California advances critical legislation for organic farmers

Update from CCOF inc.

The California State Legislature passed AB 1826—the California Organic Food and Farming Act (COFFA)—with unanimous bipartisan support in response to hundreds of organic farmers, businesses, and consumers calling for critical updates to the California State Organic Program (SOP). COFFA is expected to be signed into law by October 2016.


Background

COFFA is a bill sponsored by CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers) and authored by California Central Coast Assembly Member Mark Stone (D-Monterey Bay). Assembly Member Stone, representing over 140 certified organic farms and businesses, authored COFFA to address organic producers’ concerns that the SOP is outdated and duplicates requirements from the National Organic Program (NOP).

The SOP is a unique program approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) NOP to enforce federal organic standards. The SOP does not certify organic farms; rather, it investigates complaints of fraud, conducts periodic spot inspections, and evaluates residue samples on organic crops, soil, seed, and feed. California is the only state with an enforcement program, and it requires all organic operations in California to register with the state by paying fees and completing paperwork in addition to the certification fees and paperwork required by NOP before a product can be sold as organic in the state.

California established the SOP before NOP was fully developed, and today retains many requirements that duplicate federal certification requirements. Organic farmers have long been concerned that the additional layer of fees and paperwork stalls business and creates unnecessary barriers to organic certification without added value to consumers. Therefore, a strong grassroots network of organic stakeholders joined in calling for long-overdue updates to the SOP through the passage of COFFA.


How this will improve the State Organic Program

COFFA makes three key changes to the SOP: 1) it streamlines paperwork for certified organic producers; 2) it caps or lowers SOP fees; 3) and it updates the role of the SOP to support organic agriculture and producers.

COFFA streamlines paperwork for certified organic producers by allowing USDA-accredited organic certifying agents to submit information about their clients directly to the state to complete their SOP registration. Current law requires organic producers to register with the SOP by reporting information that duplicates other state and federal reporting requirements. COFFA creates a framework where the SOP receives the information it needs for enforcement directly from certifying agents, and organic producers are not saddled with redundant paperwork.

COFFA also caps or lowers SOP fees. The SOP fee schedule is set by the current law, and has not been updated since 2003. COFFA lowers the fees for organic producers with gross organic sales of less than $250,000, and caps all fees at their current levels to allow for further reductions by the SOP due to the fact that the streamlined registration process is expected to result in long-term cost savings for the program.

The final key change is to update the role of the SOP and its existing advisory committee. The SOP operates under the advisement of the California Organic Products Advisory Committee (COPAC), which is a 15-member committee representing farmers, processors, consumers, and other stakeholders. COPAC has a narrow role in advising the California Secretary of Food and Agriculture on organic enforcement, but under COFFA, COPAC can advise on education, outreach, and other programmatic activities. Therefore, COFFA allows COPAC to play a more prominent role in supporting organic as a critical sector of California’s agricultural economy.


Looking forward

CCOF continues to celebrate the overwhelming support of and collaboration on COFFA, and the Organic Trade Association (OTA) has been a critical partner in advancing the legislation. Despite the improvements that would be made under COFFA, the SOP will continue to be funded through additional fees that unfairly put California producers at a competitive disadvantage. Therefore, CCOF has joined OTA in requesting that Congress allocate more enforcement funds to NOP, and that Congress and USDA allow excess funds from the Organic Certification Cost Share Program go towards SOP fees (up to $750) as an additional scope of certification. An additional scope for SOP fees would be available to any state seeking to establish its own enforcement program under NOP.

CCOF will also work with COPAC and the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) to ensure the SOP is an effective program that supports the organic sector. For more information, visit www.ccof.org/coffa.  //

Kelly Damewood is CCOF 's Policy Director

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