Cornucopia Institute Files FOIA Probing USDA Rejection of Adopted Pasture Guidance

Contact: Mark Kastel, 608-625-2000

WASHINGTON, D.C.: Organic dairy farmers from around the nation once again converged on Washington for the semiannual meeting of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board. The dairy producers attended the August 15-17 meeting to protest the growing number of factory farms that are keeping their cows in confinement conditions while producing organic milk. These family farmers are again expressing frustration over the lack of action by the USDA to enforce the requirement of pasture for organic cattle.

California organic dairyman Tony Azevedo was one of the farmers attending the NOSB meeting, and he was indignant when the USDA’s National Organic Program staff rejected regulatory language drafted by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), an expert panel that advises the USDA on organic issues. The proposed rule changes would have reined in the large industrial farms.

“This is a disrespectful process,” Azevedo said after the meeting which took place at the posh Mandarin Oriental Hotel in central Washington. “The USDA has been looking the other way since 2000 as corporate investors launch more and more of these “organic” CAFOs [confined animal feeding operations]. This is my third trip to Washington. Are they going to stall long enough to allow these corporate giants to squeeze family farmers like me out of the organic business–just like what’s been happening in conventional agriculture?” Azevedo asked. “These Washington bureaucrats are burning me out; I don’t know if I’ll be back.”

After years of inaction by the USDA, The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group, filed formal complaints against three of the giant farms in question early this year. That set off the latest round of negotiations with the USDA to clean up loopholes in the regulations that have been exploited by the large corporate players.

“Thousands of petitions, letters, and formal comments to the USDA, from farmers and consumers alike, along with surveys on the subject, clearly indicate that the status quo is repugnant and totally unacceptable in the eyes of the organic community,” said Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst for the Wisconsin-based Institute.

“Farmers suspect that something is going on out of public view that may account for the USDA’s foot dragging on regulating and enforcing the pasture issue,” said Kastel. “The NOSB–the USDA’s expert advisory body–has now adopted a guidance document that requires that dairy cows be pastured and receive a significant portion of their feed from grazing. Yet despite this action we continue to receive more reports that large new confinement factory dairies, penning thousands of organic cows into small drylots, are being developed–while the USDA stalls on closing loopholes. It makes us wonder what these corporate developers know that we don’t,” Kastel added.

As a result, The Cornucopia Institute has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the USDA. The request seeks a record of and copy of all communications since January 1, 2005, between the agency and corporations, lobbyists, groups, and individuals concerning the pasture controversy.

“We want to know if the powerful corporations that are representing the factory-farm milk as organic are improperly influencing USDA policy behind closed doors,” said Kastel. Our farmer-members need a full explanation as to why this agency continues to put their futures at risk while ignoring the overwhelming sentiment of the organic community that wants America’s strong organic standards enforced.”

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EDITORS NOTE: During April and May 2005, The Cornucopia Institute surveyed certified organic dairy farm operators across the country about the proposed pasture requirement for dairy cows. An overwhelming 93% of the survey’s respondents endorsed taking strong action at the National Organics Standards Board on August 16. In addition, thousands of petition signatures and letters were received by the USDA from consumers throughout the country supporting strict pasture enforcement, the same position advocated by family dairy farmers. If you are interested in a copy of the survey results, please contact us at [email protected].

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