By Samuel Fromartz
Every so often, the broad coalition of organic food supporters – which include food companies, retailers, farmers, advocacy groups, and of course consumers – coalesce around one crucial issue.
This happened in 1997, when the first draft of organic regulations were released by the USDA and included such anti-organic practices as irradiation, genetically modified crops and sewage sludge fertilizer. The community sent an unprecedented number of comments to the USDA opposing the so-called "Big Three" and they were struck down in the final version of regulations.
In 2003, when a Georgia Congressman inserted a rider onto a bill in the dead of night and won passage for the right to use non-organic animal feed (sought by one of his chicken processors), the community rose up again. Led by opponents in Congress, the measure was rescinded in a subsequent bill.
Now, arguably, it's time again for the organic community to rise up again, spreading the word through advocacy groups, in email, on blogs and most potently, at the check-out counters of natural food stores and co-ops.
What's the issue this time around?
The Farm Bill. Organic supporters have been pushing very hard in Congress to win a few crucial programs for organic farmers but the buzz is at a low level in Washington. Organic doesn't even win a mention as a worthwhile alternative (evident in this recent Washington Post editorial), when the talk comes to reforming the farm bill.
What are supporters of organic farming seeking?
- Basic research funds. Currently organic farming research and education gets about $13 million from a patchwork of USDA programs. But only $3 million of those funds is specifically dedicated for organic farming. Supporters want to increase those targeted funds to $15 million annually in mandatory funding - this, out of a USDA research budget of about $2 billion.
- Certification cost share. Farmers can get up to $500 annually to offset up to 75 percent of the costs of organic certification. (This is the only "subsidy" specifically targeted to organic farmers and is meant for smaller farmers). But many states have run out of money and they won’t get any more until the new farm bill is approved. Supporters are looking to increase the cost share to $750 through $25 million in funding over five years.
- Crop insurance. Organic farmers must pay a 5 percent premium to receive crop insurance but their crop losses are compensated at the same rate as conventional growers (even though the organic crop is worth more). They want the USDA to correct this unfair practice.
- Transition Support. Transitioning farmers must follow organic methods for three years before they can sell their crops under the organic label. That means their costs are usually higher but they are still getting paid conventional prices for their crops. The lobby is looking for $50 million per year to help with the transition process, with the funds split between technical and financial assistance.
- Data Collection. Right now there is little reliable data on organic products, on the amount and sources of organic food imports, on the prices farmers get for their crops or the usual information available to conventional farmers. That discourages investment, skews crop insurance decisions and undermines the market. So supporters wants some dedicated funds for this type of research. (For more detail on these issues, see this PDF from the Organic Farming Research Foundation).
Although the House Agriculture Committee nodded in the direction of organic farming in the mark up of the farm bill, much of the funding under consideration would be discretionary – not mandatory. The programs will only get funded if money can be found, which is highly unlikely in this tight fiscal climate.
Why does organic farming need these funds?
Demand for organic food now exceeds supply, but US farmers are not converting fast enough to fill the gap. The costs of transition, the lack of knowledge about organic methods, and uncertainty about the market all play a role in inhibiting conventional farmers from making the switch. With American farmers lagging, production is increasingly shifting overseas – meaning U.S. farmers will lose out on a lucrative market. Consumers will see more organic products from Mexico, China, Chile, Brazil, India, Australia, Italy and Turkey, including fresh and frozen produce, soybeans, grass-fed meat, grains and beans. That's not a bad thing, in terms of agricultural practices and opportunities in those countries, but it won't do anything for farming in the US.
So what can we do?
The Environmental Working Group has launched a worthwhile site to generate 30,000 signatures to lawmakers by July 15. But for mass action, retailers and co-ops with direct access to consumers need to step up to the plate. They need to publicize this issue at the check-out counter, since most people don't even know about it. The message: Support organic farmers in the 2007 Farm Bill.
The point is to win baseline funding for organic agriculture, so that it can be increased in the next farm bill. If the baseline is near zero, it isn't going to move at all – not in the next bill, or the one after that and farmers will continue to sit on the sidelines.
When you wonder why so many organic products are originating overseas, you will have your answer: the modest government incentives and research U.S. farmers needed to pursue organic farming weren’t available. So they didn't bother to switch.