On Wednesday, Sept. 15 2010, the US Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry held a hearing to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Organic Foods Production Act.
RAFI’s Michael Sligh testified at this week’s hearing about the past and the future of organic agriculture in the United States. You can watch the entire hearing online. (Michael starts talking in the 86th minute). Here’s what Michael said:
I am here today representing the National Organic Coalition, an alliance of farmers, environmentalists, consumers and businesses working to protect the integrity of organic, which is at the heart of continued consumer confidence. Thank you for this opportunity to celebrate the last 20 years of organic progress and to look to organic’s bright future.
As it turns out, this has been a pretty long row to hoe for many of us from the beginnings to now but has been a very productive one. We have made real progress and this Organic Foods Production Act legislation still serves as a model for how to create a successful public/private partnership in a very vigorous, hyper-participatory and transparent way.
There, of course have been many twist and turns, some serious failures to communicate and even some major lapses of fair play. However, not only has organic survived, it has actually thrived – against all odds. I believe this is because of this winning combination of strong farmer innovation and common sense with marketplace entrepreneurship, backed by very loyal consumers and coupled with sound federal policy. This combination has served us all very well.
We do indeed have much to be proud of as organic emerges from the margins to the mainstream. Organic is global, with standards in nearly 60 countries with 20 years of continued brisk growth rates, with the US being the world’s largest organic market. Organic is even increasing yields for some of the world’s poorest farmers.
To sum up, organic produces high yielding and high quality crops while reducing the adverse impacts on the environment and strengthening family farms. Organic is a success story with concrete benefits. Congress and USDA’s role has also been critical; landmark 2008 Farm bill provisions have increased organic certification cost-share, funding for organic research and access for organic farmers to crop insurance and conservation programs.
While these many successes are exciting, as we look ahead, I believe the real potential of organic is still largely untapped. Organic is actually providing ag-based solutions to global problems of environmental degradation, climate change, food safety, and declines in health and quality of life. We must to shift our thinking to publicly recognize organic not just as marketing program, but as a food system delivering multiple societal benefits.
To that end, we and our organic community partners have just completed a 5-year dialogue developing a road map for organic into the future. This National Organic Action Plan lays out concrete goals for the future of organic, such as:
- Continued doubling number of organic products, farms, and acres, while ensuring fair prices to farmers and workers,
- Expanding the research and training scope
- Expanding local organic seed production,
- Increasing local value-added processing infrastructure and
- Implementing fair crop insurance and contracts for organic farms, to mention a few.
We are also very pleased that USDA and Congress have already taken action on several of our key recommendations, including increased funding for the National Organic Program, the National Organic Program pasture rule and policy manual, USDA commitment to National Organic Program oversight; and the appointment of a USDA Organic Coordinator.
Additionally, this Plan also identifies some overarching opportunities and challenges that require your leadership:
1. GMO Liability: We have clearly heard the need to shift more of the responsibility for prevention of GMO contamination back to the manufacturer. It is clear this novel technology cannot stay put. It is threatening non-GMO markets and creating new weed problems with economic harm to farmers and businesses. This must not be misunderstood as an issue between farmers, or as environmentalists versus farmers, but as an urgent need for an overall rational market clarity; an urgent need for policy fairness, increased responsibility and real governmental oversight.
2. Food Safety: This requires holistic, fair, scale – appropriate, and risk-based approach that is compatible with organic practices already required by USDA. Organic must be seen as part of the solution to the growing food safety problems.
3. Seed Concentration and Lack of Diversity: As the seed market concentrate farmer seed costs skyrocket, and the diversity of public seed options dwindle. We urgently need to reinvigorate our public seeds and breeds capacity for a healthier, more local and nutritious diet, while mitigating climate change through a much more diverse and less genetically uniform agriculture. USDA must be urged to fully implement a distinct USDA institute to meet this critical need. This will be a major benefit to all farmers and society as whole.
4. Adequate Funding for Organic Research: Despite gains in the recent Farm Bill, Organic research funding still pales in the comparison. Given organics multiple societal benefits, funding levels need to at least rise to reach organics current fair share.
5. Increased Access of Organic Food for Vulnerable Populations: There is growing evidence for public health benefits of organic, particularly for children. Yet federal policy barriers are limiting these very foods to these populations. These barriers need to be removed.
6. And finally, we need to better foster the next generation of organic farmers.
In conclusion, history will not only judge us by how well we managed our resources today but how well we defended the opportunities of future generations. Now is the time for us to set the course for ahead for organic.