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Authentic organic farmers are undercut in the marketplace by farms cycling conventional dairy cattle in and out of organic production. Rulemaking that would help cure this issue has been delayed.

The Cornucopia Institute is focused on community resilience; access to clean, nutrient-dense food; and supporting the farmers who produce organic food and contribute to the health of the planet.

But there’s no rulebook for the common good. Corporations consistently erode the boundaries of organic regulations, hurting authentic organic farmers who have suffered the consequences of a stagnant regulatory arena for over a decade.

Cornucopia will scrutinize the following issues as they develop under the new administration, pushing for more movement in organic policy in the coming years.

Organic Fraud

The Agricultural Marketing Service released the Strengthening Organic Enforcement (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 in 2020 and implemented the Automated Certificate for Trade to help trace the organic integrity of organic goods in the marketplace.

The extraordinarily low prices of questionable imported organic grain that undergird the cheapest organic livestock and poultry production have upended the domestic organic grain markets. More work is required to make SOE effective and enforceable.

Organic Dairy

On industrialized organic dairies, scofflaws have long flouted existing “origin of livestock” rules, continuously transitioning conventional animals into production despite the fact that the organic standards intended that all organic livestock would be organic from birth (after an allowable one-time transition to organic).

A stronger Origin of Livestock Rule has been tied up in a quagmire for over a decade. Congress has demanded the NOP finalize the rule—twice. Instead, in October 2020, the NOP announced vague plans to overhaul it.

As Cornucopia awaits the new proposed regulations, it has joined more than 100 organic organizations and 200 organic farmers in a letter imploring the NOP to finalize a long-overdue Origin of Livestock Rule. Meanwhile, we continue our investigative work to expose the most notorious industrial “organic” dairy (often found in private label brands), while giving consumers tools to purchase from brands dedicated to high-bar organic principles.

Cornucopia’s recent milk plant code Action Alert reached more than 12,000 good food advocates, while our dairy scorecard was viewed nearly 360,000 times last year.

Animal Welfare

Many also hope to see the re-emergence of the previously withdrawn Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) Rule. The rule had been approved by Vilsack in the final months of the Obama administration and was withdrawn at the start of the Trump administration by former USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue. The OLPP, which had nearly universal support, would have updated the livestock standards to require legitimate outdoor access for egg-laying hens and poultry and required other animal welfare-centered changes that would help align the organic regulations with consumer expectations.

With ongoing lawsuits challenging the withdrawal of the OLPP, USDA Secretary Vilsack told the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee on April 14, 2021 that he hopes to move the regulation forward quickly. Vilsack made reference to “questions” raised about the economic analysis of the final rule and reported he plans to start the process over with a new draft of the regulation.

Rulemaking is a slow process, and it generally takes at least two years from the drafting of a new rule to its inception. Cornucopia is frustrated by this delay, but plans to advocate for a stronger rule that would ensure even better benchmarks for animal welfare.

Soilless Production

On March 19, a California court delivered a gut punch to the USDA organic label, betraying the trust of consumers and demoralizing authentic organic farmers. The ruling announced by the Northern California federal district court deferred to the NOP’s choice to allow soilless produce operations to be certified organic.

The court’s recent decision defers to the USDA’s interpretation of the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), reasoning that soilless operations are allowable because OFPA does not specifically prohibit hydroponic and container-based operations. As a result, hydroponic and container-based operations can continue carrying the USDA organic seal—despite law that mandates soil-fertility requirements for organic crop producers.

When farmers encourage soil health and biodiversity, wide-ranging benefits to their communities and local environments follow.

Cornucopia does not believe that a hydroponic operation is capable of reproducing the nutrient value of food grown in healthful soil. Without soil, biology takes a backseat to efficiency. And you can taste the difference!

As hydroponic factory farming continues to expand and ignite further debate and action, Cornucopia will keep an ear to the ground. Read our Action Alert and learn how your intel from the grocery store and co-op aisles can inform our market research. With your help, we will continue identifying soilless brands carrying the USDA organic seal.

Native Ecosystems

In 2018, the National Organic Standards Board took up the issue of protecting native ecosystems.

It recommended adding regulatory language that would require farmers pursuing organic certification for a site that qualifies as a native ecosystem to wait 10 years from the time the land is first converted to agriculture. Cornucopia continues to urge the NOP to enact that recommendation.

In the absence of this language, native ecosystems can be immediately put into organic production because prohibited chemicals have never been applied to the land. This contrasts with farmers who work to improve their land by making the required three year transition from conventional land to organic production.

“This is a perverse incentive,” says Kestrel Burcham, JD, Cornucopia’s director of policy. “It does not make sense for organic to contribute to the loss of high-value ecosystems.”

Conservation of native ecosystems is critical, as habitat loss is the single most pervasive threat to wildlife and native plant life. Healthy ecosystems also sequester more carbon, over many more years, than agricultural land. The organic label is built on the spirit of “do no harm,” yet the allure of pristine land persists.

Organic Farm Aid

In light of continued market stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cornucopia is advocating for policy improvements to the Organic Certification Cost Share Program.

In August 2020, the USDA’s Farm Service Agency announced reduced reimbursement rates for the program, which helps organic farmers recoup some of their certification costs. This change hobbles community-scale farmers that rely on these programs.

In 2021 and beyond, Cornucopia will identify high-leverage issues where action and impact align, engaging good food advocates to strengthen their voices and their agency to protect organic.

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