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Will Congress Use the Farm Bill to Undermine Organics?

It remains to be seen if Congress will get its act together to pass a Farm Bill before year’s end. But here’s what we do know. If Congress succeeds in passing a 2018 Farm Bill, it will almost certainly be bad news for the organic industry.

We already know that the House version, H.R.2, includes potentially devastating attacks on organic and regenerative food and farming. Fortunately, the U.S. House of Representatives voted down H.R. 2 last week. But we’re not out of the danger zone yet—the House is scheduled to vote on its bill again on June 22.

The Senate is about to drop its Farm Bill as early as June 6, according to Politico. We haven't seen that bill yet. But we do know that the leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee—Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.)—aren’t great friends of organic. We also know that the Senate Farm Bill will be bipartisan—which means it’s sure to pass.

The Organic Trade Association, which should be committed to protecting organic standards from any sneak attacks in the Farm Bill, has indicated that it will stand with consumers. But we're skeptical, given the group’s track record. 

In the meantime, we’re urging supporters of organic to ask their Senators to protect organic and regenerative food and farming.

House Farm Bill contains direct attacks on organic

H.R. 2, the House Farm Bill, would severely erode the power of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). The NOSB is an independent standards-setting body which, under the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, has the authority to determine which non-organic substances are allowed in organic.

If the House Farm Bill were to become law, the NOSB’s authority would be undermined in two significant ways:

1. The NOSB would be required to “convene a task force to consult with” the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) when considering whether to allow a pesticide or any other non-organic substance approved by those agencies in organic. This is clearly an attempt to put pressure on the NOSB to allow pesticides and other non-organic substances in organic.

2. The Agriculture Secretary would be given the power to force the NOSB to “expedite” its review of a petition from industry to allow a non-organic post-harvest handling substance in organic, when that substance is “related to food safety.” (Sounds like somebody’s got a new disinfectant they want to use in organic. Currently, chlorine is allowed for washing organic foods like baby carrots, eggs and chicken. This is controversial and has led to consumer preference for "air chilled".)

Senate leaders hint at using Farm Bill to ‘reform’ organic

We’d like to think that the Senate would take a different path than the House, and refrain from making any changes to organic standards in the Farm Bill. But as you may recall from our battles over organic animal welfare rules and GMO labels, the Repubican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee—Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.)—aren’t great friends of organic.

Roberts has been particularly hostile to organic. He’s even threatened to use the Farm Bill for “reforming” the NOSB. At a hearing titled “Opportunities in Global and Local Markets, Specialty Crops, and Organics: Perspectives for the 2018 Farm Bill,” Roberts said:

“[I]t seems that uncertainty and dysfunction have overtaken the National Organic Standards Board and the regulations associated with the National Organic Program.

These problems create an unreliable regulatory environment and prevent farmers that choose organics from utilizing advancements in technology and operating their businesses in an efficient and effective manner. Simply put, this hurts producers and economies in rural America.”

Theo Crisantes of Wholesum Harvest, a vegetable producer who uses hydroponic growing methods, was a witness at the same hearing. He represented the Coalition for Sustainable Organics, which last year led a successful campaign to convince the NOSB, after a hotly contested debate and by a narrow vote, to allow soilless systems to be certified USDA Organic. (The hearing took place before the NOSB decision, so Crisantes spoke as if the NOSB would block hydroponics—it didn’t). Crisantes used his time at the hearing to echo Robert’s talk of “uncertainty:”

“[O]ver the last few years, the NOSB has drafted and considered proposals to eliminate containerized and hydroponic growing methods from organic certification. … While this issue may be the one in the hot seat currently, other issues and topics may be coming down the pipe. I am concerned that—without some change to the status quo—the organic industry will continue to face unnecessary regulatory uncertainties that will prevent it from meeting rising consumer demand.”

Then Crisantes made the case for “reforming” the NOSB:

“Of those 15 seats on the NOSB, four of them are filled by small operators who grow on a combined acreage of less than 120 acres. Likewise, the only seat allocated to retailers is currently occupied by a 17-store chain. Stated another way, NOSB’s current composition fails to reflect the breadth and diversity of the industry.”

After the hearing, an editorial appeared in The Packer, a pro-agribusiness, pro-GMO, pro-pesticide publication. Titled “Organic Board Should Grow Up,” the editorial complained that the NOSB included “too many niche players.” It also ridiculed “MOM’s Organic Market a 16-store natural food retail chain in four eastern states” and “Clif Bar Co., which ran a sleazy anti-GMO, anti-conventional agriculture campaign.”

Wow! Since when does opposition to GMOs and conventional agriculture disqualify someone from serving on the NOSB? Shouldn’t those positions be required of board members?

Don’t count on the Organic Trade Association to defend organics

Fear over what Roberts and Stabenow might do to organic in the Senate Farm Bill is so intense that even the Organic Trade Association (OTA)—the group that helped Roberts and Stabenow pass a GMO “labeling” bill that definitely won’t label GMOs—is concerned.

