The continued growth of the organic food industry requires an increased funding commitment and regulatory predictability from the federal government, the Organic Trade Association said in outlining its priorities for the next farm bill.

In particular, OTA wants the $20 million now spent on USDA’s National Organic Program to grow to a $24 million authorization over the life of the farm bill — about 10% annually. It also wants the Organic Foods Production Act to be updated at least every five years.

Other priorities include changes to crop insurance coverage and more money for research.

Speaking with media Feb. 9, OTA CEO Tom Chapman called the group’s total farm bill priority proposal a “very reasonable ask,” and he expects to find a lot of “receptive ears on Capitol Hill” given the success and growth of the organic marketplace.

The National Organic Program (NOP) develops and enforces national organic standards, and also accredits third-party organizations to certify that farms and businesses meet those standards. OTA said over the last decade, U.S. organic food sales grew at an average pace of 9% per year, outpacing the 5% annual growth rate for nonorganic food.

Britt Lundgren, senior director of government affairs & sustainability at Stonyfield, said the funding increase would allow NOP to keep up with industry growth. OTA estimates the market is now worth $63 billion per year, making investments in NOP “a pretty good bargain for the government,” Lundgren said.

Adam Warthesen, the association’s Farmers Advisory Council co-chair and director of government and industry affairs for Organic Valley, said USDA’s organic seal is a “tool to communicate trust to consumers,” and USDA needs to continue to make improvements to the standards to uphold that level of trust.

tom-chapman-ota-ceo.jpegTom Chapman, OTA

Chapman said the organization welcomes recent USDA updates to organic standards, including the organic livestock rule and another one that strengthens enforcement, which was required by the 2018 farm bill.

“We’re excited to see those come to light and be rolled out, but at the same time we can’t forget that it took way too long and way too much effort to get those across the finish line,” Chapman said.

In discussing the current regulatory process, Chapman said those in the organic industry and stakeholders have ample opportunity to provide comments during the rulemaking process on proposals, including making tough decisions and reaching compromises that incorporate industry input. “That all gets rolled up into a set of rules, and then they go into the black box where they sit right now, and nothing moves forward. That’s the bigger issue that we need to resolve,” he said.

Chapman said the organic industry voluntarily came to the government and said, “Please regulate us.” However, he said USDA is “not as responsive as it needs to be to keep the standards up to date for our industry that’s evolving over time.”

The current five-year review process for assessing which materials are allowed in organic production is functioning well, Chapman said, but it does not evaluate practice standards, which OTA advocates should start to be evaluated on a predictable timeline. OTA also wants to see NOP’s authority strengthened so it can take enforcement actions against false or misleading organic claims on all agricultural products, including non-foods.

Organic regulations have taken many years — or nearly 20 in the case of the livestock standards — from the sector's recommendation to USDA finally acting on that recommendation.

OTA also wants continued mandatory funding of $5 million for NOP, money that would be targeted toward upgrades and maintenance of technology systems and increased oversight of certifiers to ensure standards are interpreted and implemented consistently.

“It’s so important, especially as NOP moves into this new era with strengthening organic enforcement, that they have the technology to match their enforcement goals,” Lundgren said.

OTA plans to extol the environmental benefits organic agriculture can offer through several different aspects of its farm bill discussions. The first is to increase and prioritize funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program Organic Initiative and the Conservation Stewardship Program for practices that build soil health, including cover cropping, crop rotations, organic soil amendments and conservation tillage, Lundgren added.

OTA also wants to see Organic Research and Extension funding grow to $100 million annually by the end of the 2023 farm bill.

An additional $10 million over the life of the farm bill is sought for the Organic Data Initiative and authorizations through appropriations for up to $5 million annually. Great data helps inform the creation and improvement of risk management tools that are developed by USDA’s Risk Management Agency, Warthesen added.

Specifically, regarding adjustments made to organic crop insurance, Warthesen said OTA is looking at eliminating the contract price addendum that currently exists or codifying support for farmers in their organic transition that either have premium support or use their existing T-yields (trigger yields, which activate loss payments) on their farms.

“We're looking for research and data collection to better capture the space of organic and adjust the USDA programs to address the market, particularly in the crop insurance and risk management sector,” said Peter Mihalick, OTA senior director of government affairs.

Wartheson_Adam.pngAdam Wartheson, Organic Valley

Using funds from pandemic support legislation, USDA announced last year up to $300 million in its new Organic Transition Initiative. Warthesen said OTA wants to build on that program and codify it in the farm bill

To encourage producers to transition to organic, OTA wants to increase USDA’s Organic Certification Cost-Share Program’s reimbursement rate from 50% to 75%, up to a maximum of $1,500 per certification.

It’s no secret the funding environment for the 2023 farm bill may not be favorable for funding increases. However, Warthesen believes the organic sector has champions on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers, mentioning specifically House Organic Caucus Chairs Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., and Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine. In addition, the industry’s geographic spread is “powerful,” he said.

Chapman added that many of the asks are “very attainable to just ensure that organic is functioning at the highest level.” He said many of OTA’s priorities are focused on reforming current processes that do involve money, but the reform itself may or may not increase the overall costs.

He said the requests are “reasoned and reflective of really how big organic is and its contributions to the diverse landscape of U.S. agriculture.”

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