INSIDE ORGANIC: Market-Led or Government-Facilitated Organic Growth? Results Show Market-Led Approach Has Fallen Short (July/Aug 2009)

by Roger Blobaum · Inside Organics · July/Aug, 2009

How does “Organic Farming: Good for Nature, Good for You” strike you as a new U.S. Department of Agriculture slogan? Or “Organic Farming: In Goodness We Trust”? Or even “Organic Farming: Wickedly Good”?

These nifty new government organic farming slogans are real and they’re out there. But, no surprise, they aren’t being put out there by the U.S. Department of Agriculture or any other U.S. government agency.

These are some of the European Commission’s new organic farming slogans. They convey the message that organic farming is popular in Europe, that the organic sector is supported by European governments and consumers alike, and that it is European Union policy to “ensure that official rules, programs, and plans regarding the organic sector are both widespread and sophisticated.”

This European commitment to support and promote organic farming stands out in sharp contrast to the U.S. government’s half-hearted, and mainly market-led, approach. The official U.S. position is that organic farming is a choice, but not the preferred choice, and that it is no better or no worse than any other kind of farming. No U.S. government slogans announce organic farming is “wickedly good.” Or that it’s good for you. Or even that it’s good for Nature.

This outdated little-commitment policy also contrasts with the European position that organic farming’s many public benefits should be officially acknowledged and that government policy should support and reward the organic farmers that provide them. The market support mechanisms approach that has had Congressional backing and the support of secretaries of agriculture from both political parties for 20 years or more is not working and should be replaced.

Market-Led vs. Government-Facilitated

Although the long-term results of these contrasting policy approaches are documented, they receive too little attention from U.S. policymakers and organic farming advocates. But lack of information isn’t the problem. Good information is available, for example, in an excellent Economic Research Service report published in 2005 and entitled “Market-Led Growth vs. Government-Facilitated Growth: Development of the U.S. and E.U. Organic Sectors.”

“Many E.U. countries have ‘green payments’ available for transitioning and continuing organic farmers, as well as a variety of other supply and demand policies aimed at promoting growth of the organic sector,” the report explained. “The U.S. government, in contrast, has largely taken a free market approach to the organic sector, and policy is aimed at facilitating market development.”

The Europeans have promoted organic farming since the 1970s. Green payments to transitioning and continuing organic farmers began early, and government funding for a full range of organic marketing, extension, education, and research programs has become the norm.

Although USDA recommended organic research and education initiatives in a 1980 report, it was suppressed by a new Administration the following year. Congress refused to support organic farming until 1990, when it chose the market-led approach in passing the Organic Foods Production Act. The focus was on standards and labeling and the implementation job was given to USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. Provisions dropped from the legislation to gain votes needed for passage included a research section.

The ERS report includes good numbers showing the surprising and very different results of going down these two very different paths. This 2005 data showed that the European Union countries had four times as much land under organic management as the United States, that the percentage of farmland under organic management was four times greater in Europe than in the United States, and that the E.U. countries had 20 times as many organic farms (143,607 E.U. vs. 6,949 U.S.).

The 2007 Census of Agriculture showed U.S. certified organic farm numbers had increased to 9,926 two years later and that nearly 12,000 more farms were transitioning to organic, pointing to stronger future organic sector growth. But this continued slow growth still leaves the Europeans far in the lead and has led to demand for more and more organic imports to meet the growing U.S. market. More than 11,000 foreign organic producers and handlers, including large numbers from China, Italy and Mexico, are certified now by USDA-accredited certification organizations and provide an ever expanding flow of exports to this country.

The E.U. countries also invested heavily in organic research and extension. USDA’s National Agricultural Library has reported that a literature search in 2006 showed that 68 percent of the world’s organic research so far had been conducted in Europe. The same report showed only 10 percent was done by U.S. researchers.

Although there are few things U.S. officials like less than admitting anything the Europeans do regarding agriculture might actually be better, new developments in Washington suggest official attitudes toward organic food and farming policy are improving. Changes in attitude had a positive influence on the outcome of the 2008 farm bill and are helping mobilize political support for some important new USDA organic farming initiatives.

Policy Breakthrough a Real Possibility

The good news is that a broad organic policy breakthrough appears to be a real possibility. There are definite indications that the federal government’s approach to organic policymaking is shifting slowly but surely away from reliance on a market-led approach and toward the more generous government-facilitated model that supports organic farmers in Europe and has helped build its thriving organic food and farming sector.

The new 5-year farm bill enacted last year included important new provisions providing financial support to farmers to convert to organic production. An increase in mandatory funding to more than $100 million supports the national certification cost-share program and an organic data initiative and increases mandatory organic research funding five-fold from levels mandated in 2002. New priority research areas include conservation and environmental outcomes of organic production, development of new and improved seed varieties for use in organic production systems, and organic farming’s potential to help alleviate global warming by capturing atmospheric carbon and storing it in the soil.

Other provisions aimed at facilitating organic sector growth included technical assistance to farmers adopting organic conservation practices, funding to expand data collection on organic production and marketing, more support for USDA’s National Organic Program, inclusion of organic commodities in a cost-share funding program to expand U.S. agricultural markets, and a study aimed at eliminating organic production insurance coverage restrictions.

One of the most significant improvements aimed at increasing the number of organic farmers is new provisions of USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) that make conservation practices related to organic production and the transition to organic production eligible for payments of up to $20,000 a year.

This provision, not unlike the highly successful European green payments, has already been implemented at USDA with a $50 million first-year program. It was so well received that application deadlines in most states had to be extended. Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan also has pledged that organic will now be integrated across all agencies at USDA “and that each and every agency should have some engagement with the organic sector.” She also pointed to USDA’s first ever wide-scale survey of organic farming and said survey results will be used to shape organic policies and priorities.

It appears USDA may now have all the information it would need to put out an “Organic Farming: Good for Nature” slogan. A new ERS report concludes that environmental benefits that can be attributed to organic production systems include reduced pesticide residues in water and food; reduced nutrient pollution; improved soil tilth, soil organic matter, and productivity; lower energy use; sequestration of carbon, and enhanced biodiversity.

It’s unlikely USDA will get into the organic slogan business. But it is time for the new Obama people at USDA to consider following the lead of the Europeans and assuring Americans that organic farming is good for Nature, good for you, and maybe even “wickedly good.” It’s time to push Congress to continue to do more to support programs and policies that expand the organic sector, reduce dependence on organic imports, and reward organic farmers for the many public benefits they provide.

And, finally, it’s time for Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to begin acknowledging the many benefits of organic farming and to lead USDA into the future by announcing that organic should be a farming preference, not merely a farming choice, and that it’s good for Nature and good for you.

by Roger Blobaum

This article was first printed in the July/Aug 2009 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service