INSIDE ORGANIC: Agency Solicits Research Agenda Input From Organic Farmers For Poorly-Funded 5-Year National Organic Research Program (Nov 06)

by Roger Blobaum · Inside Organics · MOSES Broadcaster · Nov/Oct 2006

The national research agenda workshop convened last month by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), a U.S. Department of Agriculture agency with 2,100 scientists and a $1.1 billion annual research budget, would appear to suggest a significant breakthrough in support for organic food and farming research.

Representatives of national organizations advocating more organic research, organic farmers, ARS scientists, and others met for two days in Atlanta to help the agency develop an overall strategy and a five-year research plan for organic research.  It was a followup to a similar ARS workshop a year  ago in Austin, Texas.

Much of the credit for a good working relationship between ARS and organic research advocates should go to scientists and farmers involved in the Scientific Congress on Organic Research (SCOAR), a project of the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF).  SCOAR helps plan and promote USDA-funded research and disseminates information needed to understand and improve organic agricultural systems.

The workshops in Austin and Atlanta are widely viewed as a genuine attempt by ARS administrators and scientists to deal with institutional barriers to organic research within the agency, identify research priorities, develop an organic research action plan, and develop a more coordinated national response.  One ARS scientist, asked in a recent internal survey about agency barriers, responded: “We have no obstacles except lack of time, funds, and personnel.”

Funding Gap

Despite a much improved working relationship, supported by friendly scientists within the ARS, the funding allocated to organic research by this huge agency is miniscule. A vast disconnect exists between the stated willingness of nearly 200 scientists within ARS to conduct organic research and the lack of support by political players in Congress and the Administration.

A huge disconnect also exists between the organic market share, estimated at about 2.5 percent, and the share of ARS funding allocated to organic research.  A fair share allocation would be $30 million a year, enough for a strong long-term organic research program, and far more than the roughly $4 million provided now.  The fair share formula also would expand organic research to more ARS locations and support the work of at least 50 full-time scientists on organic projects.  The agency reports that only 15 now spend at least 50 percent of their time on organic research.

Congress has done almost nothing to fix this discrepancy or reverse these trends.  Participants at a meeting last month of organic advocates analyzing the status of USDA appropriations concluded that all ARS spending on organic-specific research adds up to less than $4 million a year out of a $1.1 billion budget.  This tiny outlay for organic research comes from an agency with a workforce of more than 8,000 responsible for more than1,200 research projects at more than 100 locations.

ARS research is separate, and different, from the shorter-term competitive research grants provided through USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CREES).  The first explicit CREES program aimed at funding research on organic transition was the Organic Transitions Program established in 2000 and supported at a level of about $2 million.  A second program, the Organic Research and Extension Initiative, was authorized in the 2002 farm bill and funded for the first time two years later as part of the Integrated Organic Program.

Organic Research Priorities

Organic research has been cited as a priority by organic farmers in surveys for almost 30 years.  A 1978 survey of 547 organic farmers in five Midwest states showed they had a strong interest in research on weed control, soil improvement, and other organic-specific problems.  Although their responses showed they expected organic research to be carried out by scientists at land grant universities in the region, only six organic farmers responding to the survey’s research questions said they knew of any being done.  This was confirmed in followup correspondence with deans of agriculture.

The first national study, requested by Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland and completed in 1980 by a team of USDA and other scientists, concluded that the USDA should develop and implement research and educational programs to address the needs and problems of organic farmers and enhance the success of conventional farmers who want to shift toward organic farming.  More than 20,000 farmers wrote to the USDA requesting copies of the 94-page report, entitled “Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming,” before the report’s distribution was stopped by the Reagan Administration two years later.

“The report’s recommendations were initially taken seriously but in 1982 the full-time organic farming coordinator position that was recommended and established was abolished,” a recent ARS report noted. “Although some scientists continued to work on organic systems, the organic nature of their work was not emphasized and they didn’t report the organic nature of their work in project reports.”

USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, entirely separate from the ARS, was authorized by Congress later in response to the 1980 report.  Although this competitive grants program is funded at $15 million or so every year, including about $4 million for educating professionals in organic and sustainable agriculture, only about 15 percent of its more than 3,000 funded projects have dealt directly with organic farming.

