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Farm bill likely to address organic program problems

In a sign that the next farm bill is likely to address problems in the government's organic programs, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said July 13 the National Organic Standards Board and the National Organic Program have been overtaken by "uncertainty and dysfunction."

At a hearing devoted to organics, specialty crops and local markets, Roberts noted a recent Washington Post article highlighted the issue of fraudulent organic imports.

"My constituents in Kansas brought this issue to my attention a year ago," Roberts said. "We pushed the Department of Agriculture to do something then, and it is clear that if it takes this long to get action, something needs to change."

"Farmers in rural America can choose organics, not necessarily because they believe there is anything wrong with conventional production, but because they recognize organics as a value-added opportunity," he added. "They are responding to a market signal and increasing their margins.

"However, it seems that uncertainty and dysfunction have overtaken the National Organic Standards Board and the regulations associated with the National Organic Program."

Roberts did not go into the specifics of overregulation himself, but he was undoubtedly referring to controversies over how much time animals producing organic meat need to spend outdoors and whether crops grown hydroponically should be considered organic.

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Two witnesses testified about problems in the organic industry and called for changes in the NOSB, the appointed Agriculture Department advisory group on organics, and the NOP, which regulates the industry.

ARIZONA FARMER

Theojary Crisantes Jr., vice president of operations for Wholesum Harvest, an Arizona company, noted his grandfather emigrated from Greece to Mexico in the 1930s and started a company that has sold produce to the United States since the 1940s.

Wholesum started operations in Arizona in 2012 and now grows tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers and squash on 600 acres in both the U.S. and Mexico. Wholesum has revenue of $55 million and is the largest producer of organic tomatoes on the vine in North America.

Crisantes testified on behalf of the Coalition for Sustainable Organics, which maintains organic producers should be able to continue using containers and hydroponics and still be eligible for the USDA Organic Seal. He said growing in "shade houses" minimizes the impact of production on the environment, increases the efficiency of the beneficial insect program, reduces water use by 80 percent, and provides year-round employment in regions characterized by seasonal jobs.

Crisantes noted containerized and hydroponic growing methods have been certified by USDA since the inception of the organic program, and the NOSB drafted and considered proposals to eliminate containerized and hydroponic growing methods for organic certification.

Opponents of hydroponically grown food being labeled as organic maintain organic food should be grown in soil.

While USDA has not made any decision about whether to decertify these methods, "many organic auditors will incorporate the NOSB's recommendations into their interpretation of standards to determine if producers meet USDA organic regulations," creating "uncertainty" in the industry, he said.

Crisantes maintained, as the organic industry has grown since the NOP went into effect in 1990 and gone from a niche industry to a $50 billion sector with 24,000 certified operations nationwide, the 15-member NOSB board no longer reflects the breadth and diversity of the sector.

"Of those 15 seats on the NOSB, four of them are filled by small operators who grow on a combined acreage of less than 120 acres. Likewise, the only seat allocated to retailers is currently occupied by a 17-store chain," Cristantes said.

He also said the NOSB released "extensive and complicated drafts" of its proposal to ban containers and hydroponics only a few days before a recent meeting and that written public comment periods are short and in-person statements limited to 3 minutes at the board's two meetings per year.

Crisantes said he has invited NOSB members to visit his operations "and learn more about what they are proposing to restrict but, unfortunately, to date, no one has been able to visit."

Asked by Roberts how he would change the government's organic agencies, Crisantes said there needs to be more clarity on goals, better communications between the NOSB and the NOP, and more transparency.

"We believe that allowing USDA to take more initiative to direct outstanding regulatory issues that have dragged on for years within the NOSB will give organics the necessary business certainty we as farm owners need to invest in the expansion of our businesses," Crisantes said.

ORGANIC IMPORTS

Kenneth Dallmier, the president and chief operating officer of Clarkson Grain Company, Inc. of Cerro Gordo, Ill., said recent cases of fraud in organic animal feed from imported corn and soybeans show USDA needs stricter enforcement of organic imports.

Clarkson Grain specializes in developing "identity-preserved" supply chains for organic and non-GMO grain crops.

Acknowledging that "under the current political environment, we recognize that increased costs and increased regulation are to be avoided," Dallmier said during a five-point plan presentation for stricter enforcement he said would not cost a lot of money.

That plan includes a series of measures to tighten up the inspection of imports as well as finalization of a proposed USDA Certified Transitional seal. The transition seal, Dallmier said, would give U.S. farmers more incentive to shift land to organics because they would get paid more money for the crops they grow during the three years it takes to transition from conventional to full organic status.

He testified the design of the NOP did not include sufficient enforcement power either domestic or foreign.

In an interview after the hearing, Dallmier said when world commodity prices fell in recent years, farmers and marketers in developing countries became tempted to sell nonorganic feed ingredients as organic. Those imports have ultimately led to lower organic corn and soybean prices in the U.S., further reducing farmers' interest in converting their land to organic production.

Dallmier said the best way to make sure that organic meat comes from animals that have eaten organic feed is to grow the ingredients in the U.S. The job of foreign certifiers is "monumental," he said, noting that an Indian "aggregator" told him he represented 7,000 organic growers in that country.

In response to a question from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Dallmier said the organic industry needs more research to help "scalable farmers" incorporate organics into their production plans and that USDA conservation programs are also vital to organics making the leap to a bigger scale.

Neither Crisantes nor Dallmier represented the Organic Trade Association, the industry's largest lobbying group, but Laura Batcha, the OTA CEO and executive director, who was present at the meeting, told The Hagstrom Report their ideas reflected many of OTA's farm bill priorities.

In a follow-up email, Batcha said OTA welcomed Roberts' "recognition of the importance of organic as a choice for farmers that provides economic stability and increased net profits," and said the committee's "interest in organic trade oversight, support for increased domestic organic production and organic research was also very welcome."

Of the criticism of the NOSB processes, Batcha said, "Public engagement is often unwieldy. But the public process that includes the National Organic Standards Board is a critical part of public engagement in organic standards development."

"Without that engagement — and strict, clear and enforceable industry-designed standards — you risk losing the opportunity for farmers that organic provides. Transparency and accountability — cornerstones of organic — remain the foundation upon which to improve the organic system."