INSIDE ORGANIC: Environmental Plan Forwarded to Obama Team Calls for More Support for Organic Agriculture (May-June 09)

by Roger Blobaum · Inside Organics · May/June, 2009

An important development in the rush to put new policy agendas in the hands of the Obama transition team is the inclusion of more support for organic farming in a list of green action priorities put forward by the nation’s most politically active environmental and conservation organizations.

The fact that 29 national organizations reached consensus on important organic farming issues and made a commitment to support changes to help expand the organic farming sector is significant. It suggests, among other things, increased recognition by these influential organizations of the important environmental benefits that organic farmers are providing. The organizations worked together over several months developing this set of recommended administrative, legislative, and budget policy actions. The introduction to the 391-page document said it highlights priority environmental recommendations for the Obama Administration transition team that the coalition of environmental and conservation groups has endorsed.

The timing couldn’t be better for including support for organic farming in a new green agenda. President Obama promised a stronger focus on renewable energy and environmental stewardship issues during the campaign and environmentalists are pleased with his appointments so far. They liked his critical take on hog factories during the primaries, for example, and he is viewed as being generally supportive of organic agriculture.

In addition to supporting specific changes needed to strengthen the organic farming sector, the environmental policy agenda also includes strong positions in other areas important to organic farmers. These include high priority recommendations dealing with natural resource conservation, biodiversity, regulation of genetically engineered crops, support for classical seeds and breeds research, and restoration of pesticide use data collection and reporting.

Recommendations Target USDA Agencies

Although the “Transition to Green” document the environmental and conservation organizations put forward focuses much of its attention on the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Interior, more than 40 pages deal directly with U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies. The USDA recommendations, for the most part, call for policy and program changes by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Farm Service Agency (FSA), Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), and Research, Extension, and Economics.

The coalition of organizations did not attempt to address organic integrity and other National Organic Program issues related to the way USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service has been running the Organic Foods Production Act. These issues, however, have been covered in detail in other program and policy agendas submitted to the Obama transition team by the National Organic Coalition and other organic advocacy organizations.

Probably the most significant organic agenda item in the “Transition to Green” document submitted to the transition team is a call for providing a “fair share” of USDA resources for organic and sustainable agriculture research and extension. Specific priorities identified include more funding for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) and ATTRA programs, promotion of genetic diversity through investment in public plant and animal breeding, and more support for research on organic agriculture and antibiotic free livestock production.

“Organic agriculture provides multiple environmental benefits, such as clean water and air, but has traditionally been underfunded by USDA research and extension programs,” the document states. “The new Administration should increase funding for organic research, extension, and data collection activities at USDA agencies to $25 million in the first budget it sends to Congress and then dramatically increase funding for these activities in subsequent years to a level that is at or near the fully authorized level.”

Seeds and Breeds Research

The need to provide more funding for development of public plant varieties and animal breeds also was highlighted as a priority research area. “The result of the decline in public investment in classical seeds and breeds is a loss of genetic diversity,” the document noted. “This problem is particularly acute for organic farmers and sustainable farmers whose systems depend so heavily on local adaptation of plants and animals to unique soils and pest conditions and the changing climate of these areas.”

Another highlighted area is the need to restore the ability of the National Agricultural Statistical Service (NASS) to provide regular and frequent reports on the use of agricultural chemicals. NASS has collected and published agricultural chemical use data since 1991 but funding cuts have resulted in a dramatically scaled-back effort in recent years.

The environmental agenda called for funding levels needed to restore the agency’s ability to collect data and publish these reports. The specific recommendation calls on NASS to “reinstate its program of the 1990s, which involved surveys of chemical use annually on major field crops, periodically on other field crops, and biennially on fruit and vegetable crops.”

The green agenda report warns that genetically engineered (GE) and genetically modified (GMO) crops “pose a long list of risks” to health, the environment, and trade, including the proliferation of herbicide-tolerant weeds and the movement of hormones and other bioactive drugs into the food supply. It calls for APHIS to stop promulgation of a weak rule proposed by the Bush Administration, to prepare an environmental impact statement disclosing GMO health and environmental risks, and to support a ban on using food crops for the production of pharmaceutical and industrial compounds.

“Under the current regulatory regime,” the report stated, “the risks associated with GE and GMO crops have not been seriously addressed by APHIS, one of three principal agencies charged with the oversight of these crops.”

Support for Transition to Organic Systems

The green agenda calls on the new Administration to provide support needed to realize the full potential of new provisions of the Environmental Quality Improvement (EQIP) program and the Conservation Stewardship Program. NRCS, it states, should “provide national leadership” to ensure that these programs have the capacity to promote both integrated pest management and organic production systems. This section of the report stated that effective implementation by NRCS of new farm bill provisions to assist farmers interested in transitioning to organic agriculture, including national availability and technical assistance, should be given a high priority by the new Obama Administration.

The nine national environmental and conservation organizations that provided leadership in preparing green recommendations involving USDA agencies are the Union of Concerned Scientists, National Wildlife Federation, National Audubon Society, Wilderness Society, Izaak Walton League, Earthjustice, World Wildlife Fund, Environmental Defense Fund, and Natural Resources Defense Council. Several were involved in shaping the Organic Foods Production Act and pushing it through Congress in 1990, in convincing Congress to reserve slots for environmental representatives on the National Organic Standards Board, and in joining organic farming advocates in forcing USDA to withdraw its flawed first proposed rule and issue the rewritten version that is still not fully implemented.

All of the environmental and conservation organizations that have endorsed the new agenda are expected to provide continuing political support and oversight for organic farming and other USDA green agenda recommendations. Others not involved in preparing the green agenda, such as Wild Farm Alliance and Defenders of Wildlife, also are reliable organic farming supporters.

Having national environmental and conservation organizations supporting organic agriculture is good news for organic farmers because these organizations understand the value of things like cover crops and crop rotations, natural habitat for beneficial insects, the role of organic matter in providing fertility and sequestering carbon, and farming practices that produce comparable yields without synthetic fertilizer and other farm chemicals.

The 391-page green plan deals in detail with agriculture and all the other elements of the difficult and complicated global environmental problem that confronts all of us concerned about saving our planet. The organizations that shaped this plan and put it forward should be commended and thanked for making it clear to the new Obama Administration that organic farming is part of the solution.

by Roger Blobaum

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