Uncharted Waters: Will the Trump/Perdue USDA Defend or Kill Organics?

January 19th, 2017

by Mark Kastel
Codirector at The Cornucopia Institute

You might have heard President-elect Trump has just announced former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue as his pick to head up what President Lincoln called “the People’s Department” — the United States Department of Agriculture.

Sonny Perdue
Source: Bruce Tuten

Perdue (no relation to the giant Perdue poultry company) holds a doctorate in veterinary medicine, grew up on a farm, and ran a small fertilizer business before running for elected office.  When he left the governor’s office in 2011, Perdue’s agricultural involvement shifted to ownership in crop export companies, farm transportation, and grain/feed processing.

Before his election as Georgia’s Governor, Perdue was elected to other state offices.  All told, he accepted $328,000 in campaign donations from agribusiness interests for seven election campaigns, according to published reports.

Like outgoing Secretary Vilsack, who was named biotechnology Governor of the year, when he was the chief executive in Iowa, Mr. Purdue received the same recognition from the biotechnology industry, in 2009, when he was Georgia’s governor.

Perdue’s perspective on organic food and agriculture is a mystery; he has never publicly spoken about it.

During his campaign, President-elect Trump expressed his disdain for federal regulations and vowed to relieve regulatory burden on businesses.  So how will this apply to the National Organic Program (NOP) at the USDA? The most conservative faction in Congress, the Freedom Caucus, has suggested eliminating the NOP.

The NOP was established by an act of Congress, the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.  The organic community — farmers and consumers — actually asked Congress for strict regulation.  We wanted the organic label to mean something!

Ever since, large agribusiness, agrochemical and biotechnology interests like Monsanto, have been doing their best to discredit organics and have appealed to politicians to pull the plug.

In the meantime, organics has grown into a more than $40 billion a year industry.  Many organic brands have been purchased by major corporate food interests, represented by their own lobby group, the Organic Trade Association (OTA).  Corporate interests have done their best to expand and weaken the working definition of organic so it fits their industrialized food growing and processing practices.

Which powerful lobbying faction in Washington will win out?  Or will the swamp truly be drained at the NOP and, once again, will the “people’s” interests be respected and protected?

During its final days, the Obama administration published two exceedingly controversial rulemaking initiatives as gifts to the OTA and business lobby.  First, over the objection of certified organic farmers, they have paved the path for a proposal from corporate lobbyists to tax farmers and other participants in the organic industry to pay for promotion and research (commonly called the organic check-off).

Then, yesterday, after a years-long delay the USDA published a final rule purportedly improving organic animal welfare.  But unlike Europe, where organic chickens are required to have access to 43 ft² outdoors, the USDA’s anemic rule only requires 2 ft² outdoors and as little as 1 ft² indoors.  Even that is too much for the largest corporate factory livestock operators.  Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts told the Associated Press that he will work with President Trump to reverse the rule.

It was also announced in the waning days of the Obama administration that USDA Secretary Thomas Vilsack resigned to take a lucrative job leading the U.S. Dairy Export Council, a position that paid $800,000 last year.  Ethics questions are surfacing as Mr. Vilsack, characteristically, passes through the “revolving door” after his agency approved five or six million dollars last year for the Export Council.

It’s the changing of an era in the White House and at the USDA, and Cornucopia will continue to carefully monitor and report on the agency’s activities on behalf of all organic industry stakeholders.  We will engage with the new Trump/Perdue administration in an attempt to:

  1. Spark vigorous enforcement cracking down on confinement of organic dairy cows, beef cattle, laying hens, and other livestock in industrial settings. Lack of enforcement has disadvantaged ethical family farmers and betrayed consumer trust — an endemic problem during both the Bush and Obama administrations.
  1. Seek a vigorous investigation, and ongoing oversight, of vast amounts of organic animal feed and food ingredients being shipped to the U.S. from China and other non-reputable sources.
  1. Reverse the arbitrary and capricious power grab (now the subject of federal lawsuits) that have undermined the authority of the National Organic Standards Board, the panel Congress set up to buffer organic regulations from corruption by corporate lobbyists.
  1. Encourage the USDA to keep its Obama/Vilsack’s promise to ban conventional replacement animals that are facilitating the expansion of giant factory dairies.
  1. Seek enforcement action banning the illegal labeling of soilless (hydroponic) produce as organic.

Cornucopia is adamantly nonpartisan, supported by a diverse membership. We all unite in the conviction that shifting to ecological agricultural practices, and eating the very best food, pays dividends for our families, especially our children, and society as a whole.

However this new administration shakes out, please be assured that The Cornucopia Institute will be there to protect and defend the integrity of the organic label — to protect ethical, family-scale farms from unfair competition and to protect organic eaters so that they can have confidence in the safety and authenticity of their food.

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