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Organics “Thrown Under the Bus” in Farm Bill Extension, Say Industry Advocates

“We’ve been thrown under the bus.” That’s how some organic farmers and advocates are describing the government’s “eleventh-hour” decision on Jan. 1 to extend the 2008 farm bill for 9 months instead of enacting a new 2012 farm bill.

Their dismay is based on how organics fared when the 2008 farm bill was extended until September 2013 (Section 701). Pure and simple, mandatory funding for a variety of organic programs written into the 2008 farm bill didn’t qualify for automatic inclusion into the farm bill extension.

That outcome is in contrast to the proposed Senate and House versions of the 2012 farm bill, hammered out last summer, that had included funding for all of the organic programs (except for one in the House version).

One reason for extending the 2008 farm bill was that there just wasn’t enough time to enact a 2012 farm bill, especially in light of all of the frenzied work Congress was putting into keeping the nation from toppling over the tax side of the fiscal cliff. The other factor was that House leadership worried about possible infighting over cuts to food stamps and subsidy programs.

Lost programs

Among the organic programs that weren’t included in the extension of the 2008 farm bill are those that fund organic research and extension, cost share to become certified as organic, and an organic data collection system — the same sort of data collection system that has long been a mainstay for conventional agriculture and that qualified to receive continued funding.

Organic farmers say that these programs have helped them be more productive and better at marketing their goods to meet the growing demand for their crops, milk, meats and other products.

“This is a huge loss for the organic sector,” Barbara Haumann, spokesperson for the Organic Trade Association, told Food Safety News. “The cuts are severe. It will impact farmers who use safer practices and could discourage some farmers because of the loss of cost-share for certification.”

USDA’s cost-share programs make certification more affordable for small- and mid-sized organic farmers and handlers by reimbursing them for as much as 75 percent—up to a maximum of $750 a year—for their certification costs. Eligible costs include application fees, inspection fees, travel for certification inspectors, and even postage.

Created in 2002, the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program was designed, in part, to recognize the public benefits of organic agriculture to environmental stewardship, according to the USDA. The program received $22 million in mandatory funding over 5 years in the 2008 farm bill.

Turning to research, Haumann said that the 2008 farm bill marked an important step forward for organic research. She called the loss of that funding “a real blow.”

“Cooperative Extension (a nationwide network that operates through certain universities in each state to provide research-based information to agricultural producers, among others) was working with organic farmers,” she said. “It wasn’t that long ago, that there was no funding for organics. We don’t want to lose ground.”

USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the federal partner in the Cooperative Extension System, provides federal funding to the system.

In the 2008 farm bill, the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative was funded at $18 million for fiscal year 2009 and $20 million for fiscal years 2010-12, plus a $25-million-per-year authorization for appropriations

According to the National Organic Coalition, USDA research programs have not kept pace with the growth of organic agriculture in the market place. Compared to the amount of research dollars going to other sectors of the industry, organics gets significantly less proportionately when looking at the nearly 4 percent of total U.S. food retail market it represents.

“As our economy struggles to rebuild, organic agriculture is a bright spot that is clearly part of the solution,” said Steven Etka, legislative coordinator for the National Organic Coalition.

Organic farmer Anne Schwartz, owner of Blue Heron Farm in Western Washington, told Food Safety News that Washington State University alone has 150 research projects focused on organic and sustainable farming, including a 30-acre showcase organic farm.

“We’ve made an impact,” she said, referring to strides organic producers have made. “But right now research is funded at the federal level. When we lose federal funding for that, we’re in trouble, and they know it.”

Pointing to another program that lost funding in the 9-month extension, Haumann said that the Organic Production and Marketing Data Initiative  has been “a wonderful help” for organic farmers and businesses because it helps keep track of what organic crops or livestock are being raised and where and what their costs are.

“It helps producers and buyers make business decisions across the board,” she said. “And it helps encourage investors when they see how much organics is growing.”

The 2008 farm bill provided $5 million in mandatory funding for the collection and publication of the data.

As far as Haumann is concerned, organic agriculture “is not getting its fair share in the extension of the 2008 farm bill to encourage good practices that produce food that many families want to buy.”

“A slap in the face and anti-people,” said Schwartz referring not just to what the loss in funding means to the organic sector but also to the general public, which benefits from the environmental stewardship and the boost to regional economies, biodiversity, and food security that organic agriculture offers.

