’s announcement that it plans to join most of the nation’s supermarket chains in marketing organic products has raised new concerns about whether the demand being created by this surge in organic mainstreaming can be met without undermining consumer expectations or compromising organic standards.  The dialogue meetings provide a good opportunity consider the politics of organic, its impact on howorganic decisions are made in Congress, and more formal ways for organic stakeholders to work together and reach consensus.

The three National Organic Action Plan sponsors also have made tentative plans for a national meeting where a proposed plan would be finalized and commitments made.  The larger organic community has not had a national meeting since 1998 when the decision was made to force USDA to withdraw the first proposed rule and rewrite it.

Getting all the stakeholders, including the trade, involved in this initiative and bringing the entire organic community to a national meeting will be a huge challenge.

Organic farmers may be a little skeptical about accepting the public invitation to participate in the series of meetings that is beginning in Amherst.  In view of all of the recent discussion regarding lack of an organic farmer voice on the national political scene, this would appear to be an unusual opportunity for farmers to make input into a process that is designed to help strengthen and expand the organic sector and provide a consensus vision for the future.

Hopefully, when the dialogue meetings come to the upper Midwest next winter, organic farmers will join consumers, small organic businesses, certifiers, and others in providing information and ideas that go well beyond the constraints of the NOP and the OFPA.  And that they will take time over the next few months to think big thoughts and get ready to come to the meetings and share their hopes and views for the future of organic over the next 20 years and beyond.

by Roger Blobaum

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