OTA asks USDA for funding flexibility, remote inspections and increased enforcement during pandemic

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty
Source: Getty

Related tags Organic trade association coronavirus Organic Usda

The Organic Trade Association is calling on the US Department of Agriculture to help ease mounting pressure on the organic supply chain posed by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic by increasing flexibility for inspections and the disbursement of funds related to certification, marketing and food assistance.

In a letter ​the trade group sent to USDA Sec. Sonny Perdue earlier this month, the trade group also asked for increased fraud enforcement in the US and abroad as insufficient domestic production of some specialty crops during the pandemic could create an opportunity for imports improperly labeled as organic.

While acknowledging the extent of COVID-19’s impact on the conventional food industry, OTA argues in the letter that the pandemic has created “unique and pressing circumstances”​ for the organic food sector, which even before the outbreak “served as a lifeline for farmers and businesses, providing stability and resiliency in an agriculture economy that can be rife with uncertainties caused by fluctuating markets and other challenges.”

The trade group’s CEO Laura Batcha explains “although organic farmers and businesses are resilient, creative and cautiously optimistic during this unprecedented time, there are many unknowns about what the future will hold, and concern over the potential long-term impacts to the sector as a result.”

Specifically, she said, that as a distinct supply chain, organic is “experiencing unique challenges related to certification, inspections, global trade and shifting markets,”​ while also struggling to keep its workforce safe and deliver products to those who need it most.

Call to action: Allow remote inspections

Like many aspects of the food industry, organic producers are trying to ramp up production to meet increased demand, but unlike conventional farmers and handlers, those who are certified organic must undergo an on-site inspection to bring on new land, processing lines or facilities, OTA explains in the letter.

With stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions in place to help flatten the curve, on-site inspections are not possible, it adds.

Given that the inspections are critical for organic compliance, OTA asks USDA to temporarily allow accredited certifiers to use emergency remote inspections when visiting farms and facilities is not possible.

OTA also asks the agency to disburse funds from the Organic Certification Cost-Share program from fiscal year 2020 to help small farmers “who are especially vulnerable right now”​ pay their organic certification fees on time so as not to risk having their certification revoked.

Additional funding needed

OTA also asks that USDA provide additional financial assistance to organic producers to account for shifting market demand during the pandemic and a potential economic downturn.

“Organic businesses are working overtime to continue to keep food on the shelves and feed the American people. However, the constantly shifting retail marketing and unpredictable consumer purchasing behavior since the pandemic began have presented challenges for organic farmers and businesses of all sizes,”​ Batch says in the letter.

For example, she said, some retailers have reduced organic and specialty product availability to make more space for core products. Similarly, if Americans have less money available during an economic downturn they may not be able to afford premium priced organic goods, she said.

With this in mind, OTA asks USDA to “cover market losses outside of commodity price declines when calculating direct payments as part of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.”

The trade group also asks USDA to further soften the blow of an economic downturn on organic farmers negatively impacted by closures at farmers’ markets, restaurants and schools by including in the $3b Farmers to Families Boxes program surplus commodity purchases from producers who serve local and regional markets.

Finally, the trade group asks for flexibility around disbursement of 2020 funding from the Market Access Program that would have been used to foster exports of organic products but which often are tied to events that require travel to trade shows, trade missions and foreign buyers’ missions that are no longer an option because of the pandemic.

“We urge USDA to allow flexibility for 2020 funding to be used for other export market develop opportunities that do not require travel,”​ Batcha writes in the letter.

Increased enforcement

In addition to financial aid and funding flexibility, OTA asks USDA not to let oversight of trade and worker safety slide as the pandemic continues.

“Although there have been calls by numerous stakeholders to halt all rulemakings and new regulations during the COVID-19 pandemic, the organic industry depends on important updates to the organic regulations. We ask that you continue to prioritize the Strengthening Organic Enforcement rulemaking and ensure a timely release of the proposed rule as soon as possible,”​ Batcha writes.

The rulemaking ​incorporates provisions of the 2018 Farm Bill that would “protect organic integrity, deter fraud and bolster trust in the USDA organic label,”​ according to OTA.

Batcha explains in the letter that the rulemaking is particularly important during the pandemic because the risk of an international trade slowdown threatens already limited supplies of many organic specialty crops and ingredients that are not available domestically.

Other ingredients and crops typically readily available domestically also are threatened for lack of agriculture workforce members due to COVID-19, OTA also notes.

“We ask that you continue to work with other federal agencies such as FEMA to ensure an adequate supply of personal protective equipment flows to the food and agriculture sectors,”​ Batcha write.

While the trade group’s wish list is long, Batcha writes that OTA is grateful for USDA’s leadership during the crisis so far, and expresses its anticipation for working with the agency to “preserve a healthy, diverse agricultural economy, and ensure that the organic sector will continue to provide opportunities for producers and consumers.”

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