Washington Insider -- Thursday

What's Organic and What Isn't?

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

Obama, Ryan Talk About TPP; USITC Launches Investigation on TPP Impact

President Barack Obama said work towards the final stage of getting a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal off the ground was not easy, even as he reiterated the pact was a good deal economically. "Execution is critical after we arrived at the text," Obama said in Manila at a meeting with leaders of 11 other TPP member countries on the sidelines of the annual summit of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation. "It is not only a good deal economically but also reflects our common values," Obama said. "TPP is at the heart of our shared vision for the future of this dynamic region."

Meanwhile, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said it was possible the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact could receive a vote in the current Congress but he was uncertain about when. "I think we can. I don't know when that will be," he said, adding he was still analyzing the recently released final language. "I'm concerned about biologics, quite frankly. There are other issues that I'm concerned about."

In related news, the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) has instituted an investigation to assess the likely impact of the TPP.

The U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) made the request to the USITC Nov. 5. The investigation, "Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement: Likely Impact on the U.S. Economy and on Specific Industry Sectors," is due to the president and Congress no more than 105 days after the president signs the TPP agreement and that signing can take place 90 days after the Nov. 5 notification to Congress of the intent to enter into the trade deal.

No doubt any congressional action on the TPP will not come until well after the USITC has submitted their report on the impacts of the deal. And, there is no deadline for the congressional ratification of the pact and some observers believe that will not likely take place until well into 2016 if not after the 2016 elections or potentially even into early 2017 under a different administration.

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Opposition Remains Against Proposed Changes to Food Aid

Congressional opponents of the Obama administration's push to reshape the United States' main international food aid program appeared to have found support for their concerns in testimony from administration officials given earlier this week.

Paul Jaenichen, administrator of the Maritime Administration, said changing the program, known as Food for Peace, would reduce cargo carried by a small, private fleet of ocean-going U.S.-flagged ships. Opponents worry that will undermine federal efforts to maintain a U.S.-based shipping industry. "One of my focuses as maritime administrator is to minimize any impact on the U.S.-flagged fleet," Jaenichen told the House Agriculture subcommittee on Livestock and Foreign Agriculture and the Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.

The Obama administration wants the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to purchase up to 45% of the food aid outside the U.S. or give refugees vouchers to buy food in countries where they have settled. Supporters argue that cash vouchers or locally purchased food would shave months off the delivery time for U.S. shipped food.

David Berteau, assistant secretary of defense for logistics and materiel readiness, said he was unsure if the number of U.S.-flagged ships available would be enough if the Defense Department had a sudden demand for civilian vessels. "I cannot sit here and tell you that we can meet the demand that might occur," Berteau acknowledged. The number of U.S.-flagged ships has declined from 106 vessels in 2011 to 78 ships in October 2015.

In FY 2016 spending bills, House and Senate appropriators rejected the administration's request for greater flexibility in making food purchases outside the U.S. Appropriators would provide $1.46 billion for Food for Peace, also known as the PL-480 Title II program.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., the maritime subcommittee chairman, said maintaining the current federal requirement that 50% of all food aid be shipped on U.S.-flagged vessels is a matter of national security. In the 113th Congress, Hunter's subcommittee included in its Coast Guard reauthorization bill a requirement that 75% of food aid shipments be transported by U.S.-flagged vessels. The Senate stuck with a 50% requirement that made it into the final bill.

Rep. David Rouzer, R-N.C., chairman of the Agriculture subcommittee, said he was concerned about negotiations started by former administrator of the USAID Rajiv Shah to strike a deal with shippers to overcome their objections to changes in the food aid program. Rouzer said U.S. agriculture groups were excluded from the talks.

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Washington Insider: What's Organic and What Isn't?

Words and their meanings are serious business for the government, especially when it comes to the meaning of food qualities like "natural" or "local," among others. In the meantime, there seems to be agreement on the word "organic" but even that is sometimes more than a little shaky. Even more immediate, AgriPulse reported recently, is the effort to "disallow" certification of hydroponic produce as organic.

This is no small deal. Hydroponic production is huge, accounting for more than half of U.S. fresh-market tomatoes, AgriPulse thinks -- and is continuing to grow. Also, a few producers "are gaining USDA's organic seal of approval, much to the chagrin of most traditional organic advocates."

A recent statement by the National Organic Coalition spells out its opposition to this trend. "Hydroponic systems represent the antithesis of organic systems and go against the definition of 'organic production' set out in [the law]," it says.

And, in spite of the fact that USDA's National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) can only advise and has no regulatory power, it has come out against hydroponics. One of its committees spent over six years trying to update standards for organic greenhouse production, including hydroponic, and concluded in 2010 that hydroponics "certainly cannot be classified as certified organic growing methods."

That didn't settle the matter, AgriPulse says. "Though USDA takes the NOSB's lead on most organic rules, "it didn't on this one." USDA named a 16-member task force to report to the organic board on hydroponic and aquaponics practices and how well they align with USDA's organic standards.

Organic growers argue that the board's 2010 determination did not lack for detail or clarity but doesn't think the task force will be helpful to those who want hydroponics disallowed, since most panel members are hydroponic operators or advocates, and "the majority of those appointed actually disagree with the NOSB [2010] recommendation."

What will happen? The Organic Trade Association's crop and livestock specialist Nate Lewis says that whatever USDA's intent with the task force, it will need to define hydroponic production if it's to be disallowed. "Can you grow organically without soil? What is soil, what is not? What's allowed?" he asks.

For one thing, Lewis says certification of hydroponics spells trouble for U.S. organic exports, since the European Union, Canada, Japan and other major markets exclude hydroponics from organic designation, and Mexico will soon approve rules to do the same.

Still, certifying hydroponics has plenty of advocates, especially in cool climates, AgriPulse says, where hydroponic greenhouses allow for improved pest and climate control and stretch the frost-free season.

In addition, in dry California and other arid regions, hydroponics can greatly boost water-efficiency. Sarah Costin, co-owner of A Bee Organic, a California-based group of organic certifiers who approve hydroponic greenhouses, says such systems "use 65% to 90% less water than other production systems," and even "way, way less water than in drip irrigation."

Marianne Cufone, who heads the Recirculating Farms Coalition, a diverse nationwide network of aquaponics growers, chefs, consumer advocates and others, says the organic label is the hallmark for healthful foods, and national organic standards should be expanded to accommodate hydroponics and aquaponics. According to Cufone: "Organic farmers amend the soil all the time to grow good products. It's really no different in water-based growing: You amend the water, and if you are restricted to using certain organic materials to do that, I think that earns an organic label."

Odds are, the hydroponics certification debate will continue to intensify as advocates push for and against hydroponics and, especially if more such operations are defined as organic. In addition, this is but one aspect of the debate over the organic brand as larger and larger retailers work to take advantage of the organic image to boost sales and revenues, to the dismay of many organic purists.

Clearly, organics with their rigid production rules add valuable diversity to the U.S. food system. And, since the brand has value, it likely will continue to attract additional claimants, sometimes to the dismay of the current practitioners. Thus, pressures are likely to grow for use of clear, specific, defensible criteria for the organic definition, that likely will need to be firmer than those now being advocated, Washington Insider believes.


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(GH/CZ)