In March, the OTA, whose members include the biggest multinational food companies that sell organic but also GMO food, sent a letter to Roberts and Stabenow, signed by 138 companies that sell organic food. The signers included most of the biggest food companies, either by name or under the names of their organic brands. For example, Mars, Nestlé and DanoneWave signed the letter, while General Mills was represented by its natural and organic subsidiaries, Annie’s, Cascadian Farm and Muir Glen, and Hormel was represented by its natural and organic subsidiary, Applegate. These companies sell some organic food. But the bulk of their profits come from sales of GMO, pesticide-drenched and factory farm food.

Still, these companies were troubled enough by what Roberts and Stabenow might do to organic to write:

We support the underlying law that governs the authorities and composition of the board and believe that it plays an essential role in the public’s trust in organic agriculture. Making significant changes to NOSB [the National Organic Standards Board] in the Farm Bill could harm the integrity of the organic program, undermine consumer trust in the organic label, and severely damage the reputation of the industry as a whole.

The Farm Bill should not contain controversial provisions that impact the organic sector that do not have broad support among those within the organic industry. As you are leaders in our nation’s agriculture policy, we respectfully request that you consider this perspective as you review policies in the Farm Bill related to NOSB.

That’s a first. Is the OTA truly committed to protecting organics from attempts to undermine organic standards in the next Farm Bill? After all, historically, the OTA hasn’t opposed sneak attacks on organic. In fact, the trade group has orchestrated some of those attacks. And when the public found out, it was front-page news.

From the Washington Post (2009):

The Organic Trade Association, which represents corporations such as Kraft, Dole and Dean Foods, lobbied for and received language in a 2006 appropriations bill allowing certain synthetic food substances in the preparation, processing and packaging of organic foods, creating conditions for a flood of processed organic foods.

And from the New York Times (2005):

But last week, Senate and House Republicans on the Agriculture appropriations subcommittee inserted a last-minute provision into the department's fiscal 2006 budget specifying that certain artificial ingredients could be used in organic food.

The Organic Trade Association, an industry lobbying group that proposed the amendment and spent several months pushing for its adoption, says that the measure will encourage the continued growth of organic food.

Some advocacy groups, however, say the amendment will weaken federal organic food standards, first established under a 1990 law. Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, calls the initiative a "sneak attack engineered by the likes of Kraft, Dean Foods and Smucker's."

One of the lobbyists for Altria, Kraft's majority owner, Abigail Blunt—the wife of Representative Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, who recently became interim House majority leader after Tom DeLay of Texas resigned from the post—has been working on the issue, the company says.

Dean Foods' subsidiary Horizon Organic and the J. M. Smucker Company, the owner of Knudsen and Santa Cruz Organic juices, said they supported the work by the Organic Trade Association, which represents both large and small companies in the business, but did no lobbying on their own.

Can we trust the companies that launched the sneak attack on organic more than a decade ago, earning it the nickname "Organic Traitors Association," to protect our interests now? We think not.

The OTA and the companies it represents have worked to seriously erode organic standards at NOSB. There isn’t a non-organic substance that the group hasn’t championed for inclusion on the National List of Allowed Substances. OTA was also behind the Obama Administration’s “sunset rule” changes that made it harder for the NOSB to remove non-organic substances from the National List.

Most significantly, while the OTA claims to be working to prevent the Senate from making changes to the NOSB, it has praised the House Farm Bill, and downplayed the impact any changes contained in the bill would have on organics. OTA’s press release on the House Farm Bill stated:

We applaud the amendment offered and passed by Congressman Rodney Davis that reverses provisions in the underlying draft bill that were not supported by the organic industry and keeps decision-making on inputs allowed for use in organic squarely within the purview of the National Organic Standards Board.

The Davis amendment referred to in OTA’s press release makes it clear that the final decision on non-organic substances in organic still rests with the NOSB. But the amendment doesn’t address or change the fact that the bill would give the Agriculture Secretary new power to force the NOSB to “expedite” its decision-making process. And it doesn’t even attempt to change the fact that the bill also would force the NOSB to consider the EPA and FDA’s arguments for why pesticides and other non-organic substances should be allowed in organic.

Giving new powers to the Agriculture Secretary to mess with organic is especially dangerous given how the Trump Administration has treated other decisions made by the NOSB. The Organic Foods Production Act gives the NOSB the exclusive authority to make decisions on non-organic substances. Yet Trump’s USDA recently overruled the NOSB’s decision to end the use of carrageenan. And the OTA wasn’t troubled by that in the least.

The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) got its start defending organic standards, back in 1998, when we lobbied successfully against the USDA’s controversial proposal to allow genetic engineering, irradiation and toxic sewage sludge in organic production and products. For consumers looking to reduce their exposure to pesticides and eliminate GMOs from their diets, we still believe certified organic is the right choice. While we also support recent efforts by groups looking to set even higher, “beyond organic” standards, we are committed to protecting organic standards from any sneak attacks, including those that are part of the House and Senate Farm Bills.

Alexis Baden-Mayer is political director for the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). Ronnie Cummins is OCA's international director. Sign up here for news and alerts from OCA.

 

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