Organic Research Assessed           

Still another attempt to document the lack of federal support for organic farming research came with publication in 1997 of “Searching for the O Word,” an OFRF report authored by Mark Lipson.  He searched the Current Research Information System (CRIS), which contained the more than 30,000 projects in USDA’s research portfolio, and found only 34 that qualified as “strong organic.” Another 267 were rated as “weak organic,” meaning the organic or “non-chemical” content was inferred.

Still others had some content dealing with reduced pesticide use or reduced-risk materials or biological pesticides.  “These research strategies do not contribute to the basic understanding of how organic systems work,” Lipson wrote.  “Our conclusion from this study can be stated quite simply: Organic agriculture is starkly underserved by USDA’s research system.”

The agriculture committees in Congress took little notice of this embarrassing report.  But ARS, largely in response to OFRF’s report, identified 188 agency scientists who stated an interest in organic agriculture research and surveyed them about institutional and other barriers to doing this kind of research.  They noted that the agency lacked a commitment to organic research, lacked certified land needed for replicated experimental plots, and had difficulty working with organic farmers on cooperative on-farm projects.

One important recommendation made by ARS scientists and other participants in the 2005 Austin workshop was establishment of a separate national program for organic research.  ARS research is organized into 22 national programs and organic research is a small low-profile initiative within the agency’s Integrated Agricultural Systems program.  Other research areas, including climate change and methyl bromide alternatives, have their own separate programs headed by national program leaders.

Practical Steps

The ARS workshops and the survey showing significant interest by ARS scientists in organic research provide a rationale for increased funding and a foundation for specific institutional changes needed to provide a much-needed and long-overdue breakthrough.  A presentation several years ago to USDA’s National Agricultural Research, Extension, and Economics Advisory Board on behalf of OFRF laid out a series of practical steps that still make sense.

“USDA should issue a basic policy statement recognizing that organic farming can play a significant role in meeting the nation’s agricultural, environmental, and economic development needs,” the OFRF representative stated.  “This is a crucial first step.  The ‘taboo’ against organic research must be broken.”

The statement called for research and development support for implementation of USDA’s National Organic Program.  The continuing struggle to fully implement the national standard for organic labeling and certification, it stated, “suffers severely from institutionalized government ignorance about the organic sector.”

Finally, it urged the advisory committee to recommend a national initiative for organic research that includes establishing a separate ARS national organic program, developing scientific goals for organic farming research, and establishing a national network of dedicated organic experiment stations guided by local organic farmers.

Is it too far fetched to suggest that a Congress willing to spend $29 billion on pork projects ranging from a $500,000 teapot museum to the notorious $223 million “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska might be persuaded to allocate a fair share appropriation for organic research in the $1.1 billion ARS budget?  Or a fair share for USDA’s competitive grants programs that support organic research by land grant university scientists, nonprofit organizations, and others?  Are the current pathetic funding levels all the forward progress organic farmers and others have been able to make in almost 30 years of surveys, reports, workshops, and other organic research advocacy?

A Ray of Hope

A first-ever House floor vote on organic research last May provides a faint ray of hope.  An amendment by Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey to increase the Fiscal 2007 appropriation for organic transitions research from the $2 million level, where it has been stalled for years, to $5 million was adopted.  Joining Holt in supporting the amendment during a short debate were Reps. Ron Kind of Wisconsin, Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut.  Although the amendment was opposed by the appropriations committee floor manager, who predicted it would fail in conference, it was approved by a voice vote.

Organic farmers who want more federally-funded organic research can make a difference by contacting their House and Senate representatives over the next  few weeks.  This will reinforce the ongoing cooperative effort of the National Organic Coalition, the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, and the Organic Trade Association to strengthen the overall federal organic research effort.  These organizations, newly encouraged by the favorable Holt amendment vote, are pushing to increase organic research appropriations for Fiscal 2007, which have not been finalized, and to increase organic research authorization levels in the 2007 farm bill.


by Roger Blobaum

This article was first printed in the Nov/Dec 2006 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service