With climate change mitigation and lower carbon emissions a top priority for the Biden administration, the organic agriculture sector wants to make sure it is not left behind.
Advocates for the industry, which has seen sales soar to nearly $62 billion in 2022, are currently discussing their plans and priorities for the next farm bill, in a bid to bolster the organic brand and stand up. ensure that its practitioners receive a fair share of USDA programs in comparison. to their conventional counterparts.
Although groups representing growers and businesses in the organic space are still discussing how to proceed, some priority elements are emerging. The Organic Trade Association is expected to clarify its goals later this spring, but label integrity, increased research into organic products and a higher reimbursement rate for certification costs – which now cover 75%, i.e. up to $750 – should be at the forefront.
“While the USDA Organic label remains the global benchmark for transparent standards in agriculture, the industry is losing momentum to competing private brands in the marketplace,” said Megan DeBates, OTA vice president for governmental affairs, in a forthcoming edition of the Group’s Organic Report.
One of the concerns is that with the current focus on so-called “regenerative agriculture”, which focuses on improving soil health but does not ban synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, farmers organics that have been using many of the same conservation practices for years without the synthetics may be forgotten in the conversation about climate change.
“I think there’s a huge opportunity right now, in the organic sphere, because this administration and this USDA are so focused on climate change,” said Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, an organic farmer. , in an interview with Agri Pulse. “Frankly, most organic practices, which are really focused on soil health and organic matter in the soil, fit right in with the administration’s focus on carbon sequestration.”
“We have a lot of rigor behind the organic label,” says Patty Lovera, policy director for the Organic Farmers Association. “People do a lot of record keeping and go through a lot of things to be organic because it’s a high integrity label.
Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association, points to a meta-analysis published last year which showed that adopting best management practices can increase soil organic carbon by an average of 18% and increase microbial biomass carbon by an average of 30%. %.
She also said she expects to see applications for demonstration projects under the recently announced partnerships for climate-smart products to focus on organic agriculture.
The USDA plans to spend $1 billion under the program to measure carbon sequestration and other beneficial impacts of practices such as cover crops, conservation tillage and the use of soil amendments. soil such as biochar.
Pingree says that while the current administration isn’t as organic-friendly as it would like, it’s “beginning to support practices that are more closely aligned” with organic standards. “We have to keep moving them to also recognize that regeneration is not always enough”, even if it is often “a big step forward compared to conventional agriculture”.
Yet, she says, “organic farmers have a huge fear of being marginalized again in one way or another, and everyone will just say, well, those are the extremists. We don’t need to do that.
“I would like to see the USDA look more intentionally at the model they’ve invested two decades in, to see how it works,” Batcha said. Conservation practices “are documented by farmers in their organic systems plans,” she said. “They are inspected against their certifiers.”
Organic integrity and law enforcement are also key concerns for the sector. But industry priorities for the farm bill could be partially influenced by the content of regulations that have yet to be released – a final livestock origin rule dealing with the biological transition of cows. dairy products, a proposed rule on organic standards for livestock and poultry dealing with animal welfare, and a final organic rule of application to reinforce the monitoring of imports. The first two have been under consideration in the Office of Management and Budget since December.
“One thing we’re going to have to do in the next farm bill is fill in anything that they’re not doing right or not done” in those regulations, Batcha said.
The industry has been hit with bad publicity in recent weeks, including an article in The New Yorker about the organic grain fraud and a New York Times article that concluded that “much of the ‘organic cotton’ coming on store shelves may not actually be organic at all.”
The organic industry pushed back against some of the conclusions of the Times article, which looked at the growth of India’s organic cotton industry and claimed there was not enough organic seed to produce the amount of cotton products organic on the market.
“Organic standards require the use of organic seeds only when it is commercially available, says OTA. “Non-Organic Seeds may be used if the quality, quantity or form of an equivalent seed variety is not available. Therefore, non-organic cotton seeds can be used provided they are verified as non-GMO, not treated with banned substances and approved by the certifier.
Batcha says she expects the enforcement rule to strengthen oversight by reducing the number of uncertified managers and brokers. “But we still have a system in which the private, not-for-profit entities that review and approve inputs for use on the farm, in terms of organic compliance, operate outside of the accreditation and oversight system of the USDA.”
The agency’s National Organic Program, she notes, says its authority does not extend to textiles.
“USDA’s view of their scope of authority really begins and ends with food and agricultural food products,” Batcha said.
Regarding the concerns that have been raised from India, “part of the challenge with this is that NOP doesn’t see and respond to the market,” Batcha said. “For fibers and textiles, their point of view is that they don’t have the power. So if this requires clarification from Congress, we will advocate for it.
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