Why Congress should make organic agriculture a national priority

© Getty Images

© Getty Images


Organic crop and farm bill discussions wait for no man. Even as U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue gets settled into his new role, Congress is talking about agriculture policy and listening to stakeholders. A key emerging theme is that many food producers and rural communities are struggling. At a transitional moment such as this, it’s important to remember that organic agriculture leads to more profitable farms and job creation.

A recent study from Pennsylvania State University shows that when there is a density of organic operations, annual median household income increases by more than $2,000 and county-level unemployment goes down. Additionally, researchers at Washington State University examined 40 years of studies to analyze the comparative financial performance of organic and conventional agriculture and found that organic crop production is 22 percent to 35 percent more profitable than its conventional crop counterpart.

Yet, even with this positive net impact, organic acreage hovers at 1 percent of overall U.S. production, while consumer demand for organic food tops 5 percent, with a growth rate of 13 percent in 2016. This disparity between organic acreage and organic demand creates an unfortunate situation where U.S. food companies are importing crops like organic soy that could be grown domestically. The importation of organic crops is a lost opportunity for American producers, particularly beginning farmers and ranchers who are statistically more likely to be interested in organic markets, and who we need to step in for an aging farming population.

So the question among farm and agriculture policy makers should be: what will help increase the transition of acreage and farmers to organic production systems? The U.S. farm bill can play a huge role in offering farmers the choice to serve the expanding organic market and diversify their incomes. At a minimum, Congress should increase the budget for organics at a rate that matches market demand.

There are several key areas that need incremental support. First is theNational Organic Program, which ensures integrity in the USDA’s organic label for producers, manufacturers, retailers, consumers and international trade partners. Two more are the Organic Research and Extension Initiative and the Organic Transitions Program, which provide research grants that improve the understanding, efficiency, and competitiveness of organic producers.

Additional areas are the Organic Certification Cost Share Program, which can mitigate some of the cost of certification, especially for small and midsized farms, and Organic Environmental Quality Incentives Program funding through natural resources conservation services that provides producers with assistance to implement conservation plans and practices.

Policymakers should also support three other initiatives that offer farmers and rural communities a great return on investment. First are Value Added Producer Grants to help build develop rural economies. Many small organic farmers have limited access to the markets that are clearly clamoring for their products. Lack of proximity to certified organic elevators, processors, slaughter operations, and value-added manufacturing is a challenge for many farmers interested in entering the organic marketplace.

For instance, in Illinois, there are just 23 facilities capable of processing organic products, as compared to more than 900 conventional facilities. In Western states, the cost of transportation to the nearest certified facility can be so high that it squeezes already-thin margins and eliminates profitability. The Value Added Producer Grant Program can assist in building this infrastructure, and keep assets and equity in the hands of farmers and farm cooperatives.

While the Value Added Producer Grant program was funded in 2002 at $40 million, that figure has been cut over the years to $15 million annually today. And yet, this is a program that builds local and regional processing capacity and most importantly, generates economic gains for rural communities beyond a single season. Congress should set mandatory funding at $50 million, setting aside 20 percent specifically for projects that include the construction of certified organic animal processing facilities and grain, oilseed, and pulse elevators and mills. This will have a positive impact on rural communities in every region in the United States.

A second vital need is to support classical plant breeding. Public cultivar development is essential for those producers underserved by the private seed sector, which is increasingly concentrated and focused on a few major crops and regions of production. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, American Sustainable Business Council, and companies like Clif Bar are asking Congress to authorize $50 million per year in National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) research funding to support public cultivar development research. This investment is essential for the long-term success of both conventional and organic producers, providing greater genetic seed diversity, the first line of defense for many challenges farmers face.

Finally, it is essential that Secretary Perdue ensures that USDA staff continue to learn about organic agriculture. The Agriculture Department currently has an excellent organic literacy program that educates USDA staff about all forms of production, so that they can effectively assist the diversity of farmers who make American agriculture successful. We’ve been encouraged by Secretary Perdue’s early comments about organics, and we strongly encourage him to continue the literacy program and help further empower USDA staff to serve organic agriculture as a bright spot on the rural landscape.

SOURCE: The Hill