INSIDE ORGANIC: Organic Farming Memo to New Obama Administration: An Organic Program Upgrade Is Badly Needed at USDA (Jan/Feb 09)

by Roger Blobaum · Inside Organics · Jan/Feb 2009

When President-Elect Barak Obama takes office in January, he becomes the fourth president challenged to fully implement the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act and to develop and support a National Organic Program that supports organic farmers, meets consumer expectations, and guarantees organic integrity. He succeeds three presidents, Republican and Democratic alike, who have failed to get this done.

It is important and timely, as a result, to challenge the incoming Obama Administration to finish what has been left undone after 18 years. The public-private partnership Congress promised when it took control of organic agriculture away from farmers, consumers, and others and gave it to the U.S. Department of Agriculture has not been fully realized. Consumer expectations crucial to continued expansion of the organic food and farming sector still are not being met.

It is tempting to prepare a memo to the incoming administration patterned on the “Sixty-Six Points of Darkness” report the organic community developed to document flaws in the first proposed organic rule and mobilize opposition that forced USDA to rewrite it. Some deficiencies listed more than 10 years ago in that report still have not been fixed. But dwelling on problems left over from the past would distract from today’s larger challenges.

Specific Organic Policy Changes Needed

What organic farmers, consumers, and other organic farming supporters need from the Obama White House is a commitment to significant improvement in how OFPA is being implemented, how the NOP is being funded, and how it is being run. These are 10 organic policy and administrative improvements President-Elect Obama’s Administration needs to make to meet his campaign commitment to “provide the change that is needed”:

Nominate a Secretary of Agriculture who supports organic agriculture, acknowledges its many public benefits, rejects the USDA line that organic is merely a choice no better or worse than any other kind of agriculture, and works to restore the organic farming coordinator position at USDA.

Its only organic coordinator was fired 27 years ago. Having most USDA organic decisions made near the bottom of the chain of command by the deputy administrator of Transportation and Marketing Programs at USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service is no longer good enough.

Put enough money in the President’s budget each year to fund the NOP at a level that enables it to meet its Congressionally-mandated responsibilities.

President Bush requested $3.98 million for Fiscal 2009, more than before but much less then needed, and less than the $6 million the National Organic Coalition and other organic supporters urged Congress to provide. The 2007 farm bill authorized large annual NOP budget increases through 2012. Congress, in authorizing these funding increases, cited concerns raised by numerous agricultural interests “about the level of resources devoted to the NOP.”

Establish a timeline for USDA to respond to more than 50 unacknowledged NOSB rulemaking and other recommendations filed away since 2002 when the final rule took effect.

When the NOP fumbled a grower group problem recently and seemed to have no idea how to fix it, for example, it was reminded that the NOSB several years earlier had completed a comprehensive grower group recommendation that was gathering dust at USDA. USDA contends it has no obligation under provisions of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) to accept, reject, or acknowledge NOSB recommendations. This violates both the intent and the spirit of the national organic law and needs to be overturned. Eliminating this huge backlog of recommendations will show respect for the NOSB, which is in short supply at USDA, and demonstrate compliance with the advisory process mandated by Congress.

Direct USDA to implement the peer review provision of the Organic Foods Production Act and bring the NOP into compliance with international guidelines for organic accreditation bodies.

This 18-year-old provision calls for a panel of experts, including representatives of the organic community, to provide oversight of the NOP’s accreditation process and to review its accreditation decisions. Despite appropriations bill reports every year since 2002 urging implementation, USDA has refused to comply. The NOSB is addressing this now with a compromise that would allow oversight to be provided by an outside audit and review body empowered to assess performance of the accreditation program and require compliance with international norms. The new Administration should direct USDA to initiate rulemaking to implement this approach.

Increase USDA oversight of foreign operations of more than 40 U.S. and foreign certifiers accredited by the NOP as well as certifiers accredited by foreign government entitles in six countries that have recognition agreements with USDA.

