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Why organic is still in emergency mode

Though the Organic Farming Research Foundation celebrates their 20th anniversary this year, the organization is still in “emergency mode,” Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the organization, said this morning when he dropped by NFMs offices to share his thoughts on the state of the industry.

First, the good news: Organic sales are still on the rise and make up $20 billion or 4 percent of all U.S. retail sales, he said. With the help of Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and former OFRF board member, 1.8 percent of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service budget has been secured for organic research. That may not sound like a lot but is a vast improvement over last year’s allocation which was basically zilch. The USDA has also set aside $50 million for farmers in the process of converting to organic through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program. These accomplishments are great, but small potatoes when considering the work still to be done.

Here are a few issues on Scowcroft’s mind right now.

The Gulf of Mexico “dead zone.”
While we focus our attention on the BP oil spill, little if any effort is being made to address a “dead zone” in the gulf nearly twice the size of the spill. The void of marine life in this particular area has been linked to ethanol production yet, Scowcroft criticized, we’re still increasing subsidies for corn—the crop that produces ethanol. “Our agricultural system is eliminating our ecosystem,” he said.

Sustainable Agriculture report.
Addressing the current state of our agricultural system, the National Academy of Sciences released a report last month that advocates organic as the only sustainable way to farm. While that’s good news, the major flaw with the report, Scowcroft said, is that it calls for an “incremental change” and “transformative approach” in farming and ranching practices—something he says there’s no time for given the gravity of our current environmental climate. “At a time when climate change, obesity and health, ground water pollution and ocean dead zones have all been irrefutably linked to our current agro-industrial farm and food system, we need an urgent call to action.”

Right now the conversation about the environment is entirely framed by how actions will help or hinder job growth. Big companies like Switzerland-based agribusiness giant Syngenta are using the unemployment rate to their advantage by promoting pesticides. Currently, the company is discouraging the EPA to ban Atrazine, an herbicide that’s been linked to breast cancer and prostate cancer, by saying loss of the use of this chemical will result in the elimination of 50,000 jobs. “We’re essentially polluting ourselves to keep jobs,” Scowcroft said.

What do you think about Scowcroft’s points? Right on, missed the boat completely? Sound off below.

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