As corporations have swiftly eroded the boundaries of organic regulations, authentic organic farmers have suffered the consequences of a stagnant regulatory arena for over a decade.
The Trump administration’s hostility to new regulation did not help. Congressional orders failed to move the Origin of Livestock (OOL) and Strengthening Organic Enforcement (SOE) rules forward in 2020, despite massive destruction to the organic dairy and grain marketplace. Meanwhile, attempts to improve regulatory language stalled: The Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) Rule was withdrawn despite almost universal support.
The Cornucopia Institute will scrutinize the following issues as they develop under the new administration, with the intention of sparking more movement in organic policy in the coming years.
- Strengthening Organic Enforcement The Agricultural Marketing Service offered the SOE draft rule last year in response to ongoing fraud in the organic sector. The premiums paid for certified organic goods are attractive to bad actors. Investigating fraud is complicated by the involvement of organized crime, international trade agreements, intergovernmental relations, and a lack of interdepartmental cooperation within the US government. The National Organic Program (NOP) began coordinating with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in 2020 and implemented the Automated Certificate for Trade to help trace the organic integrity of organic goods in the marketplace. Domestic organic grain markets have been upended by the extraordinarily low prices of questionable imported organic grain that undergird the cheapest organic livestock and poultry production in the US. More work is required to make SOE effective and enforceable.
- Origin of Livestock The OOL rulemaking continues to be a point of contention in the organic industry. While last year, in an unprecedented move, the NOP re-opened the 2015 rulemaking for comments to “update the industry,” the NOP had previously suggested the final rule would be available in the summer of 2020. The wait continues. As reported at the fall 2020 National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting, the OOL is being entirely re-worked. If Congress keeps their attention on this crucial policy improvement, a new OOL rule could materialize in 2021.
- Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices Similarly, many hope to see the re-emergence of the previously withdrawn OLPP. The OLPP would have updated the livestock standards to require legitimate outdoor access for egg-laying hens and poultry, among other animal welfare-centered changes that would have brought the organic regulations more in line with consumer expectations. With ongoing lawsuits challenging the withdrawal of the OLPP, it’s possible we may see some movement in this rulemaking in the next few years.
- Hydroponics Cornucopia maintains that soilless hydroponic systems are incompatible with organic production. A Center For Food Safety lawsuit challenged the USDA’s decision to allow hydroponic operations to be certified. The lawsuit claims that hydroponic operations violate organic standards for failing to build heathy soils, ultimately asking the courts to stop hydroponically produced crops from being sold under the USDA organic label. For many policymakers, however, arguing that hydroponics does not belong under the organic label feels futile. Cornucopia’s stance: In the absence of any meaningful traction in this struggle to overturn the USDA’s position, rules and guidelines must be established. The absence of regulatory controls on hydroponic produce has grave consequences for environmental health, while contributing to an uneven playing field for authentic organic farmers.
- Native Ecosystems Cornucopia continues to urge the NOP to enact the NOSB’s 2018 recommendation to remove the incentive to convert native ecosystems to organic production. “This is a perverse incentive,” says Marie Burcham, JD, Cornucopia’s director of policy. “It does not make sense for organic to contribute to the loss of high-value ecosystems.”
- Organic Certification Cost Share Program In light of continued market stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cornucopia hopes to see policy improvements in the Organic Certification Cost Share Program in 2021. The USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) announced in August 2020 that they were reducing reimbursement rates for the program, which helps organic farmers recoup some of their certification costs. This change puts more pressure on community-scale farmers that rely on these programs.
Cornucopia continues to monitor these policy issues and encourages all stakeholders to remain engaged with their representatives and the USDA.
How can you help? If you have senators on the Agriculture Committee, ask them to put pressure on incoming Agricultural Secretary Vilsack to move the OOL and other important organic issues forward. Even if your representatives are not on a relevant committee, it’s still important to contact them and ask them to encourage the USDA to make necessary policy changes that improve and protect the organic label. (You can find contact information for your Senators here and House Representative here.)