Washington Insider -- Friday

Tensions Over USDA's Organic Program

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

Brazil Signals US Ban on Imports of Fresh Beef Could Be Lifted In October

The U.S. could lift its ban on imports of fresh beef from Brazil in October, according to a statement from the Brazilian Agriculture Ministry. "We received information that processed beef was cleared," Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi said, according to a statement. "We hope that very soon, we will also be able to clear fresh beef."

The statement noted the ban would end after the U.S. finishes its current evaluation of information provided by Brazil on questions raised by U.S. veterinary experts that visited Brazil earlier this month. The optimism on the end of the ban on fresh beef comes as the U.S. told Brazil it would allow thermos-processed meat exports from five plants to resume, according to the ministry.

Conservation Groups Urge Increased Funding In Farm Bill

Conservation groups are urging on Congress to increase funding in the 2018 Farm Bill and to strengthen current conservation efforts to ensure farmers, ranchers and foresters can effectively access those programs.

The recommendations were released September 27 and more than 20 organizations that contributed input were listed as supporters. The consensus document asks for a large increase in funding for conservation programs, but supporters make it clear they do not want these funds to come at the expense of other programs in the farm bill.

The set of recommendations highlight a number of programs with detailed lists of necessary changes and several conservation provisions that also need changes. Although conservation advocates are asking to increase funding in programs they are also looking to change the requirements for some.

Washington Insider: Tensions Over USDA’s Organics Program

The relationship between USDA and the organic foods industry it supports has always been uncomfortable, and may be coming to an end, Politico says.

Politico lists several tension points, beginning with the National Organic Program’s chief Miles McEvoy’s preparation to retire at the end of September. Politico also notes “growing concerns about import fraud and the delay by USDA of a slew of pending standards.” The industry has long had sharp internal splits over its standards but Politico says they are now “bracing for a future of regulatory unknowns.”

Earlier this month, for the first time in the industry’s history, it sued the federal government over the delay in implementing a long-sought organic animal-welfare standard that had been under development for more than a decade and was supposed to address how the animals that produce organic milk, meat and eggs should be treated.

Part of the problem, Politico says, is that while the industry has grown from $8.6 billion in annual sales in 2002 to $50 billion in sales in 2016, the government has been “hesitant to increase funding.” The National Organic Program only receives $9 million in funding a year and is staffed by 35 people.

While the Senate proposed an increase in funding to $12 million a year in the 2018 agriculture appropriations bill, the House did not. “Their resources have not grown in accordance with the growth of the industry, so they are still trying to do as much as they were for a much smaller sector,” Barbara Patterson, government relations director for the National Farmers Union, told Politico. “So there are some inherent challenges to trying to govern organic with such a small staff and limited resources.”

As a result, some organic companies are adding private certifications to their products to show consumers they are doing such things as humanely raising poultry or that their dairy products stem from grass-fed animals. “It’s all up to us for making sure we are reliable and accountable for what we are selling,” said Kim Dietz, senior manager of environmental, natural and organic policy for J.M. Smucker Company. “We can’t count on the government.”

Into this turmoil, Kathleen Merrigan, an organic advocate and former USDA deputy secretary and now executive director of sustainability at George Washington University, provides a somewhat different view. It’s not just organic producers that are having to look outside of the government for solutions to problems that used to get a regulatory fix, she says and points to a number of initiatives including climate change that “should be addressed with federal rulemaking, but are likely to be ignored in the administration’s push to cut regulations,” she says.

“We are entering an era of alternative government schemes where industry has to step up,” she said.

The fact is, the organic industry and the federal certification program that has been administered by USDA since the late 1980s has not only been controversial, but has been continually involved in internal struggles, as well.

It was conceived as a way to end, or reduce, the use of chemicals and other “non-natural” compounds in food production but has almost always involved advocates who wanted to restrict food production to certain systems and types of farms considered “sustainable”. And, it has frequently included advocates who said or hinted that all other food was “dangerous” to an important degree, although scientific studies have repeatedly found that not to be the case.

There are other controversies, as well. One is the fact that organic production, as the USDA certification program defines it, is far less efficient than modern ag systems so those foods cost consumers far more and its potential for expansion has been restrained, as a result.

Still, organic foods have claimed a growing, if small, share of U.S. food sales and seem likely to continue to grow, although it likely will continue to have problems redefining the U.S. food system as some advocates have said they would like it to be.

And, even though the industry may chafe under USDA bureaucrats, it likely is far better off under USDA’s seal of approval, than on its own. So, it seems likely that the industry will survive the coming retirement of a well- liked official, but will continue to struggle internally to redefine its products to meet advocates’ preferences with little if any additional federal funds, Washington Insider believes.

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