OTA asks legislators for increased oversight of organic, funding for ag research & NOSB protection

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Members of the Organic Trade Association went on the defensive last week when they met with Congressional leaders and their staff on Capitol Hill to lay out their legislative priorities for the coming year, and to ask for help protecting the integrity of the National Organic Program.

During the meetings, the group laid out three major requests, including increased oversight of their supply chain, increased funding for organic agriculture research and stepped-up protection for the National Organic Standards Board.

These requests follow the unwelcome discovery last year that some corn and soy imported into the US was fraudulently labeled as organic, as well as several major regulatory setbacks since the Trump Administration took office. These include the US Department of Agriculture’s unexpected decision two weeks ago to terminate OTA’s effort to establish an organic check-off campaign to raise funds in part for organic agricultural research, and the earlier withdrawal of updated organic animal welfare standards that were finalized in the 11th​ hour of the Obama Administration.

Finally, the call for help comes after a now-removed provision was proposed in the draft Farm Bill giving USDA power over materials used in organic farming – a move that OTA says struck at the core of what organic represents.

OTA’s executive director and CEO Laura Batcha said these “unique circumstances” inspired a record-setting 151 members to participate in the trade group’s annual hill day on March 23 – allowing the group to visit the offices of 160 legislators.

Stepping up efforts to root out fraud

To ensure the integrity of organic, as well as a level playing field for US farmers, OTA members specifically asked legislators to support the Organic Farmer and Consumer Protection Act (HR 3871), which Batcha explained would authorize an additional $5 million for NOP to update technology systems to track international trade and data collection.

It also would close current certification loopholes by requiring all entities involved in the global organic supply chain to be certified – including ports, importers, brokers and online auctions.

In addition, the legislation would direct collaboration across agencies, layout better oversight of foreign offices and require USDA to report on compliance to Congress annually – all of which Batcha said would help enforce organic standards, detect fraud and “knock it out quickly when it happens.”

Increase funding for agricultural research

OTA members also encouraged legislators to support the Organic Agriculture Research Act (HR 2436, S 2404), which would increase funding for USDA’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative from $20 million to $50 million annually by 2023.

The increase would help research keep pace with the growth of organic sales, which reached $49.9 billion in 2017, according to Batcha. She explained that much of this money would go to a competitive grant program that focuses on complex farming systems, long term trials as well as pest control, weed control and seed variety development.

Defend NOSB

Finally, OTA members asked legislators to support the Organic Foods Production Act that governs the public-private partnership that is the foundation of the USDA organic program.

A key aspect of this partnership is the National Organic Standards Board, which is a formal process that allows stakeholders to come together publically and participate in standard setting.

The request “was really sort of a defensive ask,”​ Batcha said, explaining that a provision added to the House version of the Farm Bill proposed giving the Secretary of Agriculture authority to add crop protection materials, such as herbacides, fungacides, insectacides and pesticides, to the list of allowable non-organic materials that can be used in organic production.

While the provision restricted this authority to emergency-use only, there was no language to keep the secretary from reinstating the use of a crop protection material year after year, Batcha said.

She lauded Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis for catching and removing the provision from the bill during markup.

“We presented Congressman Rodney Davis with our Organic Champion Award for the year because it was that big of a deal for the industry to have that taken care of,”​ she said.

In addition to these three main asks, OTA also talked with legislators and their staff about ongoing risk management efforts, a continued need to improve crop insurance for organic farming and a need to maintain funding for the National Organic Certification Cost Share program, which helps defray the cost to farmers of transitioning to organic techniques.

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