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Should the boost in funding for organic farming survive in the new administration?

Opinion

And By Jay Lehr

President Obama tripled the budget and staffing at the offices of the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), only to see American organic acreage flatline during his tenure.

The $9.1 million might seem like a rounding error for Washington D.C. But what 43 organic staffers actually did during Obama’s tenure will surprise you. Did they weed out fraud, make organic food better and encourage more domestic organic production? Sadly, no, no and no.

USDA_Organic_406x250Organic imports from countries like China and Turkey grew steadily during Obama’s years, a trend that, not surprisingly, coincided with increased incidents of organic foodborne illnesses. Alas, Obama tripled the NOP budget and staffing, but failed to require field testing.

Roughly 40 percent of the organic food sold in America tested positive for prohibited pesticide residue during Obama’s years, in two separate studies by the USDA. Just 0.7 percent of American farmland is organic, but organic sales accounted for 4 percent of total food sales, more than five times the amount of land under organic management. This means American grocery retailers now rely on imported organic food somewhere around 80 percent of the time.

This tripling of NOP budget and staff did absolutely nothing to help American organic farmers. In fact, it hurt them.

Worse than this embarrassing organic trade imbalance is the fact that organic foods accounted for a whopping 7 percent of all food recalls in America last year, almost double what one would expect according to organic sales and 10 times what one would expect from America’s flatlining organic acreage.

Meanwhile, organic inspections and certifications all occur independently of these 43 federal organic staffers. People are often surprised to learn that the USDA does not employ any organic inspectors. Staff only keep an eye on those that do by randomly auditing files generated by USDA-accredited certifying agencies, most of which are private certification businesses. These certifiers number just 80, and employ just 160 independent organic inspectors on contract. They pay the USDA for the privilege of being audited. So, what was $9 million spent on every year? And, again, what did these 43 people do every day they went to work?

The 160 inspectors working for 80 certifying agencies. Together they account for all oversight of every American organic farm, processor, distributor and broker/trader, including the importation of certified-organic goods from abroad. They’re being overseen by 43 federal staffers? Yes. That’s the sum total of it.

Miles McEvoy, Obama’s man in charge of America’s organic program, claims the increases were necessary to ensure the integrity of the USDA-certified organic label. But with organic food recalls and imports both going up, and the number of American organic farmers and acreage flatlining, it would appear McEvoy was totally, completely and undeniably wrong. Yet, he remains in command at the NOP.

Only organic end-products are tested under McEvoy, and just 5 percent of the time at that, and only for pesticides, not for pathogens from manure, thus accounting for the organic industry’s shamefully high record of foodborne illness outbreaks. Costs of this pesticide testing are, again, covered entirely by the private sector. Many farmers make use of manure, but usually not on crops for human consumption. Only in the organic industry is manure routinely applied to fields used to grow food for humans, a practice which can be detrimental to human health, sometimes permanently, when manure is not fully composted.

gmoorganic_406x250And yet, the only across-the-board organic testing in America’s multibillion dollar organic industry is for GMOs, even though no one anywhere in the world, not human or animal, has ever fallen ill from consuming GMO foods. Costs, again, are borne entirely by — you guessed it — the private sector.

So where did all that money go if not to field testing? Perhaps to fund the hundreds of anti-modern-farming NGOs that run a constant barrage of anti-GMO, anti-pesticide, anti-fertilizer, anti-animal-confinement campaigns? On that question, there are two more troubling points to make.

First, many of the 80 certifying agencies that grant USDA organic certification to farmers, processors, etc., receive anywhere between 1.5 percent to 3 percent of gross revenue from their clients. This “royalty” from an industry worth roughly $46 billion a year — more than Major League Baseball — has proven highly lucrative just for doing paperwork. And people from these agencies, and sometimes the agencies themselves, can be found at the forefront of anti-modern-farming campaigns throughout all 50 states. Certifiers only collect royalties on shipments they approve, while being left to decide whose products they’re going to test for pesticides, just 5 percent of the time. No wonder so much organic food is being imported, with an astonishing 40 percent of it testing positive for prohibited pesticides, and with so many cases of organic foodborne illness.

Second, it turns out $9.1 million per-annum to run the office is just the tip of this organic iceberg. Another quarter of a billion — $256 million to be exact — was spent by the Obama Administration on subsidies to the American organic industry.

So, if American organic farm acreage flatlined over the past eight years while organic food recalls went up, along with imports, in a nation that has exported food throughout its history with one of the world’s top food safety records, what do we call this? This profligate spending not only failed to deliver, but delivered precisely the opposite of what anyone who works for a living expects from Washington.

Make no mistake. This was not simply a case of yet another program gone awry in the nation’s capital. The price tag for America’s new F-35 fighter is, unfortunately, a typical example of such incompetence and waste. But if the F-35 flew backwards instead of forwards, and Obama knew about it for the past eight years and funded it anyway, that’d be fraud. Fraud against American organic farmers, American consumers of organic food, and taxpayers.

Let’s hope the next administration fully reverses this trend.

Editor’s note on the authors: Mischa Popoff is a policy advisor at The Heartland Institute, and is the author of Is it Organic? The inside story of the organic industry. Jay Lehr is the Science Director at the Heartland Institute and is the author of more than 1,000 magazine and journal articles and 30 books.

 

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