Organics in the News

A vision for organic growth – and a welcome to incoming USDA Secretary Mike Johanns
In his open letter to Ag Secretary Johanns, who was confirmed on January 6, National Organic Standards Board member Jim Riddle outlines the Organic Program priorities Johanns needs to put at the top of his list.

By Jim Riddle

January 7, 2005: I would like to welcome Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns as the next Secretary of Agriculture. I am pleased to see a fellow Midwesterner selected for the post.

Once confirmed— almost certain after his unanimous approval by the Senate Agriculture Committee on January 6—Gov. Johanns will be taking over a Department of Agriculture with the strongest organic standards in the world. The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which was fully implemented in October 2002, set rigorous and uniform production, handling, and labeling requirements.

But there is much work ahead!

The organic sector is expanding rapidly, with U.S. domestic sales growing at an annual rate of 18-20 percent for the last 10 years and topping $12 billion in 2003. Published reports indicate that Gov. Johanns is a strong supporter of innovative, value-added, market-driven agriculture. Organics is a values-based system of agriculture, and Gov. Johanns will find that it is ready to continue to grow.

Organic agriculture is consumer-driven, with farmers being rewarded in the marketplace for implementing environmentally sound farming practices. As such, it fits nicely with conservative principles and ideals. (After all, OFPA was signed into law by the first President Bush, and the organic regulation was fully implemented under the current administration.)

Care of the land, production of food, and consumer choice are non-partisan issues, however.

“The customer is always right!” is the first law of business. It is time for the USDA to listen to consumers and allow Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) to be fully implemented. COOL will provide valuable information to American consumers, so that they can more readily purchase products from American farmers.

The farm press is now predicting an end to the farm subsidy program, which supports the production of mass quantities of cheap raw materials, contributes to agri-business consolidation, exacerbates soil erosion and water pollution, and violates free trade agreements. The subsidies are predicted to end, not because of their negative impacts, but because they are too expensive to maintain in times of staggering budget and trade deficits.

To replace farm subsidies, the Conservation Security Program (CSP) must be fully implemented. This program rewards farmers who adopt stewardship practices on working farms. It is encouraging to see the program offered in 202 watersheds in 2005, up from 18 watersheds in 2004. It needs to be offered nationwide in 2006, as envisioned by Congress.

In order to expand consumer choice, increase exports, safeguard the environment, sustain farm families, and expand rural economic activity, incoming Sec. Johanns would be wise to strengthen USDA organic program initiatives.

Priorities to be addressed by Sec. Johanns should include:

  1. Appointment of an Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) Administrator who is supportive of organic agriculture. The AMS Administrator sets the direction for the National Organic Program (NOP), including staff needs, budget requests, NOSB appointments, work plans, and regulatory interpretations. This is a keystone position for protection of organic integrity, consumer confidence, and growth of the organic sector.

  2. Coordination of USDA organic research, data collection, regulatory, outreach, foreign trade, natural resource conservation, and crop insurance programs. The USDA’s AMS, Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Cooperative State Research Education and Extension Service (CSREES), Economic Research Service (ERS), Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and Risk Management Agency (RMA) are all providing valuable services to the organic sector, but those services need to be expanded and better coordinated to maximize efficiency and effect.

  3. Inclusion of an Organic Resource Conservation Title in the next Farm Bill. Studies by the ARS, University of Minnesota, Washington State University, The Rodale Institute and others all show that organic farming systems produce equivalent yields to conventional agriculture while doing a better job of protecting ground and surface water and improving soil quality. Combined with strong consumer demand and sustainable farm prices, organic agriculture must be a foundation piece of the next Farm Bill, and USDA has the opportunity to take the lead.

  4. Strengthen the USDA’s National Organic Program. The NOP has done an exemplary job of writing an organic regulation that is true to organic principles and consumer expectations. They continue to implement a national (actually international) regulation that impacts all forms of crops, livestock, and processed products with a miniscule budget and a staff of six. But the efforts of the NOP need to be reinforced to meet the following imperatives:

    • Train all USDA-accredited certifying agents for consistent enforcement
    • Conduct on-site accreditation audits of foreign certifying agents
    • Institutionalize peer review of the NOP, as required by OFPA and the regulation
    • Adopt standards for apiculture, greenhouses, and mushrooms, as recommended by the NOSB
    • Regulate categories of products that make “organic” label claims, including aquatic animals, pet foods, nutritional supplements, fertilizers, and personal care products
    • Publish a National Organic Program Quality Manual
    • Index the $5000 small farmer exemption (set in 1990) to the rate of inflation
    • Clarify existing requirements for livestock, including outdoor access for all species and pasture access for ruminants
    • Continue the NOSB’s role in management of the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances

  5. Expand organic opportunities. Incoming Sec. Johanns can demonstrate leadership by expanding opportunities for conventional and organic farmers by:

    • Ensuring that the national organic certification cost share program continues to be funded
    • Providing nationwide access to NRCS organic transition incentive payments
    • Increasing funds for organic research projects
    • Mandating that RMA organic crop insurance programs pay organic prices for insured organic producers
    • Directing the AMS to develop marketing, promotion, and consumer education tools to support the organic sector

  6. Improve the regulation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Yes, biotech company scientists have the ability to create and patent novel organisms by combining genes from totally different species, families, or kingdoms, but these transgenic organisms are not part of the Creation, and they have no place in the natural order.

    Studies now confirm that transgenic crops have contributed to lost markets, depressed farm prices, and increased use of pesticides. They have also been shown to have negative environmental impacts, including increases in herbicide-resistant weeds and pesticide-resistant insects and contamination of foundation seed sources.

    GMOs do not respect property borders and are causing harm to organic and non-GMO producers through “transgenic trespass.” Biotech companies and growers of GMOs are exposed to risk when their products cause economic and/or environmental harm. Likewise, farmers and consumers who choose to avoid GMOs are being exposed to these products against their will and without their knowledge, due to the absence of GMO labeling.

    In an editorial of December 6, 2004, the Los Angles Times stated, “The U.S. needs rigorous rules for labeling organic and genetically modified foods.” We already have rigorous labeling requirements for organic foods, but there are no label requirements for GMOs. The USDA must address this and numerous other issues related to GMOs to bring a level of regulatory certainty for both the persons who want to sell, use and consume GMOs and those who choose to avoid them.

As Governor of Nebraska, Mike Johanns has demonstrated his support for fiscal conservatism, value-added production, free trade, renewable energy, and agricultural stewardship. As Secretary of Agriculture, he will have the opportunity to combine these principles and lead an agricultural revival in this country.

Organic agriculture is consistent with the incoming Secretary’s objectives. It is well positioned for growth, and deserves to be a fundamental part of the USDA’s mission.

Jim Riddle serves as chair of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board and organic policy advisor for NewFarm.org. He was the founding chair of the Independent Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA).