Organic Broadcaster

 

Coalition asks Biden Administration to put Organic back on safe footing

By Alice Runde

The Biden-Harris Administration has an opportunity to immediately tackle some issues that would put organic agriculture back on solid footing now and in future years. Much of the immediate work that is needed involves getting several key organic rulemakings and programs back on track after years of delays or outright regulatory rollbacks by the Trump Administration.

Organic is a voluntary system of farming and food production that allows farmers, suppliers, and processors to opt-in to a rigorous set of standards focused on protecting the environment and human health. Operations that choose to become certified as organic agree to meet these higher production and processing standards in exchange for using the USDA Organic seal, which generally allows those organic operations to reap a price in the marketplace that better reflects their true cost of production. For organic to work as intended, there must be consistent enforcement of organic standards, which often involves a constant vigilance to close regulatory loopholes to ensure consistency.

“Organic agriculture is a climate-friendly, consumer-friendly, and farmer-friendly model of agriculture that can help the new Administration address many of the goals that President Biden and Vice President Harris outlined during the campaign,” said Abby Youngblood, Executive Director of the National Organic Coalition. “The Biden-Harris Administration can deliver big wins to the organic community by restoring organic certification cost share funding and finalizing important rules that are critical to the livelihoods of organic producers and to consumer trust in the Organic seal.”

In November 2020, the National Organic Coalition (NOC) sent a letter to the Biden-Harris transition team, asking the new Administration to work with the organic community to advance the following priorities:

Reinstate the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices Rule.
Unequal enforcement of federal organic standards has long been a problem in the organic poultry and egg sector. To address this problem, under the Obama-Biden Administration, USDA published a long-overdue final rule on Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) on Jan. 19, 2017 (82 FR 7042) that would have required all organic poultry and egg operations to provide meaningful outdoor access for chickens. Most certified organic operations already meet the standards laid out in the rule, which would have created more consistency in enforcement. However, loopholes in the standards have allowed a few large operations to skirt the standards, to the detriment of farmers, consumers, and animal welfare.

Unfortunately, as part of a larger pattern of regulatory rollbacks, the Trump Administration delayed implementation of the rule and finally withdrew the rule altogether, effective May 13, 2018 (83 FR 10775). This rollback sends the wrong message to consumers and a market that is reliant on public trust in USDA’s organic label. Operations that are still not compliant with industry best practices must be brought into compliance by implementing the OLPP rule to ensure consistency and to meet consumer expectations.

Finalize an enforceable Origin of Livestock Rule without delay.
Similarly, loopholes exist in organic standards with regard to the process for transitioning conventional dairy livestock into organic herds. In 2015, during the Obama-Biden Administration, USDA published a proposed rule to close a loophole (80 FR 23455). Specifically, the proposed rule would clarify that, after completion of a one-time transition from a conventional dairy farm, all new dairy animals milked on an organic dairy farm would need to be managed organically from the last third of gestation. This rule has never been finalized.

With broad support from the organic community, Congress included a provision in the Fiscal Year 2020 Agriculture Appropriations bill requiring USDA to finalize the long-delayed Origin of Livestock rule by June 17, 2020. USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service has missed that deadline. Organic dairy farmers are suffering and continued delays in implementing this rule will prolong the dire economic fate facing organic dairy farmers.

Move expeditiously to finalize the Strengthening Organic Enforcement Rule.
On Aug. 5, 2020, USDA published a long-overdue proposed rule on Strengthening Organic Enforcement (85 FR 47536) to comply with the 2018 Farm Bill, as well as other enforcement-related improvements. The SOE rule is the most significant revision to organic standards since the publication of the original Organic rule in 2001, with many important improvements that strengthen enforcement. NOC encourages the new administration to move expeditiously to finalize this important rule. We also encourage USDA to seek input from the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) as part of the rule finalization process.

Restore the Organic Certification Cost Share Program to the full reimbursement rates mandated by the 2018 Farm Bill.
Annual organic inspection and certification are required for all organic operations. The process of inspection and certification is central to maintaining the integrity of the USDA organic label. The federal government has historically reimbursed up to 75 percent of organic certification fees paid by organic farms and businesses, with a maximum reimbursement of $750 per operation for each scope (crops, livestock or handling). In August of 2020, USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) announced that reimbursement rates for 2020 certification costs would be cut to 50 percent of the certified organic operation’s eligible expenses, up to a maximum of $500 per scope.

This action came as a surprise to the organic sector. It leaves organic operations – which had been counting on being reimbursed for their certification costs at the same level as previous years – burdened with an unplanned expense in the midst of a period of higher costs and disrupted markets caused by the pandemic. The cost share program is particularly important to small and mid-sized organic farms, and those that are just starting out with organic certification.

NOC is urging the new administration to take swift action to direct USDA to restore the full Congressionally mandated reimbursement rates for the Organic Certification Cost Share Program. Given the relatively small amount of funding required to fill the budget shortfall and the beneficial impact it has on small- and-medium-scale organic operations, this action offers an excellent early opportunity to send a strong message of support for organic farmers from the Biden-Harris Administration.

Embrace organic agriculture as a key climate change solution.
While there is plenty that we do not fully understand about the relationship between agriculture and climate change, there are also some very clear connections in existing research that can point us in the right direction. Strong scientific evidence demonstrates the many ways in which organic practices are climate-friendly practices as well. Not only does organic agriculture reduce the use of greenhouse gas emissions such as nitrous oxide, but organic standards require the use of farming practices that build soil health and sequester carbon. In addition, organic farm management practices make farms more resilient to extreme weather events associated with climate change as well.

While organic agriculture is, in general, very climate friendly, there are several areas where organic can solidify its role as the gold standard for climate-friendly agriculture. Organic is built on the concept of continuous improvement. These recommended changes to improve organic’s ability to be the solution to global climate change should be viewed as part of the “continuous improvement” goal that is fundamental to organic agriculture. NOC encourages the new administration to incentivize the adoption of organic agriculture and simultaneously support improvements in organic standards to solidify organic’s role as the gold standard for climate-friendly agriculture.

Build our food system back better than before, using the lessons of the pandemic.
In May of 2020, NOC and the Organic Farmers Association (OFA) submitted detailed recommendations to the Secretary of Agriculture and to Congress about policy actions that should be taken to address challenges related to the coronavirus pandemic to help organic farmers, farmworkers, retailers, certifiers, and other businesses weather the COVID-19 pandemic. Like all sectors of agriculture, organic operations are in crisis. Organic farms and businesses are on the front lines and face major disruptions, including loss of critically important markets and labor challenges. Read the full letter here.

Overall, NOC has found that industrial-scale food and agricultural systems have been far less resilient in responding to the disruptions caused by the pandemic than more direct-to-consumer models of agriculture, or other short-supply-chain food systems. Many organic producers fall into these latter models of production. In addition, it has been alarming to witness the degree to which the harm and recovery from the first wave of the pandemic, have exacerbated existing economic and health-based disparities between people of color and white people in our nation.

NOC encourages the new Administration to engage the U.S. food and agriculture sector in a dialogue on how we can best use lessons learned from the pandemic to build our food system back better than it was before.

As a coalition, NOC looks forward to working closely with the new Administration and a new Secretary of Agriculture to advance organic farming.

The full letter to the Biden-Harris Administration from NOC with detailed recommendations is available online.

 

Alice Runde is the National Organic Coalition’s Coalition Manager. 

 

From the January | February 2021 Issue

 

Back to Current Issue

Comments are closed.