The NOP has struggled to complete even one on-site auditor visit per certifier during its initial 5-year period of accreditation and has failed in most cases to conduct additional foreign visits. At least 12,000 foreign organic operators exporting to the U.S., including grower groups with hundreds of small farmers, are certified by NOP-accredited entities. Lax oversight of these certifiers has become a pressing organic integrity issue for consumers aware of problems with food imports from China and other countries. The latest estimates show organic imports far exceed organic exports and play a significant role in this country’s organic market expansion.

Require the U.S. Department of Commerce to add a series of organic codes to the hundreds of 10-digit internationally harmonized codes used now to track and report U.S. food imports.

So far Canada is the only country that has expanded its code number system to provide identification and reporting of organic imports. USDA, on the other hand, has no official information on how much organic food is imported, whether it is soybeans or bananas or something else, and what country it comes from. Organic imports, like all food imports, pass through the Food and Drug Administration’s failing food safety system that inspects only one percent of the food coming into this country.

Include organic agriculture components in all new federal initiatives, especially those involving energy and climate change.

A growing body of research shows organic systems use one-third less fossil fuel energy than conventional systems, with much of the savings coming from avoiding synthesized nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides made from natural gas and other fossil fuel inputs. Other research shows that organic systems, which use cover crops and composted manure and legume-based rotations to build up organic matter levels in the soil, help mitigate global warming by sequestering more carbon than conventional farming methods. Converting the 160 million acres of corn and soybeans in the U.S. to organic production, the Rodale Institute has reported, would sequester enough additional carbon to more than wipe out U.S. agriculture’s massive emission deficit.

Make certain that USDA no longer appoints industry representatives to NOSB board slots reserved by law for consumer and other public interest representatives.

Consumer organizations rebelled recently when Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns appointed industry representatives to fill two consumer slots on the 15-member NOSB. This raised questions about USDA’s commitment to enforce OFPA legal requirements and protect the integrity of the NOSB’s decisionmaking process. The individuals selected may be appropriate to serve in the industry-related slots on the NOSB, the nation’s leading consumer organizations told Johanns. But their joint letter contended it is misleading “to have them represent the interests of consumers and the public interest.” What the organic community proposed 10 years ago, and is still needed, is an NOSB resolution establishing membership criteria and NOSB appointment guidelines that protect the integrity of all designated NOSB slots.

Direct the NOP to avoid decisions that undermine consumer confidence and generate unfavorable media reports about organic integrity.

The NOP’s attempt to get busy unqualified NOSB members to agree to conduct technical reviews of petitions to add materials to the National List of substances allowed in organic production is a recent example. Another is media reports critical of a fish standards rule USDA is considering that would set aside the 100 percent organic feed requirement and allow a water polluting cage-based production system. It has resulted in a highly publicized challenge by a coalition of consumer and environmental groups that want only fish that eat 100 percent organic feed and are produced in closed production systems to be eligible to be certified as organic. What is needed is decisions that build consumer confidence and make organic integrity “job one” at USDA.

Retire the so-called market-driven approach to organic policymaking that is the basis for organic sector support in the U.S. and replace it with the European government-assisted model that has resulted in substantial and consistent organic sector expansion there.

Providing government assistance has public support because it rewards organic farmers for the environmental, energy-saving, and other public benefits they provide. The European Union’s reward system for years has included transition payments, dedicated organic research institutes, market expansion programs, and organic farming extension workers. In some EU countries, as a result, 10 percent or more of their farms are under organic management.

Neither Congress nor USDA have ever seriously considered proposing national organic sector goals or objectives, which European countries include in their national action plans, or considered proposing a vision for organic agriculture. The National Organic Action Plan being prepared by the U.S. organic community, which proposes goals and objectives and includes a vision for the future of organic agriculture, poses a timely and significant organic challenge for U.S. agricultural policymakers. The new Obama Administration will be asked early next year to acknowledge, and hopefully to support, this national participatory initiative. This organic action plan will include policy recommendations for a much-needed organic program upgrade at USDA and provide the new Administration with timely organic guidelines for “the change that is needed”.

by Roger Blobaum

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