Catastrophic weather events caused by climate change, a lack of a stable labor supply, low prices and the ongoing global trade war are the most pressing issues talked about in farm country these days. But while all of these challenges have been colliding, Congress has been quietly writing a new farm bill. Will it even matter? For the organic industry, it will.
Recently, both the House and Senate drafted and passed their own versions of the farm bill. Although the nutrition, conservation and crop insurance titles of the bill get the most airplay, buried deep within these massive pieces of legislation that are over 1,000 pages long are huge, historic wins for organic (see accompanying table).
Although organic achieved many big wins in the House and Senate farm bills, like any farm bill it was not always smooth sailing. The House farm bill eliminates funding for the organic certification cost-share program. This program is particularly critical for small, mid-scale and beginning farmers. The program provides organic farmers a small payment that can cover up to 75% of the cost of their annual organic certification fees. Luckily, the Senate farm bill includes full funding for the cost-share program at $11.5 million per year. Whether this program will receive funding and at what level will have to be settled in discussions between the House and Senate as they work out the differences between the two bills.
The other big challenges organic faced were unprecedented attacks on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). Opponents of the NOSB attempted to overhaul NOSB through the farm bill, threatening the only forum where industry and stakeholders meet to find consensus to advance the organic standards. Opponents of organic wanted to overhaul the structure, makeup and authority of the board. They attempted to change the Organic Foods Production Act to limit input from a diverse set of stakeholders, make it easier for synthetic pesticides and chemicals to be allowed in organic production, and turn the keys to the organic standards over completely to the Secretary of Agriculture. These damaging proposals threatened to undermine the public, transparent process that is a unique cornerstone of organic and what makes organic the global gold standard for transparency in food.
Faced with one of the biggest threats to the organic movement in decades, Organic Trade Association mobilized to protect the NOSB. Over 100 member companies sent a letter to the House and Senate Agriculture Committees urging them not to include provisions in the farm bill that would undermine the integrity of organic and NOSB. When language was included in the House farm bill that would have taken away NOSB’s authority to make decisions on materials and inputs allowed or prohibited in organic, Congressman Rodney Davis (R-IL) offered and passed an amendment to reverse this damaging provision and protect the role of NOSB. Although both the House and Senate bills unfortunately contain provisions on NOSB, some of the language clarifies existing practices at NOSB and the worst of the proposed changes to NOSB were not included in the farm bill.
WHAT LIES AHEAD
The House and Senate are currently conducting conference committee negotiations where they will have to work out the vast differences between their two different versions of the farm bill. They have until September 30 to report a final farm bill, vote on it and pass it in the House and Senate, and then send to the President for signature before the current farm bill expires. This is a tall order given that conference negotiations on a bill this large can take several months. If a new farm bill does not get signed into law before the current one expires, Congress can pass a short-term extension of current law to buy more time. If this happens, farm bill consideration would be delayed until after the mid-term elections in November.
What does all this mean for organic?
If all goes as planned, the future looks good for organic. Because there are strong provisions benefitting organic in both the House and Senate bills, there are few differences to settle during the conference negotiations. However, the few differences will have an outsize impact on our overall goals as they have to do with money. The two biggest issues for organic in the conference committee discussions are funding for certification cost-share and permanent funding for OREI. Although both bills include big increases for organic research funding, only the Senate bill more than doubles the current funding for organic research to achieve permanent or “baseline” funding of $50 million per year.
Why is this so important?
Programs that fall under the baseline are not accounted for in future farm bills when the Congressional Budget Office scores the impact on spending, meaning they will not continue if the farm bill expires and any continuation of funding is considered new additional spending for which Congress must allocate separate funds. Achieving baseline funding for OREI will not only help to close the gap in organic research funding compared to federal research programs for other sectors of agriculture but will provide a huge investment in the organic industry’s future by granting stable long-term funding.
Throughout this farm bill, the organic industry has dreamed big and fought hard to advance organic. The farm bill is close to the finish line, and we are even closer to achieving what could be one of the biggest milestones for organic agriculture if organic research is funded at $50 million per year.
In a divided political environment with one-party control in Washington, how did we get here?
Engagement. The Organic Trade Association and our members were front and center in the farm bill discussions. Whether it was protecting and defending organic from attacks or advocating for the largest increase in organic research funding ever, OTA members were there every step of the way. From attending farm bill listening sessions and roundtables across the country, to testifying at Agriculture Committee hearings in D.C. to participating in fly-ins, members were unrelenting in educating congressional representatives in D.C. and back home to advance organic priorities.
Megan DeBates is Director of Legislative Affairs and Coalitions for the Organic Trade Association (firstname.lastname@example.org).