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Will Coming 'Reforms' at the USDA Spell the End of Organic?

Back Room “Reform” of the National Organic Standards Board May Be a Direct Threat to Organic Integrity.

I spent a week on Capitol Hill recently, during which I spoke with over two dozen congressional staffers and lawmakers about the upcoming 2018 Farm Bill. With about 400 days to go before the 2012 Farm Bill funding ends, everyone in the food/agriculture/nutrition arena is focused on negotiating to protect their favorite programs. Senator Roberts (R-KS), the dean of farming in the Senate, has stated there will be no added funding. If you want something new, then first find something someone else can do without. The Trump Administration has, of course, threatened a budget with hefty reductions in spending for both rural safety net (crop insurance, price supports) and urban safety net (SNAP, school nutrition) spending.

In May, the USDA began an agency reform initiative to cut out unnecessary spending and streamline regulation. These appear to be a code phrases for dismantling many longstanding programs that big agriculture can do without, but that smallholders are too disorganized and powerless to fight for. As previous Ag Secretary Vilsack reminded everyone, he just finished cutting nearly $2 billion from the USDA budget during the Obama years. 

One of my Hill meetings was with a senior staffer for Senator Roberts who works on the Senate Agriculture Committee staff. The discussion was fairly normal until, towards the end, with my hand on the door knob, he stated that his people would be “reforming the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).” Taken aback, I asked him what that meant. Rather than walking back the statement, he doubled down: he was going to put a stop to Cornucopia Institute’s habit of using the NOSB for its fundraising by riling up consumers about the practices of large scale industrial chicken, egg and dairy farms. 

Note that within this staffer’s milieu, reforming the NOSB is seen as a de facto policy initiative. It is not an idea, or a bee-in-the-bonnet, or a wish. They simply intend to undertake these reforms during the next 400 days. This assumption would explain why the National Organic Program's (NOP's) Animal Welfare Final Rule on livestock production practices was suspended in January just before it was to take effect. They do not agree with it and will not allow it to be implemented in its current iteration. To this end, they have Senator Stabenow (D-MI and ranking member of Senate Ag) on their side. She is an outspoken protector of her certified organic industrial egg producers in Michigan, who will likely be inconvenienced by the new animal welfare standards. Most other states have industrial organic operators as well. They seem to have won the day.