Noting that the 101 new members of the House and 10 new Senators likely are familiar with organic products in stores and on their plates, “they might not have a full understanding of the important public/private partnership that has supported organic and enabled the organic sector to flourish,” said Laura Batcha, executive director and CEO of the Organic Trade Association, which organized the fly-in through its Farmers Advisory Council.
She explained to FoodNavigator-USA that “they need to understand the role that [the US Department of Agriculture’s] National Organic Program plays in maintain and enforcing the strict federal standards that guide the organic sector, and in Congress’ role in its oversight of the NOP.”
In particular, she said, “it is critical that Congress plays an active role in ensuring that the USDA implement the provisions of the new Farm Bill in an expeditious way.”
OTA’s top priorities in the Farm Bill include additional tools and funding to improve oversight of trade to ensure the integrity of organic worldwide, an increase in funding for the Organic Research and Extension Initiative, funding to help farmers’ transition to organic and full funding for the Organic Data Initiative.
Fast funding needed to fight fraud
While the industry lobbied hard for these victories in the Farm Bill, the fight is not over, suggested Megan DeBates, OTA’s director of legislative affairs.
“The biggest challenges for 2019 are ensuring the Farm Bill wins for organic get implemented in a timely fashion,” she said, explaining, “The 2018 Farm Bill requires that USDA NOP publish a final rule by the end of this year to limit operations currently excluded from certification, such as ports, brokers, and importers.”
She noted “this was one of the most important policy provisions we fought for in the Farm Bill to help prevent fraud and increase oversight and enforcement of the global organic supply chain.”
The need for increased enforcement of organic imports rose to the public’s attention in 2017 when a Washington Post reporter uncovered some imports from Eastern Europe in 2017 were falsely labeled as organic.
In response, NOP outlined a three-prong action plan to root out and remove fraud, which includes strong organic control systems, farm to market traceability and robust enforcement.
NOP will build on this with a proposed rule, slated for publication this spring, that will focus on strengthening organic enforcement, including around excluded operations, import certificates and other areas in the Farm Bill, DeBates said.
“This will be the largest rulemaking NOP has undertaken on organic since the original organic regulations were published in 2002, and it’s important that they get it right,” she added.
A related challenge the organic industry will ask Congress to address “is ensuring NOP has adequate funding to carry out and implement all the Farm Bill provisions related to enforcement and oversight,” DeBates said. She further explained: “Their budget is funded by annual appropriations determined by Congress. We need Congress to fund NOP at the levels authorized in the Farm Bill and make sure that the appropriations legislation is passed on time.”
OTA advocates for ‘stalled’ rulemakings to move forward
Another major challenge that the organic industry will grapple with in 2019 and will raise with legislators in meetings next week is USDA’s failure to act on “stalled” rulemakings, such as one related to the origin of organic livestock.
“We need this administration to support organic by allowing these voluntary regulations and standards to move forward. It’s USDA’s job to ensure that the regulations are uniform and consistent,” DeBates said. She added, “In an anti-regulatory environment that has been challenging, voluntary regulations such as organic shouldn’t be treated the same as mandatory regulatory action. The industry depends on the regulations evolving with consumer expectations.”
As such, she argued, “Congress serves an important oversight role of USDA so we will need them to make sure the Farm Bill wins are implemented as well as making sure USDA is allowing the organic standards to move forward.”
The benefits of organic
While the visiting farmers will have a lot to ask Congress, they also will highlight the many benefits of organic, “including organic agriculture’s prove ability to mitigate climate change, its economic benefits for rural communities, and its role in providing a profitable and healthy alternative way of farming for producers and a healthy and environmentally-friendly choice for consumers,” said Batcha.
To further delve into these benefits, as well as potential hurdles to realizing their full potential, Batcha said she will moderate a round table discussion for legislators and farmers that will look at how “to close the gap between consumer demand for organic and domestic acreage, farmer succession and labor issues, and challenges in transitioning to organic farming.”