Appointment of Kathleen Merrigan as Deputy Secretary: First Sign of "Change"
CORNUCOPIA, Wi. - February 24 - President Obama and new USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack are being urged to take immediate action to repair the USDA's increasingly dysfunctional National Organic Program (NOP). Suspect imports of grains, nuts, and vegetables from China and other countries, questionable organic milk, beef, and eggs from giant factory farms, and the erosion of opportunity for family farmers are plaguing the organic sector.
Consumer demand for organic production has skyrocketed in recent years, propelling organics into an over $20 billion dollar a year business. That same hunger for organics has encouraged some large corporations, factory farms, and foreign producers to move into the U.S. organic business-but without upholding federal organic production standards.
On February 12, The Cornucopia Institute, a national organic watchdog representing family famers, sent a formal letter and briefing paper to President Obama and Secretary Vilsack specifically asking that they take "a very strong and proactive posture in turning around management at the National Organic Program," which they described as being "Katrina-ed" by the Bush administration.
"The stewardship of the organic program at the USDA has been an absolute abomination," said Mark A. Kastel, Cornucopia's senior farm policy analyst. "It was not just management by neglect-it was an intentional monkeywrenching of the Department's oversight of the industry."
In the last several years, audits prepared by the American National Standards Institute and the Inspector General's office have blasted the NOP for failing to ensure that independent certification agencies, which verify organic farming and production practices, are competent and properly performing their jobs. A Peer Review Panel-fundamental to ensuring competent certification-has never been established.
Technical Advisory Panels, crucial to the evaluation of specific materials and ingredients used in organic food and agriculture, remain underfunded or unused. Furthermore, dozens of policy resolutions adopted by the National Organic Standards Board, the expert citizen advisory panel to the NOP, have never been reviewed or implemented. "In addition to starving the organic program for adequate funding, the political environment at the USDA has always been hostile to the industry," said Kastel.
During the Bush administration political appointees at the USDA had also significantly softened penalties for organic lawbreakers, overruling stiff enforcement actions recommended by career civil servants, for factory farms that were found willfully violating federal organic standards. Other complaints detailing abuses on factory farms were quashed or went uninvestigated.
"If organic food production and eating had not caught on so well, we wouldn't see these scofflaws doing their thing," observed Merrill Clark, a certified organic livestock farmer from Michigan and former member of the National Organic Standards Board. Clark added, "It's time to change the culture at the USDA."
The Cornucopia Institute has launched a "Change@USDA" campaign and is helping stakeholders in the organic community to unite for rehabilitation of the NOP. The farm group intends to hand-deliver letters to both Mr. Obama and Secretary Vilsack from farmers and consumers supporting a sweeping management shakeup at the National Organic Program.
In the first sign that the new administration at the USDA is taking the concerns of organic and sustainable farming interests to heart, yesterday [on February 23], Secretary Vilsack announced the appointment of Dr. Kathleen Merrigan, a Tufts University assistant professor, as USDA Deputy Secretary. "I cannot think of a more qualified public policy expert to take on this important role at what Abraham Lincoln referred to as the ‘people's department, '" Kastel affirmed. The Cornucopia Institute, and many other farm organizations, lobbied hard for Merrigan's appointment. "I hope this is representative of President Obama and Secretary Vilsack subscribing to the old adage that, ‘good government equals good politics,'" he added.
However, with sectors of the organic industry in crisis, stakeholders are hoping the new appointees at the USDA take swift action. "The certified organic label belongs to the thousands of ethical organic family farmers, and their consumer allies and patrons, who have built the vibrant organic agricultural and food market," said Peter Wiesner, General Manager at the Hungry Hollow Co-op in Chestnut Ridge, New York. "We need new management at the National Organic Program if we are to reclaim the organic label," Wiesner said.
As questions swirl around the handling of organics by the NOP, a true crisis is unfolding in the organic dairy sector. Ethical organic dairy farmers, and the co-ops and family-owned businesses they partner with for processing and marketing, are getting hammered by cheap, phony "organic" milk from giant factory farms and alleged predatory pricing by the $11 billion agribusiness behemoth, Dean Foods.
Dean Foods, owner of 50 different milk brands including the nation's leading organic dairy label, Horizon Organic, has heavily discounted their retail pricing, driving down market prices for all competitors. Dean/Horizon gets a large percentage of their milk from their 8000-cow industrial dairy and from many other mega-farms they contract with.
The majority of the bogus private-label, or store-brand, milk (which is usually cheaper than branded organic milk) marketed by Wal-Mart, Costco, Safeway, Target, and other grocery chains comes from the controversial Aurora Dairy, operator of five giant factory farms in Texas and Colorado.
"These unethical competitors are squeezing and undercutting other brands and the family farms that supply them," stated Cornucopia's Kastel. Kastel added that "Stonyfield, Organic Valley, and other smaller markers have had to let some of their family farmers go and/or cut prices paid to them."
Despite their rhetoric supporting family farmers, Dean/Horizon has used strong-arm tactics in attempting to terminate ties with some of its farmers-this, sadly, as the company continues to expand its use of industrial-scale dairy operations.
Don Halverson, a family-scale organic dairy farmer near Rupert, Idaho, recently saw Dean refuse to buy his milk. "We thought we were dealing with ethical people," said Halverson, who milks about 50 cows. "My family and I hitched our wagon's future to the commitments we received from the Horizon folks." His family now faces financial ruin without a market for his organic milk.
Cornucopia is calling on the USDA to enforce federal organic regulations that would control abuses occurring in the organic dairy sector. Enforcement has been spotty, at best, at the USDA. A number of legal complaints filed by Cornucopia documenting alleged violations of organic law on factory dairies were never investigated by the Agency.
CONTACT: Cornucopia Institute
Mark A. Kastel 608-625-2042