Editor’s note: The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced this week that it is seeking public comments on a proposal for a nationwide research and promotion fee program to be paid by producers and handlers in the organic industry. Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group wrote this opinion piece, which was originally posted on FoodTank.com on Jan. 17, 2017. Organic producers and handlers would pay one-tenth of 1 percent of net organic sales under the check-off program. To read the USDA proposal in the Federal Register, click here.
Conventional farming and food production practices in this country are creating serious environmental and public health problems. Every day, an industrial farming system spinning out of control confronts all Americans with serious challenges. Among these are the explosion in toxic algae blooms in sensitive waterways, cancer-causing pesticides on foods we feed our children, the rapid spread of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, and, of course, contaminated drinking water, all courtesy of corporate agribusiness.
Thankfully, we have an alternative: organic.
Study after study shows organic food is better for our health, and organic farming is better for our environment. Organic milk has higher concentrations of beneficial nutrients than its conventional counterpart, and organic foods can have higher levels of antioxidants and far fewer, if any, pesticide residues than conventionally grown crops. In addition to the notable consumer benefits, organic farming consumes far less energy and can reduce water pollution, increase biodiversity, promote healthy soils and sequester significantly more carbon than conventional farming.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has been advocating for organic food and farming for more than two decades, with much of our research documenting how the practices and finished products of both conventional and organic agriculture influence our health and the environment.
In that time, I have worked alongside many pioneers and have seen organic farming grow from a fledgling movement available to few, into a nearly $40 billion a year industry. Organic is now the fastest growing segment of the U.S. food industry with some of the country’s largest retailers struggling to keep up with customer demand and keep their store shelves stocked.
Despite years of double-digit growth, far outstripping that seen in the conventional food sector, the number of certified organic farms in the U.S. is struggling to keep pace with soaring consumer demand. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2012, fewer than 1 percent of American farms were classified as organic. This has forced many organic food companies in the U.S. to turn to foreign suppliers to meet customer demand.
There is no reason why we cannot be meeting the surging demand for organic foods here at home, growing and producing it ourselves. However, if we are going to grow more organic food in this country we will need more organic farmers. That means recruiting new farmers, and helping existing farmers transition to organic.
Easier said than done.
We will need to provide farmers with technical assistance to help them transition to organic. We will also need to invest in more science and research to ensure that organic and transitioning farmers are armed with high yielding, regionally adapted seeds, designed with organic systems in mind.
Now, you don’t have to be a D.C. lobbyist or congressional staffer to know that the purse strings on Capitol Hill have been pulled tight in recent years, and funds supporting agriculture are tethered closely to the interests of Big Ag, not organic. While EWG will continue to call on Congress to make serious investments in organic in the next farm bill, there is a lot that can be accomplished in the interim if the organic community pools its resources, and approves an organic research and promotions program.
That is why EWG supports the organic check-off program.
The principle of a check-off program is simple: Producers of a particular commodity pool their resources, and collectively invest in research and promotion of that commodity. These programs are authorized by Congress and directed by industry-driven boards overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While this sounds simple, it hasn’t always worked out in the best interest of producers.
EWG is fully aware that farmers have been burned by past check-off programs, and we are glad that so many in the organic community have been part of productive discussions about the organic check-off currently under consideration. After all of those discussions one thing is clear: The organic check-off is not your father’s check-off.
It is the first such program that is not based on a specific commodity, but rather on the notion that if everyone pitches in a little, the organic community can address its shared research, education and promotion needs together.
With the funds raised every year from the check-off, the organic community would be able to provide transitioning farmers with greater technical assistance and training to bring more acres into organic production. It would also be able to fill in the research gaps left every year by limited federal research dollars that all too often skew toward outdated and damaging industrial farming practices. And, the check-off will ensure that the organic sector has an opportunity to educate consumers about organic and promote its benefits in the same way that major commodities like milk and pork were able to do with the “Got Milk?” and “Pork. The Other White Meat” campaigns, respectively.
To be clear, both Congress and organic food companies will also have to do their parts to increase funding for research and promotion of organic in the years to come. But that shouldn’t stop the organic community from supporting the organic check-off program and taking organic to the next level.
After all, EWG not only believes that organic farming can help feed the world, we believe that organic systems and practices may be the only way to do so sustainably. However, the footprint of organic on the agricultural landscape and in Americans’ shopping carts must grow significantly if we are to realize organic’s full potential to feed the planet in ways that enhance the environment and public health.
I hope you will join me in supporting the GRO Organic campaign to make this a reality.
Note on author: Ken Cook, president and co-founder of Environmental Working Group (EWG), was a principal architect of provisions of the 1985 farm bill that shifted U.S. farm policy from a narrow focus on maximum crop production to include conservation of land, water, wetlands and wildlife. The legislation was widely regarded the most important environmental farm policy reform in decades. In the 1990s, EWG’s research was a major factor in the passage of the landmark pesticide reform law, the Food Quality Protection Act. EWG was among the first to draw attention to the health threat posed by the weed-killer atrazine and conducted the first extensive tests for the chemical in tap water in 29 cities.
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