Merrigan to organic industry: Be proud of being big
March 14, 2017
ANAHEIM, Calif. — The organic food industry should not shy away from the label "Big Food" because the industry's growing market clout will help it fight any political challenges in the Trump administration, former Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said recently at an Organic Farming Research Foundation fundraiser in Anaheim, Calif.
Merrigan, who wrote the organic food standards act when she was a Senate aide, acknowledged that as organic products have risen to 5 percent of food sales in the U.S., some people in the industry have become "defensive" about being called "Big Food," a term that organic producers have used for decades to denigrate conventional agriculture.
"Let's celebrate that we are Big Food with values," Merigan said.
The size of the sector and its growing popularity will make it more difficult for competitors in conventional agriculture to convince Trump administration officials to lower the government standards that give consumers confidence in the USDA certified organic label or to reduce the research funding that the industry has strived hard to achieve, she explained.
"This industry is more vital than ever and the industry has more pocket change than before," Merrigan said.
But she also urged support for the organic checkoff program, which the Organic Trade Association has petitioned USDA to create. If USDA approves it and people in the industry vote for it, the checkoff would create a research and promotion fund by collecting money when an organic product is sold.
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Some in the industry oppose it on the grounds that use of the money will be dominated by the bigger farmers and distributors of organic products.
"I know this is bitter politics in organics, but you can't count on the federal government bailing you out," she said.
The fact that President Donald Trump has said he wants to increase the Defense Department budget and not cut entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare means that there will be pressure on all USDA programs, she said March 10 at a separate briefing on the political outlook for organics on the sidelines of Expo West, an organic and natural products trade show.
Merrrigan also said she has faith in the process of setting organic standards under which the National Organic Standards Board makes recommendations to USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service because she considers the process democratic, even when she disagrees with individual outcomes.
Many of the calls for changes to that process come from people whose proposals have been rejected, she said.
"The firing squad on the left is a circle," she said. "We don't need to be pointing fingers and saying 'your organic is not as good as my organic.'"
Merrigan also encouraged the industry to embrace some technology.
While the very concept of organics has been based on opposition to genetic modification and synthetic pesticides, Merrigan said she is "obsessed" with the idea that robots should be used to milk cows to produce organic dairy products because "I see potential compatibility between technology and improved lifestyle for my organic farmer friends."
As a Democrat who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations, Merrigan said she sees this period in which the Republicans control the presidency, the House and the Senate as "dark times," but that she relies for her emotional well-being on "sources of light from the organic community."
"We are on a quest for a better world," she said.
Millenial consumers are big buyers of organic foods, she said, but the industry needs to turn those consumers into "organic citizens" who will defend government programs that set standards and benefit organics and provide future leadership.
But Merrigan, who is now the executive director of sustainability at George Washington University, said her "search for the heart of millenials" has led her to observe one habit she finds hard to accept: the constant taking of food pictures.
When she was growing up, Merrigan, said, she had to wait until grace was said before eating.
Now, she said, people can't eat until their food is Instagrammed.