Natural Foods Merchandiser

Proposed Farm Bill short on organics, conservation

On Feb. 2, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its proposals for the 2007 Farm Bill. If passed, the bill would supersede the previous one passed in 2002. The bill, which must still navigate Congress during the 2007 legislative session before it could go into effect, contains some notable shifts in policy compared with the 2002 bill, as well as a $10 billion decrease in spending compared with the previous five-year period.

The previous Farm Bill, with a total spending allocation of $254 billion over five years, earmarked the bulk of its funds for food programs, such as food stamps and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children ($120 billion), and crop subsidies to farmers ($90 billion), with the remaining money going toward conservation, the National Organic Program and other ag-related spending.

In its Farm Bill Fact Sheet written about the proposal, the USDA points to $5.2 billion in suggested spending to support fruit and vegetable producers; $1.6 billion in spending for ethanol, alternative fuels and renewable energy; $7.8 billion in increases to conservation programs; and proposed reforms in commodity payment programs as some of the key changes.

Organics in the Farm Bill
The organic-related proposals in the Farm Bill include investing an additional $10 million in mandatory funding for organic research. In a bill in which proposals total well more than $200 billion over five years, only $61 million is currently earmarked specifically for organic support.

Given that organics now constitute 2.5 percent of total food production in the United States and is the fastest-growing market segment, many organic advocates said the proposed spending on organics falls short of what is needed.

"The Bush administration Farm Bill is only half the loaf; drilling through the Bush budget to see what is actually allocated is the other half," said Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, based in Santa Cruz, Calif. "This Farm Bill, based on what we've read early on, has relatively new initiatives and new priorities. However, relative to our overall corner of the agricultural landscape, organics still hasn't remotely received its fair share of resources and attention."

Scowcroft pointed out that the new bill proposes $2 million a year for organic research, a significant reduction over the current spending of $3.9 million. "USDA's proposed spending of $61 million certainly falls far short of what organic farmers need and what the organic sector needs," said Barbara Haumann, spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association, based in Greenfield, Mass.

The OTA has called for the USDA to spend closer to $60 million per year, rather than over a five-year span, on programs directly related to organic agriculture. "While organic farmers and the rest of the organic-business community certainly appreciate being mentioned in the proposal, organic farmers need a Farm Bill that reflects a farm-to-table strategy," said Caren Wilcox, the organization's executive director, in an OTA press release.

The OTA's proposals, which the group hopes could still be implemented in a final Farm Bill, include more support for fostering transition to organic agriculture, and providing organic farmers more market data, such as the USDA currently provides to conventional farmers.

"The administration's proposal, which is the only one on the table right now, is still very sketchy," said Mark Lipson, policy director for OFRF. "It's good that they're backing an expanded certification cost-share program, but in other areas the proposal is far, far short of levels that we think are both fair and necessary." Other items budgeted for in the $61 million are data collection and basic expenses of the NOP.

Lipson said that among organic advocates there is a strong consensus that organics isn't receiving a fair share of spending, but that federal budget constraints can make it difficult to increase funding. However, he pointed to the wide base of support for organics as one reason to be hopeful that Congress might make positive changes to the proposed bill. "The great thing about organic agriculture is that support crosses partisan boundaries and urban and rural boundaries," he said. Among the key issues related to organic agriculture that advocates would like to see funding for, Lipson identified country-of-origin labeling and conservation-security programs. A CSP provides financial and technical assistance to promote conservation and improvement of soil, water, and plant and animal life.

The environment
The Farm Bill stands as one of America's key pieces of environmental legislation, affecting natural-resource-management decisions on more than half the nation's land, and dedicates more public dollars to resource protection than the Environmental Protection Agency, according to Robyn Nick, spokeswoman for Coleman Natural Meats based in Golden, Colo., which is crafting an educational pamphlet on the Farm Bill for consumers, in conjunction with The American Farmland Trust, headquartered in Washington, D.C.

"The proposed bill contains about $25 billion in spending on conservation and stewardship programs over the next five years," said Dennis Nuxoll, director of government relations for The American Farmland Trust. "In a sense, regulations are the stick, while the Farm Bill provides the carrots for good behavior and environmental stewardship."

Nuxoll lauded the bill's proposal for seed money that would fund pilot projects that implement commercial applications for environmental benefits, and would provide financial help to farmers and ranchers who plant trees to take carbon out of the atmosphere. "These programs are very innovative and have the potential, long-term, to create an agricultural revolution," he said.

But money actually earmarked for conservation programs is not in the proposed bill.

"You have to applaud the rhetoric," Nuxoll said. "But I don't see a lot of substantive follow-up in terms of money."

Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 3/p. 17, 20

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