Ironic twist

Instead of reforming U.S. agricultural policy, as had been proposed in the Senate and House versions of the 2012 farm bill, the 9-month extension of the 2008 version includes $5 billion for subsidies and direct payments. These are payments typically doled out, farm bill after farm bill, to certain farmers (among them corn, soybeans, wheat and rice farmers).

In contrast, the House and Senate versions of the 2012 farm bill had called for eliminating the subsidies. The reasoning behind that proposed change was that the commodity farmers were doing well financially and didn’t need them. Apart from farm policy, proposed cost-cutting measures in the farm bill were seen as a way to help fix the nation’s budgetary woes. For example, the Senate bipartisan version of the 2012 Farm Bill called for cuts of $24 billion in spending.

After the 2008 bill was extended, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, made it clear that she wasn’t pleased with the outcome, describing it as “a partial extension that reforms nothing, provides no deficit reduction, and hurts many areas of our agriculture economy.”

As for why some of the organic programs weren’t included in the extension of the 2008 Farm Bill, it all comes down to something called the “budgetary baseline.” According to a Congressional Research Service Report, 37 programs  that received mandatory funds in the 2008 farm bill weren’t eligible to continue receiving them because they didn’t have what is referred to as a “budgetary baseline” beyond FY2012. If policymakers want to continue these programs in the 2012 farm bill, they will need to find offsets to pay for them.

No easy task, say organic advocates, who point out that any requests for new appropriations will be part of the national debate on spending cuts, entitlement reform and the debt ceiling. In addition, the 2012 farm bill will need to go through committee mark-up and onto the House and Senate floors before it can be enacted into la

Even so, the Organic Trade Association has vowed to lead the direct-advocacy effort for these critical programs, according to a news alert sent out to members.

What about food safety?

Although food safety is generally thought of as keeping food free of dangerous pathogens such as E. coli, Salmonella, or Listeria, organic farmers and consumers view food safety from an additional perspective. For them, for food to be safe, it  must also be free from pesticide residues and genetically modified organisms and cannot be raised using synthetic chemicals, compost that contains pathogens, or sewage sludge. Or, in the case of meat, poultry and fish, the animals, or fish, can’t be treated with antibiotics or growth hormones.

These are just some of the standards that organic producers must meet to qualify for certification under USDA’s National Organic Program, which allows them to sell their products bearing the agency’s official organic seal. That seal gives them an important boost in the marketplace, where some consumers are more than happy to pay higher prices for food that has been raised organically.

Lisa Bunin, organic policy director for The Center for Food Safety told Food Safety News that organically grown food is the only food that is legally mandated to safeguard natural resources such as the soil and water, human health, animal welfare, and the environment.

As an example of that, a legal guide by the National Agricultural Law Center about the National Organic Program points out that legislation specifically says that the plant and animal materials must be managed by the producer “to maintain or improve soil organic matter content in a manner that does not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, or residues of prohibited substances.”

According to a fact sheet from the Organic Farming Research Foundation organic agriculture —a $29 billion industry in the United States in 2010 with more than 14,500 organic farmers in its ranks — is one of the fastest growing sectors of U.S. agriculture. For 10 years,  the industry grew at an enviable average annual rate of 20 percent, and even during the recent recession, continued to enjoy positive growth.

It rankles

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which represents family and smaller-sized farmers, rankled at the decision to extend the 2008 farm bill.

“The message is unmistakable — direct commodity subsidies, despite high market prices, are sacrosanct, while the rest of agriculture and the rest of rural America can simply drop dead,” said the organization in a statement.

For Mark Kastel, co-founder of The Cornucopia Institute, a populist farm policy research group, the loss of funding for some critical organic programs in the extension of the 2008 farm bill goes beyond whether organic food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally grown food. While that debate is important, he pointed out that there’s also this economic reality to consider: It (the extension) flies in the face of the free-market system the United States’ economy is purportedly based on.

“It (the 2008 farm bill extension) undercuts where markets are going,” Kastel told Food Safety News. “Instead, with this extension, we have the government giving more money (in direct payments) to commodity farmers even though they don’t need payments now because they’re doing well. They’re ignoring what the consumers are voting for in the marketplace. It’s assbackwards. It’s undermining our capitalistic structure and free markets. We’re having the government pick and choose the winners.”

Kastel also pointed out that what organics receives in federal support is “peanuts” compared to the subsidies and other support that conventional agriculture typically receives through the nation’s farm bills and agricultural policy.

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