Melody is a weekly contributor to OPN Connect. You can follow her blog at www.organicmattersblog.com
A Political Sea of Change for the Good Food Movement
by Melody Meyer, vice president of policy and industry relations, United Natural Foods (UNFI)
It’s been just a few weeks since our political world took a turn into uncharted seas. We had been progressing along swimmingly, making progress on the likes of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, local organic food hubs and vibrant conservation programs. We had the luxury of squabbling over the recommendations of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) wrangling over every nuance of organic production. We took the National Organic Program for granted as an institutional “holy mackerel” that would carry us someday into regulatory utopia.
All of that came to an abrupt halt last November when the new political tide rolled in. These uncharted waters are like nothing we have navigated before and the good food movement should take heed and consider rowing with a united stroke if we are to remain afloat.
Members of Congress
The changes in both the House and Senate present some very real challenges for the organic movement. Some members of Congress view organic agriculture as elitist, completely different from traditional agriculture. They see it as a process fraught with cumbersome regulations and controversy.
They may find it difficult to distinguish the more rational organic voices from the hardline activists in the vocal milieu. All the while, the influence of the large conventional trade associations and check-off programs is growing.
Decidedly it is clear this Congress is bent on reducing government funding and downsizing many programs, including food, agriculture and nutrition. Agricultural research and development funds have been stagnant for years, and members of Congress could choose to send agricultural research adrift.
What’s at Stake for Organic?
Early whispers tell us that funding for the National Organic Program (NOP) may be cut in the next Farm Bill. If this happens, the NOP would have fewer resources to update regulations, investigate complaints and train and accredit certifiers. Trust in the organic seal took years to build and it is upheld by the work the NOP performs. Without this good work, the seal becomes meaningless.
Additionally, some members of Congress look at the work of the NOSB as a waste of time and energy. The sometimes controversial meetings lead to extra work and costs for the USDA. There are rumblings that “reform” is needed for the entire NOSB process. What public transparency would we continue to have under these new “reforms”?
The New Administration
Within days of taking office, the Trump administration took swift action, pausing ongoing work on the issuance of new rules, clawing back rules that have been finalized but not yet published in the Federal Register and directing agencies to extend for 60 additional days the effective date of regulations that have been published.
These freezes, delays and restrictions directly impact the future of several organic initiatives the last administration worked hard to complete before the high tide went out.
What’s at Stake for Organic?
The Organic Research and Promotion Order proposed rule will be impacted. Comments on the proposed rule, due on March 20 could be extended an additional 60 days to May 20th. Even after the end of the comments period, there is still no guarantee that USDA will move to referendum.
With funding cuts imminent, we need to generate resources for organic. It’s important to build a strong record of support for the Organic Research and Promotion Order in order to convince the incoming administration to move from a proposed to a final rule (subject to industry vote) to establish the organic check-off.
The hotly contested GMO labeling law which caused deep divisions in the food community may die a slow death through lack of funding. Or It could also be repealed and replaced with another bill in which mandatory would become voluntary. If either occurs, any meager wins we enjoyed in that bill would certainly be washed away.
Beyond the animal welfare and proposed checkoff rules, there are numerous important regulatory actions at risk including proposed revisions to the National List (Sunset 2017) and draft guidance from the NOP on Calculating Organic Percentages. If for every new regulation, an old regulation must go away, the impact on the NOP will be murky at best.
USDA Leadership and Direction
Secretary of Agriculture nominee Perdue has not been confirmed. As a result, many teams at USDA have been left adrift without leadership. Between the hiring freeze, administration change and potential ideological reasons, we may see many of our former organic champions move to the private sector.
Farm Bill 2018
Everyone concerned about the future of food and agriculture and its nexus with the climate should pay attention to the next Farm Bill. The Farm Bill determines funding for agricultural research, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), certification costs share and the National Organic Program. We need to have all hands on deck to assure that our priorities are included and funded for the next 5 years. We must assure that sustainability in agriculture and fair food security are simultaneously addressed.
It’s important that we reach out to not only our champions but all members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. Let them know that organic agriculture produces jobs and invigorates economies.
This sea of change will not take the wind out of our sails.