What Congress knows (and doesn't know) about the organic industry

What Congress knows (and doesn't know) about the organic industry

Last week, on the second day of the Organic Trade Association (OTA) conference, we joined OTA members for visits with members of Congress. This year our group had myself, Steve Taormina (standards director, New Hope Natural Media), Kelly Shea (VP, organic regulatory and government affairs), Michael Joseph (president, CEO and co-founder of Mile High Organics) and Alan Lewis (Natural Grocers/Vitamin Cottage).

The major questions we heard from Capitol Hill surrounded issues such as GMOs, egg production and access to pasture for layer hens, and organic supply chain shortages.

Our first visit was with the office of Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE-1). His agriculture Legislative Assistant Alan Feyerherm patiently sat with us while we listed our requests and asked questions relating to the spike in food allergies across the country.

“My 5-year old son has a peanut allergy, but even if he didn't there are precautions his school takes to separate allergens from students as much as possible—even a peanut free table!” he said. We discussed the role genetically modified organisms (GMOs) may play in the global increase in food allergies, further punctuating our plea for more research funding to help investigate the potential health threats of GMOs.

Next we visited Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO), but he was called down to the Senate floor to meet on the farm bill that morning, so we left our materials with his office.

Congressman Jared Polis (D-CO-2) was also called to the House floor that afternoon, so we met with his Chief of Staff Brian Branton who listened to our requests but asked us pointedly, “Where do you foresee this money coming out of? I mean, it needs to come from somewhere, so where would it come from?” This threw us off at first, partly because I always considered it Congress's job to figure out re-allocation, but we were happy to suggest pulling funds from other research budgets that don't currently benefit organic farmers.

The only legislator we actually met with in person was Congressman Ed Perlmutter (D-CO-7). When I brought up that our industry, which is propelled mainly by entrepreneurs who raise capital themselves, faces a deficit in the organic supply chain from U.S. farms, he stopped me to ask, “Why is there such a shortage in supply? Why do these companies need to source from other countries?”

Kelly Shea stepped in to echo what Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (ME-1) stated the day before: “The problem is the impact of ethanol corn on the organic supply chain. That land is being used up grow subsidized non-food commodity crops.”

I agree, but even if that land was available for specialty crops, there aren't enough new farmers to grow our food because there are almost no incentives. Not only are there no incentives, the current farm bill de-incentivizes new farmers by not offering organic crop insurance. Convincing smart, able-bodied young people to enter a lifestyle and profession that does not promise financial stability is an uphill battle, but we must acknowledge that it may in fact ruin them financially without even a whisper of a safety net.

Finally, we sat in Senator Dianne Feinstein's office (D-CA), with a large group of OTA members, where her Legislative Assistant Devin Rhinerson assured us of Senator Feinstein's support for organic. Her staff was the most knowledgeable about our requests and the implications for funding.

As if to confirm the Senator's dedication to organic, we received a text message from the OTA home office announcing that the Senate Agricultural Committee accepted the farm bill proposal by a vote of 16-5. It will now go to the House, where it will sit in debate… indefinitely. Still, the encouragement was strong. And I must commend those who met with us that day for being much more informed on food and agriculture issues than last year.

How much do your representatives and senators know about the organic industry? Tell us in the comments.

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