Congress shuts down organics


By Melody Meyer, Vice President of Policy and Industry Relations, United Natural Foods Incorporated (UNFI)

The media has been abuzz with news of the government shutdown and the blame game is exuberant on both sides of the aisle. In 2011, after Republicans took control of the U.S. House, Congress passed just 90 bills into law. The only other year in which Congress failed to pass at least 125 laws was 1995. There are currently 5,628 bills and resolutions before the United States Congress. Of those, only about 5% will likely become law. These statistics make the 112th Congress, covering 2011-12, the least productive two-year gathering on Capitol Hill since the end of World War II.

It’s time to take a comprehensive look at how this non-action is usurping the standard operations of the National Organic Program and the entire organic industry. Where does Organic stand in the wake of all this legislative dysfunction?

Congress is required to pass separate spending bills every year to fund the operation of the government. If no such bill becomes law, the government functions cease immediately. This spending bill is called the “Continuing Resolution”.  As a result of Congress’ failure to pass a CR, the National Organic Program was forced to furlough all staff and shut down its website and all email communications. No longer can farmers or consumers seek guidance, give comments or file a complaint. The entire program is no longer functioning. The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting, scheduled for October 22-24, may be canceled if the shutdown continues past October 10. This is a huge problem for consumers and farmers alike, because the strict regulatory oversight the organic industry lives by is at a complete standstill.

On the same day, October 1,amidst the media cacophony on the “CR”, the Farm Bill slipped quietly into expiration with barely a sigh. The history of this farm bill is circuitous and murky. The last farm bill that was passed was in 2008. Congress failed to pass a new bill in 2012 and instead extended some parts of the 2008 bill through September 30, 2013. You can read more on the bill’s history on my Blog posts “What’s up Congress?” and “Over the Organic Cliff we go”. Having no new agricultural legislation in five years puts funding of the following organic programs completely on hold:

The National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program reimburses participating organic producers and handlers for 75 percent (up to $750) of their certification fees. This program helps make organic certification affordable, enabling farmers and processors to meet the growing demand for organic food.

The Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative is a competitive grant program dedicated to the growing research needs of the organic community.

The Organic Production Market and Data Initiative is a multi-agency organic data collection initiative that collects information vital to maintaining stable markets and tracking production trends.

The Farmers’ Market Promotion Program (FMPP) provides funding to community supported agriculture programs, farmers’ markets and farm markets to help develop marketing information and business plans, support innovative market ideas and educates consumers.

The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program invests in the next generation of farmers and food entrepreneurs by helping them access land, credit and crop insurance.  It also assists in launching and expanding new farms and businesses, and it provides training, mentoring and education.

Value-Added Producer Grants provide funding for feasibility studies and business plans, marketing for value-added products and farm-based renewable energy projects.

For a comprehensive list of what’s at stake visit the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalitions blog series Life without a Farm Bill.

Most experts don’t expect Congress to take any formal action on conferencing the Farm Bill until they have resolved the issue of funding the government.  Throughout the process we must continue to keep the pressure on them to finalize and pass a comprehensive five-year Farm Bill addressing our organic priorities.

The question on my mind is weather our elected officials are able to actually govern. That is the job we pay them for and the work we sent them to Capitol Hill to do. Tell your Congressional leaders to get their job done and take organics off of hold!

Melody L. Meyer is the Vice President of Policy and Industry Relations for United Natural Foods Incorporated (UNFI). Her role is to help strengthen and promote healthy, sustainable and organic food production and consumption through education and advocacy. She also serves as the Executive Director for the UNFI Foundation. Melody is president of the Board of Directors for the Organic Trade Association. She is a board trustee for The Organic Center and serves on the Organic Advisory Committee for the CA Department of Food and Agriculture. Melody has been in the organic food industry since 1976, when she began her career at an Iowa Natural Food Cooperative. She started her own business, “Source Organic,” in 1995, which was eventually acquired by Albert’s Organics / UNFI. Prior to her current role, Melody served as the VP of Global Initiatives at Albert’s Organics where she was deeply engaged in promoting and developing and Fair Trade and organic producers from around the world. Read more from Melody on her blog about everything organic at organicmattersblog.com.

Lead photo by Zoe Rudisill.

4 Responses to “Congress shuts down organics”

  1. James Bourke

    The question shouldn’t be what to do without government oversight and control.

    The question should be whether growers and processors, through to the retail end can still grow food and operate utilising existing guidelines and standards in the absence of that government oversight and control and is able to be self-managed, with some help from independent auditor services.

    The systems are in place at a local level, but the nature of the higher functions, such as databases and data collection may need to be rebuilt outside of government through independent bodies such as Rodale, the Land Institute and other good places for organic endeavour.

    Reply
  2. Dennis Hornick

    The USDA/NOP let alot of companies who were totally misleading slide. They were not that well run anyway. Maybe the next time they will get there act together.

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  3. Terence Cunningham

    James B. is suggesting that NOP certified producer data and rule enforcement responsibilities should be decentralized or assumed by some NGOs that pioneered the organic movement in the States. That would imply pursuing either a seperate NGO organic label ( i.e. “Biodynamic”) from USDA Organic, or getting the administration of the rule and accreditation and such back into the hands of a few NGOs that respect the experience of the NOSB to date, if not the accounting tediousness and overreach of trying to comply with the original ideal of purity, and shunning of all things synthetic in organic production.
    Full accreditation, input review, inspection, accounting, and enforcement, is no longer a small part time self-service that can be done by volunteer committees of growers. Certification under USDA NOP is obviously all about uniform compliance and submitting of documentation of full compliance, on time.

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  4. James Bourke

    Terence,
    Even though we in Australia have a homologated organics standard (according to our AQIS and broadly similar to EU organics certification, for export purposes) by and large, the certification, administration and compliance of the standard is done by for-profit-NGO’s, which can allow for derogation in certain instances. Isn’t that a much rather better, dynamic and flexible system for what the business of organics is trying to achieve, rather than rely upon permission from ‘the government’ that allow you to function and operate as a business?
    All I am trying to say is, relying upon government functions for trade is going to cost businesses a lot of money in the long run and that is something the smaller organic producer has not a lot of to waste.

    Reply

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