Organic industry asks legislators for funds to expand domestic production & increase oversight

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More than a hundred representatives for the organic industry descended on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, last Thursday to extol to legislators the benefits of their industry to the US economy and ask for additional funding and help expand organic practices as well as increase trade oversight.

“The organic industry, all the way from the farm through manufacturing and retail is creating … a lot of economic activity,” including more jobs and better farm-debt incomes, Organic Trade Association’s CEO and Executive Director Laura Batcha told FoodNavigator-USA at the trade group’s annual policy day May 24.

Pointing to results from OTA’s 2017 Organic Industry Survey, which was released the same day, Batcha explained that more than 60% of all organic businesses with more than five employees reported an increase of full-time employment during 2016, and said they plan to hire more full-time staff in 2017.

These strong results create “a real opportunity in this political environment to be educating policy makers about the benefits of organic as a whole sector,” and provide leverage for several “asks” the trade group made of legislators when they visited their offices on the Hill May 25, Batcha said.

The Farm Bill is a primary target

Among the trade group’s top asks is for support in the upcoming Farm Bill to help more US farmers transition to organic and to bolster trade oversight by the National Organic Program, Batcha said.

“Our biggest priorities are pretty straight forward. No. 1 is how do we provide more opportunities for domestic farmers to get into organic and benefit from those opportunities on the farm for better incomes, for good cultivation practices,” Batcha said. “So, we are looking for some simple policy adjustments the way rural development is applied and thought of to make sure those programs are supporting farmers looking to transition.”

These include increased access to capital, infrastructure, technical expertise and market connections in part through increased rural business development grants, value-added agricultural product market development grants and recognition of required organic practices within all the conservation programs under the Conservation Stewardship Program, according to OTA.

“The other side of that coin is we are looking at some adjustments in the way authorities give it to USDA and the National Organic Program for product oversight of the label in the marketplace,” Batcha said. In particular, she explained, OTA wants to ensure that as USDA imports products it has sufficient resources and authority to “assure the consumer when they buy something that is labeled organic, that it is organic.”

To do this, the trade group wants to see one-time funding of $5 million to upgrade international oversight systems and trade tracking and require USDA to report to Congress on investigations and actions it takes. OTA also wants the next farm bill to authorize sufficient funding for NOP to keep pace with the growth of the organic industry, which the group estimates will require a 10% increase year-over-year over the course of the next Farm Bill above the $15 million annually authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill.

OTA wants USDA to finalize organic animal welfare rule

OTA members also will urge legislators not to “peck apart the organic standards” by further delaying or meddling with final Organic Livestock and Poultry Production rule, which was published in the final days of the Obama Administration but held back for additional review by the new administration.

“At the end of the day, we just don’t think it is congress’ job, or any individual congressman’s or senator’s job to prescribe organic standards. They are a voluntary program, industry needs to direct those standards so they stay at the forefront of what consumers want from this food and agriculture system. So, our message to Congress is let the process go forward and don’t intervene on the specific details of the standards,” which were created over a 10-year period and are based on industry consensus, Batcha said.

Promote research and export

Members also promoted two bills currently moving through the House: the Cultivating Revitalization by Expanding American Agricultural Trade and Exports (CREAATE) Act, HR 2321, and the Organic Agriculture Research Act, HR 2436.

“The CREAATE Act is a program that funds the Market Access Program, which was zeroed out in the president’s budget,” Batcha said.

According to OTA, nearly $1 million MAP funds were invested in organic in 2016, which led to more than $48 million in projected overseas sales opportunities for US organic operations.

“Like a lot of sectors of agriculture, organic benefits from this modest support to help organic producers and the return on investment for the modest dollars that are invested for promotion of organic sales worldwide is just tremendous. And, particularly provides an opportunity for small and medium-sized businesses to learn how to export and get out in the market for the first time,” Batcha said.

The act also would increase funding to the Foreign Market Development Program, which is important for organic now given that US organic exports are up 60% in 2016 from the prior year, according to OTA.

The Organic Agriculture Research Act would increase funding for the organic research and extension initiative, which are used to advance seed variety, weed control and other tools to make organic farmers successful in the future, Batcha said.

Ultimately, Batcha said she hopes that by visiting legislators on the hill, OTA members will be able “to tell their good story” and lay some groundwork for ongoing support of basic priorities from champions as well as new members of Congress who are interested in organic.

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