Natural Foods Merchandiser

$289 billion Farm Bill passed with support for organics

By Chris O'Brien

Last week, Congress passed the Farm Bill by a majority, including improvements in funding allocations favorable to the nutrition and organic industries. The bill goes to President Bush this week.

"We expect that the president will veto the bill," said Caren Wilcox, executive director of the Organic Trade Association. "We wish he wouldn't, but based on the fact that both the House and the Senate passed the bill by an overwhelming majority, we believe Congress will override the veto."

New funding in the bill includes $1.3 billion over 10 years for specialty crops including organic agriculture, research, and fruit and vegetable programs.

"Mandatory organic funding is going up more than fourfold," said Mark Lipson, policy program director for the Organic Farming Research Foundation. "In organic research and education, the main things we work on, there is a fivefold increase in mandatory spending."

Lipson says the OFRF staff is very happy about the increases, although if organic allocations were based on market share, the funding would be closer to $120 million a year versus the $20 million a year available with the new Farm Bill.

"We are still very positive and see it as a very solid down payment on that fair share goal," Lipson said.

Other bill highlights include:

  • Increases in public nutrition programs, including $1.05 billion for the fresh fruit and vegetable school-snack program, $1.25 billion for food bank donations through the Emergency Food Assistance Program and $7.9 billion for food stamps.
  • $4 billion for land stewardship, with a target of enrolling 80 million acres by 2013 in the Conservation Stewardship Program, a plan to pay farmers who employ conservation practices on their lands; as well as an additional $2.4 billion for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, designed to manage runoff from fields and feedlots.
  • $1.3 billion for Wetlands Reserve, approximately enough to support 1.22 million acres over five years.
  • An additional $1 billion in renewable-energy research, development and production, with higher incentives for cellulosic ethanol production and reduced incentives for corn-based ethanol.
  • No farm-program payments to people whose non-farm income is more than $500,000, stricter limits on direct payments for high-earning farms and the closing of loopholes used to avoid income limits by earning through multiple businesses.
  • Mandatory country-of-origin labeling for fruit, vegetables and meat.

But the substantial increases in funding for organic education and farming could take a while to trickle down to supermarket prices.

"It may mitigate some of the costs at the consumer level," Wilcox said. "I presume if we can get more production to meet some of the demand then there will be some evening out of prices. Converting to organic farming is a three-year conversion process, so enhancements in production will take time. But it's a really good step forward. For the first time, our farmers who choose to go organic have access to programs, technical assistance and help during the conversion process."

Wilcox commented that organics may in fact be better rooted to resist increases in overall food prices, driven primarily by rising fuel costs, due to the fact that they don't use petroleum-based fertilizers and herbicides, and consumers can by quality local produce at farmers' markets and co-ops.

"Research is a bit slower to get through the pipeline—more on the order of five to 10 years," Lipson said. "But other changes in the bill such as conservation and stewardship programs could start to impact production within the next two to three years."

"Even though the bill is a far cry from what organics needs, giving organics as much recognition as it did is a historic event," said Lipson. "It's a small step for organics but a giant step for Congress."

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