We must empower the organic industry to continue answering the need

Currently, all eyes are on the food sector, and in particular, its ability to adapt to the pandemic and to meet the needs of American consumers through our farmers. As the COVID-19 pandemic exposes vulnerabilities throughout our food system, it highlights the call for resiliency at all points in the supply chain to meet the needs of consumers. Amid reports that some companies are struggling to keep products in stock in light of pandemic pressures, shoppers are concerned whether they can balance availability with affordability for the range of foods they would like to choose for their families.

The organic segment continues to answer that call, bucking much of the depressed trends that have faced the food sectors. Organic produce sales jumped 50 percent as consumers stocked up during the earliest weeks of the pandemic, and that bump continued at a 20 percent rise during the spring months. In the time of COVID, organic options have grown from its early days as premium-only categories. Organic products have become everyday staples, store brands and private label products, and items that compete for budget-conscious shoppers.

The diverse range of suppliers and the shorter and more agile nature of much of the organic supply chain creates an added benefit during the COVID pandemic. Together, retailers that maintain a wide range of relationships with organic suppliers, and a supply chain that contains fewer links between producer and consumer mean a reduced chance of disruption as a result of the pandemic. But for this success—and the broader, more diverse range of food options it brings—to continue, we in Washington must work alongside organic farmers and businesses to better promote and foster consumer trust.

The Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research Subcommittee, which I chair, has been working to do just that. In July 2019, the subcommittee spoke with USDA’s Greg Ibach, Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, as well as the National Organic Program’s Deputy Administrator Dr. Jennifer Tucker on NOP’s efforts to implement the hard-fought wins for organic producers in the 2018 Farm Bill. As part of that discussion, my colleagues and I focused on protecting the integrity of the organic seal by working to combat fraudulent organic imports. We talked about what’s needed to advance the organic research and data collection that helps drive the innovation and hard numbers that carry the industry forward.

Last fall, the subcommittee met with stakeholders working in organic production, including farmers and direct-to-consumer marketers, on the trends, challenges, and opportunities they see within the industry. This diverse range of voices represented operations of different sizes, products, practices and regions, and helped us to understand what they need from us as elected officials. From them we heard calls for more local market support, research, technical assistance, and clear standards from USDA. We also learned that a broader range of suppliers and marketing channels contribute to a more resilient system in the event that any one specific operation is disrupted.

As we move ahead, it is my goal to ensure that organic producers have the necessary support to respond to the immediate needs presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, the demands of near-term recovery, and longer-term market conditions. That’s a multi-stakeholder initiative, but it’s going to involve pushing USDA on a number of immediate tasks.

First, as USDA rolled out the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, it failed to recognize organic or local price premiums in CFAP payments. As a response, my House colleagues and I included language in the HEROES Act that would push USDA to recognize and correct this oversight.

Second, USDA must ensure that it is implementing organic provisions from the Farm Bill without delay, including the issuance of organic certification cost-share funding in a timely fashion to assist producers with certification costs. This is particularly important for small or limited-resource farmers like many of my constituents in the U.S. Virgin Islands. At a time when consumers are concerned about the availability of basic staples, USDA must do all that it can to assist farmers seeking to enter the sector and to support those already serving consumers to adjust to new market conditions.   

Finally, USDA must see to it that thoughtful and uncompromising rules are in place to protect the integrity of the USDA Organic seal.  From protecting our domestic market against fraudulent organic imports to ensuring that everyone in the organic dairy sector is subject to the same production requirements, USDA can and must serve a critical role in safeguarding consumer confidence and providing a level-playing field for all organic farmers and ranchers, while, at the same time, supporting new farmers seeking certification. I am committed to working directly with the organic industry to determine how best to protect the integrity of organic products at retail and to ensure that USDA is attentive to these needs.

While the trend lines for organic agriculture point in the right direction, there is not only work to be done both in Washington and nationwide, but tremendous opportunity for organics to support consumers and our economy during the COVID pandemic. I am excited to be the Subcommittee’s Chair at a time when so much is needed from the sector, and it continues to give so much in return.

Congresswoman Stacey E. Plaskett has represented the U.S. Virgin Islands in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2015. She chairs the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research, which has jurisdiction over organic food and agriculture issues in Congress.