INSIDE ORGANIC: Getting All 27 Agencies to Support Organic Farming: A New USDA Approach that Seems to be Underway May/June 2010

by Roger Blobaum · Inside Organics · May/June 2010

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is engaged in a campaign to convince the organic community that its support for organic farming now extends well beyond the National Organic Program (NOP) and includes active involvement of every one of its 27 agencies.

Is it possible to spread organic awareness throughout USDA, a huge bureaucracy with more than 100,000 employees, and get every agency on board and every employee to plant a garden? This was one of Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan’s more ambitious goals when she assumed the No. 2 position at USDA more than a year ago. There is increasing evidence she is getting this done.

This progress was evident at an April 16 organic roundtable where stakeholders ranging from the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and representatives of USDA agencies ranging from the Economic Research Service (ERS) to the Risk Management Agency (RMA) spent a morning comparing notes and providing updates on what they do to support organic agriculture.

Having a long list of USDA agency representatives stand before a roomful of organic advocates to proudly list what their agencies are doing to support organic farming was a hard-to-believe Washington happening. The response of organic observers ranged from mild surprise to cautious acknowledgment of clear signs USDA’s unreliable commitment to organic farming might finally be ending.

The roundtable was organized by the Organic Working Group, which includes representatives of all USDA agencies and meets regularly to coordinate organic programming. It evolved from a small group that struggled for nearly 20 years as an underground organic movement at USDA. This band of organic advocates, led by Catherine Greene of the Economic Research Service, worked unofficially with OFRF and other groups while maintaining a low profile to stay out of trouble with political appointees in the front office.

“A few individuals kept this group going for many years and now we are kicking this effort up a notch,” Merrigan said in remarks opening the roundtable event. “We want every single agency to see organic as part of its mission.”

She also emphasized the need to provide some relief for the NOP. It needs to shed activities other agencies can take over, she noted, so the NOP staff can concentrate on regulations, enforcement, and other organic integrity issues. The President’s budget, she noted, proposes another sizeable increase in funding to help the NOP do a better job.

Bob Scowcroft of OFRF, who led off the stakeholder presentations, cited the “incredible importance” of the Organic Working Group and the significance of having all

USDA agencies working together. “We have wanted full integration of all agencies into this effort for many years,” he said

He reminded the government representatives that progress requires much more than inter-agency coordination. He noted that the Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming, the comprehensive USDA report issued in 1980, included 27recommendations for agency support of organic farming. “After 30 years,” he said, “We have completed only two of the report’s 27 recommendations, although some are being worked on.”

One development that responds to the 1980 report overall is USDA’s recent announcement that it is appointing an organic farming program specialist to “coordinate development of a USDA organic farming plan; and to identify, monitor, and evaluate organic activities across USDA agencies.” This is a huge step in the effort to integrate all USDA agencies into the organic agriculture effort.

A New Organic Farming Coordinator?

Although the job announcement does not refer to the new specialist as the USDA organic farming coordinator that organic advocates have been calling for, the new specialist’s duties appear to cover everything an organic farming coordinator would do. They include providing leadership, information, and ideas “to help in conceiving, formulating, and directing programs, policies, technical standards, and guidelines” as well as coordinating the development of an organic farming plan.

Can an organic farming plan be developed and adopted without a vision of what organic farming programs would look like in five years, or 10 years, or longer? Although a vision seems to be missing so far, it is highly likely organic advocates will insist on seeing how USDA views the role of organic farming in American agriculture in the future. Agency representatives at the roundtable were urged to consider adapting, or even adopting, the organic community’s newly-developed vision for U.S. organic agriculture.

This vision of the future, which includes organic farming as the foundation for American agriculture, was presented by Michael Sligh of Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI). He advised agency representatives that this is the focus of the National Organic Action Plan, a 40-page plan that was completed early this year and reflects the input of hundreds of organic advocates. Their views were gathered during a nationwide process coordinated by RAFI and the National Organic Coalition.

The organic action plan articulates a shared vision, sets objectives and benchmarks for measuring organic farming’s social and environmental benefits, and formulates proposals for the future growth of U.S. organic food and agriculture for the next decade and beyond. It also cites “the failure of the U.S. government and the food and farming sector overall to develop goals for the growth of organic beyond market-based growth goals.”

The roundtable also featured an open mike period where individuals raised organic farming issues that they hoped USDA agency representatives would address. It was similar to the public comment period provided during each meeting of the National Organic Standards Board.

Participants noted that this session was different from most USDA listening sessions, where time is limited and agency officials end up doing most of the talking. Another important difference is that in this organic roundtable session some of the individual speakers received immediate agency responses.

The Risk Management Agency representative, for example, reported the Congressionally-mandated study of crop insurance problems experienced by organic farmers is nearing completion. The National Agricultural Statistics Service representative conceded that much more organic data is needed. He reported, however, that it appears more organic data-gathering funding will be available in the coming year. He also reported that more organic questions are being proposed for the 2012 agricultural census.

Organic Import Data Breakthrough

Miles McEvoy, who directs the National Organic Program, reported that USDA and the Department of Commerce are finally working together to develop product codes to identify and track imported organic products. This is a positive response to long-standing requests coming from organic farmers and consumers alike. Although trade estimates have been available, USDA has been clueless about what kind of organic products are being imported, the amount of organic products being imported, and where these imported organic products come from.

The roundtable wound up with agency representatives making final comments and, in several cases, distributing brief reports on what they do to support organic farming. The Agricultural Research Service report, for example, noted that the agency conducts organic production research at 26 locations across the country. It also noted that its organic action plan includes developing strategies to transition from conventional to organic production and identifying ecosystem service benefits that organic farmers provide.

When USDA converted a headquarters parking lot into an organic garden a year ago, skeptics questioned whether this signaled a change in direction or was just another Washington photo op. The garden looked great the morning the roundtable was held, with peas, lettuce, broccoli, carrots, and beets flourishing in the manicured beds. And the change in direction that was signaled, at least measured by the success of the organic roundtable, also looked very promising. It may be that the transformation of organic policy called for 30 years ago in the 1980 USDA report may finally become a reality.

This article was first printed in the May/June 2010 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service