INSIDE ORGANIC: Farm Bill Includes Significant Gains for Organic Farming But Falls Far Short of Achieving an Organic ‘Fair Share’ (July/Aug 08)

by Roger Blobaum · Inside Organics · July/Aug 2008

The five-year farm bill that survived a relentless attack on farm subsidy payments and a Presidential veto before becoming law includes important organic farming advances and improvements and higher funding levels for organic programs. Overall, however, the $307 billion initiative does not go nearly far enough toward providing a funding “fair share” for organic agriculture.

The biggest overall gain was making funding for important organic programs mandatory, a change that guarantees five years of full funding and eliminates the need to go through the annual appropriations process to get these programs funded. A total of $22 million in mandatory funding was provided for the main certification cost share program, for example, and $78 million in mandatory funding was provided for the Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI). The OREI provision, among other things, provides support for development of new and improved seed varieties particularly suited for organic farming.

Annual mandatory funding of $5 million also was provided for organic data collection by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, Economic Research Service, and National Agricultural Statistics Service. It provides funding for collecting and distributing comprehensive organic price reports and for surveys and analysis required for reports on organic production, handling, distribution, and retailing. Authorization also was included for additional money through annual appropriations for organic data collection.

Certification Cost Share Money Restored

Most important to organic farmers is the mandatory funding for certification cost share, a $500,000 per year USDA program established in 2002 that ran out of money four years later. The new $22 million program provides five years of guaranteed funding to cover up to 75 percent of the cost of certification with maximum annual cost-share eligibility of $750 per farm. The previous cost share limit was $500 per farm.

Other gains were made in authorized organic program funding levels that require annual appropriations action. The authorized spending level for the National Organic Program, for example, was increased to $5 million for Fiscal 2008 with annual $1.5 million increases to bring the authorization level to $11 million in Fiscal 2012. The funding increase for the NOP had strong support from organic sector advocates, who urged Congress to provide more funding to the agency to help clear a rulemaking backlog, step up enforcement of the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), fully implement all provisions of the 1990 law, and assure consumer trust in the organic label.

Other important gains included authorization for $5 million annually for ATTRA, the national sustainable agriculture information service that lost much of its federal support two years ago, and a new Organic Conversion Program supported with mandatory funding provided to the Environmental Quality Improvement (EQIP) program.

Organic Provisions Avoided Controversy

The fight over farm subsidies that generated negative editorials and headlines over many months made it easier for the bill’s organic provisions to stay under the political radar, avoid controversy, and move forward in both houses of Congress. Organizations supporting the organic provisions had prepared them well in advance and worked together in presenting consensus proposals, representing the organic sector on Capitol Hill, and using targeted “alerts” to mobilize grassroots help when needed.

These organizations did not agree on everything. But they made a special effort to get along, and to rally, and to the extent possible present lawmakers with both new approaches and a united front. The organizations working together included the National Organic Coalition (NOC), Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (SAC), National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture (NCSA), Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF), and Organic Trade Association (OTA). NOC’s membership, unlike the others, also includes important national consumer and environmental organizations.

In one change that made a real difference, the House Agriculture Committee for the first time acknowledged organic agriculture’s importance by creating a new subcommittee on horticulture and organic agriculture. It is chaired by Congressman Dennis Cardoza of California, an organic caucus member with politically active organic farmers in his district. This subcommittee made history by holding the first farm bill hearing on organic issues since the Organic Foods Production Act was passed 18 years ago.

Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the Senate’s leading organic advocate for nearly 20 years, also provided leadership as chairman of the Senate Agriculture subcommittee responsible for legislation dealing with organic agriculture. Organic provisions in the farm bill also had important support from Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, another organic supporter who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee.

The bill was so massive that it passed both houses, was vetoed, and had the veto overridden before it was discovered that an entire section of the 670-page bill had been inadvertently dropped at the beginning of this process and was neither voted on nor sent to the President. This embarrassing lapse also suggested that neither the President nor anyone at the White House involved in the veto, or any of the lawmakers who voted for or against the bill, had actually read it. Fortunately the dropped 34-page section did not include any organic provisions.

577 Organizations Signed Support Letter

The vote to adopt the conference report in the House with a veto-proof margin, which required support from a large number of Republicans willing to challenge the President’s veto threat, provided the most drama in the long process. A letter signed by 577 organizations, including several organic and sustainable agriculture organizations and sent to all House members before the conference report vote, may well have made the difference.

“This is by no means a perfect piece of legislation and none of our organizations achieved everything we had individually requested,” the joint letter said. “However it is a carefully balanced compromise of policy priorities that has broad support among organizations representing the nation’s agriculture, conservation, and nutrition interests.”

The 2002 farm legislation was extended several times during the long farm bill struggle and, at times when a threatened veto was discussed and a compromise seemed almost out of reach, it appeared Congress might have to settle for a one-year extension. But Harkin and Colin Peterson of Minnesota, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, and the ranking Republicans on these committees refused to give up and finally put together a bipartisan bill that passed both houses by veto-proof margins. This was accomplished only because agriculture, nutrition, and conservation provisions were wrapped up together in the bill.

It is important for organic farmers and others to acknowledge the significant progress made in strengthening federal organic programs included in the farm bill and administered by USDA. But it also is important to note that the overall farm bill effort did not put nearly enough emphasis on the long-term goal of a funding fair share for organic agriculture. The need for a fair share is especially important in organic research, extension, education, economics, and development.

‘Fair Share’ Concept Pushed

OFRF has been a prominent leader among organizations pushing the fair share concept. “A coordinated strategy for scaling up organic agricultural research and development should provide a mixture of funding methods and programs to gradually to achieve overall ‘fair share’ spending averaging approximately $120 million a year,” Mark Lipson, OFRF’s policy director stated in House Agriculture subcommittee testimony last year.

He noted that current USDA research, extension, and education resources applied specifically to organic agriculture is about $12 million a year, equivalent to only 0.6% of total USDA spending in these areas. Based on the current 3% organic share of U.S. food retail sales, a fair share of research, education, and education funding would be at least $80 million in Fiscal 2008. And as the organic market share increases to as much as 10% by 2012, the fair share total would be close to $200 million in Fiscal 2012.

Surveys as early as the mid-1970s showed lack of organic research was a barrier to adoption of organic methods. Although funding for organic research and education was recommended in a USDA report published in 1980, the first organic research funding was not authorized until 2001. One factor making this difficult was the fact that a research title proposed initially as part of the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act was dropped in a compromise struck to get it through the Senate.

The gains made for organic agriculture in the farm bill are significant. But the funding for research, extension, and other programs fall far short of the high level of support in European countries that has enabled many to set official organic sector goals as high as 10 to 15 percent. The farm bill funding also falls far short of what is needed to reward U.S. organic farmers for the powerful success stories they provide to agriculture and the many public benefits they provide to the public.

It makes no sense to wait until 2012, when another farm bill is proposed, to press again for an organic fair share and other program improvements. The time to start pushing is now. Organic farmers, and the consumers who benefit from and support their efforts, should start by taking advantage of this election year to press candidates from both parties and for every office to commit to improvements needed over the next five years catch up with the Europeans and reach a realistic and achievable 10% organic sector share in this country as well.

by Roger Blobaum

This article was first printed in the July/August 2008 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service