Merrigan promises ‘the age of enforcement’ for organic agriculture

By Jon H. Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

Washington, April 15 – Scores of organic farmers, processors and distributors from across the U.S. fanned out across Capitol Hill Wednesday and Thursday in support of more funding for organic agriculture research and for organic standards enforcement. This followed encouraging words from USDA Deputy Secretary Deputy Kathleen Merrigan who told the group that “President Obama, Secretary Vilsack, USDA in general, we’re committed to the continued success of organic agriculture.”

Speaking in the opening session of the 2010 Policy Conference hosted by Organic Trade Association (OTA) and the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF), Merrigan said “We’re working very diligently to uphold the organic standards and protect the integrity of organic products. We will protect the strength of organic certification and we’re working to create new opportunities for organic and other kinds of kinds of growers through the promotion of local and regional food systems.”

Merrigan noted that USDA’s survey of organic farms this year showed that “despite real challenges, organic producers are strong and growing. The survey found 14,540 organic farms in all 50 states,” now expected to generate over $27 billion in sales this year. She added that “In the past USDA has not played a strong enough role in enforcement and this administration intends to change that. . . This is the age of enforcement. We will protect farmers who play by the rules and consumers who pay premiums for organic products.” To support organic agriculture, she said “we increased the budget for the organic program by 75% and have proposed an additional 45% increase in FY 11. That brings the program to about $10.1 million.”

Along with more USDA funding, Merrigan promised “expanded use of pesticide residue sampling to identify problems such as co-mingling, inadequate buffer zones and fraud and to improve overall organic integrity. We will be conducting market surveillance of organic labels.”

OTA Executive Director Christine Bushway pointed out that “this industry is continuing to grow even during the recession, not at the 22% rate, but still over 5%.” And while some purists complain about large corporate interests now moving in to capture organic premiums, Bushway told Agri-Pulse that “We have had large companies move into organic for obvious reasons. Those big-name companies have also helped to pull organic up to where it is today. And they were needed. We’re still only three and a half percent of the food production in this country, but the big companies have helped us to get there and we’re still growing. They are not the enemy.”

Responding to organic growers concerned about inadequate enforcement and still unfinished rule writing, Miles McEvoy, Deputy Administrator of USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), acknowledged that much more needs to be done to improve program integrity. But he predicted that the situation will improve if NOP funding and staff continue to increase from the $3.87 million with 16 staff in FY ’09 and $6.97 million with 28 staff now to the hoped-for $10.1 million with 40 staff for FY ’11.

Other speakers spoke out strongly in favor of increased USDA funding for organic research, maintaining that conventional agriculture continues to get a disproportionate share despite organic agriculture’s rapid growth. They noted in particular that too much is being spent on genetic engineering at the expense of the conventional breeding research which organic growers rely on.

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