INSIDE ORGANIC: Congress Pressured to Cut Mandatory Organic Research Funding (Nov/Dec 08)

by Roger Blobaum · Inside Organics · Nov/Dec 2008

Less than six months after making farm bill funding for cost share and organic research programs mandatory, the Bush Administration is pressuring Congress to “chimp” mandatory organic research and education funding and turn almost half of this “guaranteed” 2009 funding over to USDA for computer upgrades and other data processing purposes.

Under direct attack is mandatory funding for the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), the premier organic research and education initiative in the farm bill signed into law last summer. OREI received an increase in mandatory funding from $15 million over five years in the 2002 farm bill to $78 million over five years in the 2008 farm bill. This increase in organic research funding still falls far short of an organic fair share of the $2 billion per year USDA spends on research.

The Administration proposal, which came in a revised Fiscal Year 2009 budget request submitted to Congress August 1, would strip $8 million out of the $18 million in mandatory organic research and education funding for 2009. An earlier Administration proposal called for eliminating all organic research and education funding . The Senate Appropriations Committee has already undermined the mandatory status of this new OREI funding by caving in to pressure from the Administration and agreeing to a $2 million “chimp.”

For those involved in the successful push for mandatory federal funding for organic research in the farm bill, “chimping” is government speak for a procedure for raiding guaranteed program funding. The official term for this official method of taking funds away from mandatory programs is Change In Mandatory Programs or CHIMP. Capitol Hill insiders refer to these raids on mandatory funding as “chimping” or being “chimped.”

Among other things, this involves the continuing struggle between the agriculture committees that put the farm bill together and the appropriations subcommittees that follow up by setting USDA spending levels. It was not surprising, as a result, to hear House Agriculture Committee Chairman Colin Peterson (D-MN) tell a national television interviewer recently that he was not happy about the way appropriators were “chimping” mandatory funding provided in the new farm bill.

It is important to be wary, maybe even cynical, about funding levels authorized in farm bills. Appropriated levels are almost always much less than the authorized levels and new programs, or programs like OREI and cost share that receive substantial increases, can become easy targets during highly-politicized budget-cutting raids. The appropriations committees can, and often do, resist new policy directions and turn “greened up” farm bills into big disappointments.

Politics is clearly involved in this attempt by USDA, which has started implementing a massive farm bill, to raid a tiny $18 million organic research and education program rather than find money for computer upgrades elsewhere in the subsidy-loaded $296 billion farm bill. Unlike funding for organic programs, which lacks support from big money campaign contributors and K Street lobbyists, most farm bill subsidy and other multi-billion-dollar programs are heavily lobbied and protected politically by influential farm and commodity organizations and agribusiness interests.

Certification cost share, the other important organic program in the farm bill with mandatory funding, has $22 million in guaranteed funding over five years. It has escaped, at least for now, the Administration’s “chimping” ambush. USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), which administers this program, announced several weeks ago that it plans to move cost share money out to the states for distribution.

Raid on Organic Research Funding is Challenged

So what is being done to stop this raid on organic research and education funding? One attempt has been initiated by the Organic Farming Research Foundation, which led the successful effort to increase OREI funding and make it mandatory. Since bills appropriating funds to USDA for 2009 are still stalled in Congress and won’t be finalized until a new Administration takes over next year, there is still time to reverse this ‘chimping’ attempt.

In a letter in late August to Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer and James Nussle, director of the Office of Management and Budget, OFRF pointed out that the proposed cut is at odds with both the Congressional intent in enacting the farm bill and recommendations related to organic that were submitted to Schafer and Congressional appropriations committees in March by the National Agricultural Research, Extension, and Economics Advisory Board.

“The Board commends the research, education, and extension agencies for taking the initiative to address this emerging and increasingly important (organic) segment of the food supply chain,” the advisory board stated in making its recommendations, “and encourages further development of its programs relative to organic agriculture . . .”

OFRF noted that the farm bill called for increasing investment in existing organic programs and also included new efforts to integrate organic agriculture into USDA’s ongoing conservation programs. The return on this investment, OFRF’s letter emphasized, requires adequate investment in research and education to support successful organic systems.

“Congress even added a purpose to the OREI to spur research into ‘examining optimal conservation and environmental outcomes relating to organically produced agricultural products’,” the letter noted. “This provision will help to facilitate proper implementation and ensure maximum benefit of the new conservation provisions supporting organic agriculture.”

High Demand for Organic Research Funding

It became clear in the follow up to the 2002 farm bill that the $3 million a year provided for organic research and education would not be nearly enough to fund the many proposals submitted. Only 29 out of the 210 proposals considered were approved under organic research and education provisions of the 2002 farm bill. The total provided for these competitive grants, awarded mostly to land grant university scientists by USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES), was only about one percent of all USDA research and education funding.

Midwest universities awarded competitive organic research and education grants included the University of Wisconsin, Iowa State University, Michigan State University, the University of Nebraska, University of Minnesota, Ohio State University, and the University of Illinois. One of the grants supported the Midwest Organic Research Symposium sponsored by Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) and OFRF last February in conjunction with the Organic Farming Conference. More than 40 scientists and graduate students, the majority from the Midwest, presented organic research papers and posters.

How can an agency like USDA with more than $2 billion in funding for research and $60 billion in funding overall for the current fiscal year justify grabbing nearly half of the funding from a new mandatory $18 million organic research and education program to pay for computer upgrades? This action clearly demonstrates bias against organic farming by political appointees at USDA and action is needed to get the agency to abandon this raid on organic funding.

It is unlikely that Schaefer or Nussle or anyone else in the Bush Administration can be pressured enough to back away from this raid on a mandatory organic research initiative. It probably doesn’t matter anyway since the Bush Administration has less than 90 days left in office. A new president will be in the White House when the final decisions regarding appropriations committee “chimping” are made.

No matter what happens between now and when a new president takes office, the new ORE initiative has already taken a hit in terms of the availability of funding. The uncertainty about the program’s funding is almost sure to delay the call for proposals from the normal end of December release date until sometime in the spring.

Those who want this raid on organic funding reversed should turn their attention now to Capitol Hill and target members of the agriculture appropriations subcommittees in both houses of Congress. The subcommittees are headed by Sen. Herb Kohl (D-WI) and Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-CT), both considered organic farming supporters. These subcommittees will put the final touches on the USDA budget that is sent to a new president early next year. It would seem appropriate, too, to seek help from members of the House Organic Caucus in trying to kill this proposed cut.

The struggle for organic research funding in this country has continued with little success for more than 35 years. The first significant funding breakthrough was made with the Integrated Organic Program (IOP) in 2002. The 2007 farm bill, which built on experience gained over several years of IOP grantmaking, finally provided an organic research and education program with mandatory funding and enough money to begin making a difference.

It is time to force USDA to look someplace else for its computer upgrade money. Organic farmers and consumers and others who support organic farming can no longer afford to be spectators in the continuing political effort to obtain, and then to protect, the organic research and education initiatives in the new farm bill.

Failure to take a stand will send a political signal to USDA, the Office of Management and Budget, the agriculture appropriations committees in Congress, and others that the organic community lacks both the interest and the political clout to stop raids on organic research and education funding. This is an unacceptable outcome that the organic food and farming sector will live to regret.

by Roger Blobaum

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