The first-ever US House hearing on organic agriculture convened on Wednesday with the focus squarely on shortages of organic goods and how federal agriculture programs could be designed to help farmers transition to organic farming and increase supplies.
Across the board at the hearing, farmers and processors reported that demand for organic food is swamping supply, because US farmers are not converting to organic agriculture at a fast enough pace. Organic food now represents about 3 percent of retail food sales, but only 0.5 percent of all farm land is organic.
Caren Wilcox, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, told the Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture that more than half of those members polled in a recent survey said that they would increase production if they could locate more organic ingredients.
To meet consumer demand in the $15 billion industry, imported organic goods have increased - an issue raised repeatedly by Subcommittee Chairman Dennis Cardoza, a Democrat from the Central Valley of California. "I'm concerned about imported organic products, especially from China," Cardoza said.
Livestock farmers appearing on the panel mentioned that organic feed was in tight supply and expected overseas sources to rise later this year and into 2008. One egg producer mentioned that organic soybean feed from China now costs 25 percent less than feed from the Midwest.
The lawmakers zeroed in on a number of policy issues, most critically, the costs to farmers of transitioning to organic methods. To become certified organic, farmers must refrain from using chemical pesticides and fertilizers for three years, but during that window they cannot sell any products from those fields as "organic." After three years, they qualify for the organic label and usually get a market premium.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat, asked if there were any funds specifically available to help farmers through the transition period. He was told there were not, although this is something the organic food industry is seeking in the current round of the farm bill.
Research also came under discussion, since Mark Lipson of the Organic Farming Research Foundation pointed out that it could help farmers in many ways. Organic agricultural research gets about $18 million, compared with $2 billion for conventional agriculture.
The lack of research was also creating impediments to national organic regulations, since the USDA does not have enough science-based studies to back up its decisions. This was especially evident in establishing a minimum grazing standard for organic livestock, Lipson said.
Plus, the panel was told repeatedly, the USDA's National Organic Program is sorely understaffed, with a half-dozen staff responsible for everything from writing regulations to enforcing certification standards in China.
Overall, the lawmakers appeared receptive to organic agriculture – a vast change from 1990, when the Organic Foods Production Act that governs the industry was first passed amid heated opposition in the House. What's changed is that many of these lawmakers now have organic farmers in their home districts.
Cardoza even mentioned that he belongs to an organic CSA in California and requires his kids to finish the box of food they get from the farmer each week. "That's how we get them to eat fruits and vegetables," he said.
For testimony, see the House Agriculture Committee web site.