In the interest of developing agricultural policy in support of organic farming, Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) published "Organic Farming for Health and Prosperity" last September. It's a review of American scientific literature on organic farming in the United States, most of which originated in peer-reviewed academic journals dating as far back as 2000. The main purpose of the 19-page document is to influence public policies toward investing in the organic sector.
You may recall the circus around Congress's Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (more widely known as the Super Committee) and their failure to reach bipartisan agreement for cutting the federal deficit. Maureen Wilmot, executive director of OFRF, peers into the Farm Bill crystal ball. "What we learned from the failed Super Committee process is that organic ag programs, the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program in particular, are on the budget cutter's chopping block, which means we have to fight even harder to ensure they make it into in the final Farm Bill," she said.
A future and a hope for the 2012 Farm Bill
Wilmot is not discouraged by Congress’ efforts towards what many dubbed a "secret farm bill:"
"Given how much push back there was from constituents about the closed-door proceedings, I think everyone is relieved that, going forward, the Farm Bill will be debated out in the open," she said. "One good thing that emerged from the Super Committee was a signal that programs promoting farmer's markets and local foods could be included. These are initiatives that OFRF will be advocating for on behalf of organic farmers because they create new markets for their products, build local economy and promote public health and environmental sustainability."
Highlights from the report
"Organic Farming for Health and Prosperity" reads like a business plan aimed directly at the USDA. I read all 19 pages so you don’t have to. Here are the highlights.
There are currently 14,500 certified organic farmers in the United States. Projected market demands require this number to triple to a minimum of 42,000 organic farmers by 2015! How do we, as a nation, make organic farming a viable and attractive profession?
The report lays a foundation, much like a business plan, for how policy makers can ensure that organic farmers have the funds and resources available to build a profitable operation.
Current public resources are going into some small buckets for organic farming:
- Funding for research and data collection
- Funding to offset a small amount of certification costs
- Enforcement of the organic standards (staffing for the National Organic Program)
- Access to conservation programs for farmers
These appropriations are not itemized in dollar amounts in the OFRF report, but are determined to be "minimal." It’s not enough, especially when there are studies supporting the arguments that organic is good for:
- Human health
- Job creation
- The economy
- Soil and water
- The birds and the bees
- Slowing climate change
I’ll focus on the first three, though all factors are interconnected.
Organic farming is good for you. After the release of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ President’s Cancer Panel 2010 Report, the panel "recommends that American consumers eat food grown without pesticides and synthetic fertilizers."
I often attribute my own dedication to organic to the blunt realization that farm workers and their families are routinely exposed to carcinogenic synthetic pesticides. Maria Rodale refers to this common practice as "chemical farming" in her book The Organic Manifesto, because organic farmers don’t suffer from those environmental factors on their health.
Organic industry has continued to grow during the recession ($3.6 billion in 1997 to $29 billion in 2010) with an annual growth rate of 19 percent between 1997 and 2008. The growth has expanded employment opportunities; organic farmers hired an average of 61 year-round employees (compared to 28 year-round employees on conventional farms).
Census data reveals, on average, U.S. organic farms have higher sales, production expenses and operating profit than the national average. More money is being cycled through local economies, generating growth for rural communities (a major priority for Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack).
The OFRF report's bottom line
The OFRF report recommends the following policy priorities:
- Expand organic research funding
- Ensure fair and appropriate risk management tools
- Meet market demand
- Create a robust organic transition assistance program
- Reward environmental benefits
"Getting a Farm Bill passed in an election year is going to be very tough, maybe even unlikely. Minority members on the Senate Ag Committee and the Republican majority in the House might prefer to hold off until after the election in the event that they take control of the agenda," said Wilmot. "This means that Senate Democrats on the Ag Committee with support from House Democrats could push hard to get a bill passed before Election Day in November."