INSIDE ORGANIC: Hill Fight Signals Alarming Shift in How Organic Policy Is Made (Nov 05)

        by Roger Blobaum · Inside Organics · MOSES Broadcaster · November 2005

The bitter fight in Congress that has split the organic community and alarmed its leaders is about much more than the Harvey vs. Johanns court decision and its impact on the dairy conversion, synthetics, and commercial availability provisions of the Organic Foods Production Act.  It goes to the crucial issue of who makes national organic policy and how it is made.

The high level of concern over what is happening was reflected in a statement by Jim Riddle, chair of the National Organic Standards Board, who warned that the organic sector finds itself in a time of unprecedented division.  “The food industry and the OTA have rushed to Congress with a flawed proposal to significantly alter the Organic Foods Production Act,” he said.  “Predictably there has been an enormous outcry from organic consumers, farmers, and public interest groups.”

The “flawed proposal” cited by Riddle has center stage in this growing internal dispute.  But the hard feelings within the organic community, the charges and counter charges, and the determination to dig in and fight that have surprised and frustrated Congressional supporters of organic food and farming go well beyond the legislative changes proposed.

First, this fight is about whether the Organic Foods Production Act should be opened up on Capitol Hill, something consistently and for the most part successfully blocked in the past. The organic sector has expanded and changed since 1990, however, and there is growing consensus that some provisions are outdated or flawed.  But until now there has been agreement that the organic sector lacked the political clout to control the outcome on Capitol Hill and that opening the law would risk changes that could weaken it.

This fight also is about how political decisions impacting the organic sector are made, whether all interested parties are included in open debate, whether unwritten rules related to fair play and followed for the most part since 1990 have been trashed, who the organic political players fighting this out on Capitol Hill and in the media actually represent, and whether the pay-to-play lobbying tactics of large outside companies that continue to buy up large pieces of the organic industry will change the rules and ultimately lead to weaker standards.

Finally, it is about whether changes in organic legislation should be made through language secretly inserted into huge appropriations bills, an increasingly widespread abuse the organic sector itself has denounced in the past.  This “sneak attack” approach bypasses the agriculture committees and the normal  procedures of bill introduction, public hearings, committee consideration and markup, and final Congressional action. It enables backers of amendments that would not stand a chance under normal procedures to use the appropriations process to ram controversial changes through Congress.  What we learned in high school civics about how bills become law is too often not what really happens.

The only OFPA changes so far have come from these back room attacks by special interests and all were aimed at watering down standards.  The first, hidden in an appropriations bill and rammed through for organic wine makers, relaxed sulfite standards.  The second, hidden in an appropriations bill by an Alaskan senator, ordered USDA to come up with an organic label for wild salmon.  The third, which set off a firestorm when discovered hidden in a 1,400-page appropriations bill, would have set aside the 100% organic feed requirement for poultry.  This amendment, proposed by an organic poultry firm in Georgia, publicly embarrassed the House speaker who had intervened on behalf of its Georgia sponsor.  The uproar forced its withdrawal.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has plenty of political problems of its own trying to administer the National Organic Program, appears to be watching from the sidelines as this organic dispute unfolds.  This is not surprising since this all started when Arthur Harvey, a Maine blueberry grower and organic inspector, successfully sued USDA in U.S. District Court for failing to enforce the 1990 organic law. The agency’s attempt to overturn the Harvey decision in the Court of Appeals failed.

Three political factions have, with some ups and downs, worked together in influencing organic sector policy since 1989.  One is the Organic Trade Association, made up primarily of processors and manufacturers and other organic businesses.  The second is the coalition of consumer, environmental, animal protection, and other organizations that are organic integrity supporters and watchdogs in Washington.  The third is organic farmers, who organized the Organic Farmers Associations Council (OFAC) that represented them into the early 1990s.  Since then, except for groups like the Cornucopia Project and Northeast Organic Farmers Association (NOFA), organic farmers have lacked a political voice in Washington.

The coalition groups, which put enough pressure on Congress immediately to stall, and possibly block, the industry drive for an appropriations bill rider, earlier submitted a regulatory petition for rulemaking to USDA in an attempt to openly address Harvey decision followup.  They called for rulemaking first before opening the OFPA “at this time and in this way.”

“Our overall position remains that any changes to the OFPA should be first vetted through a public and transparent process to build widespread community support and that then, and only then, should such legislative reforms be considered,” their statement continued.  “We strongly oppose any changes to OFPA through ‘riders’ on appropriations bills or other such ‘backdoor’ processes.”

The big shift that set off the current crisis is the aggressive lobbying style of conventional food companies that have been buying up traditional organic companies.  They retained Jay Friedman, a lawyer lobbyist from one of Washington’s biggest law firms, and are accused of hijacking the Organic Trade Association and using its name and resources to ram the disputed appropriations rider through. Friedman, a former NOSB member, is one of the more than 35,000 registered Washington Lobbyists that swarm over Capitol Hill every day.

Many in the organic sector who are familiar with a report entitled “Who Owns Organic?” realize they may be outgunned.  The report includes a long list of big companies, including seven of the world’s 25 largest food corporations, that have bought up or partnered with pioneer organic companies.  These companies include Archer Daniels Midland, Cadbury Schweppes, Coca Cola, ConAgra, Dean Foods, Dole, General Mills, French Group Danone, H.J. Heinz, Kellogg, Mars, Kraft, Sara Lee, and Tyson Foods.

These companies are putting a new face on organic in Washington.  The uneasiness created in the organic community over this rapid move toward bigness and concentration and cannibalism by outsiders and the question of its possible impact on organic politics was described in a New York Times magazine article by Michael Pollack.  “Now that organic food has established itself as a viable alternative food chain, agribusiness has decided that the best way to deal with that alternative is to own it,” he wrote.  “The question now is what will they do with it.  Is the word organic being emptied of its meaning?”

The OTA industry group paying Friedman to push the appropriations rider includes most of these companies.  But consumer and other nonprofit groups were dismayed and disappointed to discover that the Friedman support list also includes Organic Valley.  This farmer cooperative has had a stellar record of working closely with national consumer and other organizations that support organic farmers and organic integrity.

It was no surprise when Consumers Union, the Organic Consumers Association, the Cooperative Grocers Association, and other national organizations reacted immediately after the OTA industry group secretly shopped its OFPA amendments on Capitol Hill and refused, when this was disclosed, to negotiate with other interested parties.  These organizations generated more than 200,000 letters and phone calls calling on Senators to reject both the amendments and the secretive backroom appropriations rider approach.

Space is not available here to report in detail the positions taken by all parties involved in this organic sector dispute, the arguments for and against proposed OFPA changes, or the official comments and actions of appropriations committee members and others in the Senate.  What this report strongly suggests is that all legitimate political players in the organic sector must move quickly to establish ground rules for dealing with each other, guaranteeing openness, resolving disputes through consultation and negotiation, and closing ranks behind action necessary to support organic food and farming and guarantee its integrity.

The recent appropriations rider fight shows the organic sector is in danger of being dragged permanently into the corrupt pay-to-play inside-the-beltway system of lobbyist-driven policymaking that dominates official Washington.  The unwritten code of conduct for consensus-driven organic policymaking that has worked well since 1990 is threatened by these developments.  This is an urgent wake up call for organic farmers and consumers and all who support organic food and farming to step up and do what is necessary to reverse this trend.

by Roger Blobaum

This article was first printed in the November, 2005 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service