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New administration and other changes mean natural products industry could help shape agricultural policy

Getty Images sustainable farmer policies
The natural products industry can support farmers by being more involved in advocating for greener agriculture policies.

While a focus on agricultural policy and opportunity is relatively new for the natural products industry, it’s coming on with vigor, and the next four years will be a crucial time for building agricultural policies that help the industry, the planet and the consumer. 

The industry just might be ready, too.

“Until we got together to get hemp legalized, we never focused on agricultural policy,” admits Loren Israelsen, founder and president of United Natural Products Alliance (UNPA). “Now that we know we can work together, along with the global supply chain and economic issues highlighted by COVID-19, and with an administration committed to addressing climate change we hope to make some headway during the next four years.” 

Recently, Nutrition Business Journal spoke with Israelsen and others for their thoughts on how the industry can get more involved in agricultural policy—particularly around creating markets and opportunities for farmers growing noncommodity crops that could be used in supplements.  

The state of agricultural affairs as it relates to the natural products and supplement industries, it turns out, can be complex.

What's in the current farm bill

Most federal agricultural policies and programs are contained in the federal farm bill.

The original goals of the first farm bill, created as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation, are still the same today: to provide fair food prices to farmers and consumers, a sufficient food supply and safeguard and preserve America’s natural resources. 

It may be surprising to learn that of the $428 billion in farm bill funding over the 2019-to-2023 period, more than 76% is expected to go toward nutrition programs, primarily the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which includes free school lunches and the food stamp program. The remaining $102 billion goes toward agricultural policies and programs, including:

  • USDA Crop Insurance and related subsidies offer financial benefits for non-organic and organic traditional field crops (such as wheat, corn and soybeans), and for about 50% of all U.S. specialty crop acres, including raisins, fruit and coffee. 
  • USDA Sustainable Farming programs provide grants and loans for research, equipment and crop cost-sharing for organic and non-organic crops.
  • USDA Rural Development programs provide loans and grants to support infrastructure, housing, community and business development in rural areas.
  • USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provides technical and financial assistance for farmers to make conservation improvements to their land.
  • USDA Value-Added Producer Grant Program (VAPG) helps farmers create new products, develop and expand marketing opportunities and increase income.
  • USDA Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) provides grants to support research and production of specialty crops.

Many of these programs present direct relevance to the natural products industry. Of note for supplement marketers is the mammoth SNAP program, something the industry may not currently be taking optimal advantage of.

How the Trump years affected farmers

While many members of the natural products industry weren’t happy with the Trump administration’s agricultural policy moves, there were some fans.

“I think the Trump administration did a great job for the farming industry,” says George Pontiakos, COO at Martin Bauer Group, which provides ingredients to food, beverage and supplement companies. “During that time, hemp was legalized, subsidies were given to farmers when China prevented imports through high tariffs, and aid was given to farmers early on in the COVID-19 outbreak.” 

Pontiakos is not a fan of all government involvement, however. “The last thing the American farmer needs is more government oversight,” he says. “The market should drive the activities of farmers. If the demand for a crop is there, farmers will grow it.”

Case in point: When Martin Bauer determined a need for herbs with specific attributes, the company purchased Oregon-based Core Botanica, producers of mints and other botanical crops.
The organic trade also gained a win in the from the 2018 Farm Bill, according to some observers. Thanks to advocacy and strong bipartisan support from Congress, “funding for the USDA’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative more than doubled, to $50 million, by 2023,” says Megan DeBates, vice president of government affairs at the Organic Trade Association.

DeBates, however, was not pleased with some of the administration’s actions. “Trump issued an executive order during his first days in office that would dramatically reduce government regulations, but in the organic industry, we need strong regulation,” she says. “He withdrew a final standard regulation on animal welfare in the organic industry that had been created in the prior administration, and he also took many pending organic standards proposed regulations off the unified regulatory agenda, essentially stalling any further action.”

Biden’s campaign message about the role of agriculture in mitigating climate change is in contrast to a Trump administration that created policies against environmental and climate change initiatives. A recent Washington Post analysis found that Trump weakened or wiped out more than 125 rules and policies aimed at protecting the country’s land, water and air. The Trump administration reduced oversight of polluting industries and ended protections for endangered wildlife. Just prior to the election, the administration moved into anti-environmental overdrive, easing requirements on power plants with proven waste leakage into waterways, and reduced oversight of mine safety, as well as opening up more than 9.3 million acres to logging in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.

Sustainable agricultural practices can mitigate climate change

There are many ways that emerging agricultural practices can help the environment, reduce climate change and propel innovation. The supplement industry is better situated than ever to make meaningful strides in these areas.

Agroforestry, or farming with trees, stands out. The most common form of this is alley-cropping, or planting rows of trees and planting crops in the wide spaces in between.

“Trees are perennials, and made primarily of carbon they absorb from the atmosphere through photosynthesis,” says Keefe Keeley, co-executive director of the Savanna Institute, a nonprofit focused on research and education with scientists and farmers to develop agroforestry as a toolbox of solutions for farms primarily in the Midwest. Agroforestry not only helps reduce the carbon footprint, it also helps farmers economically. “By including trees integrated with other crops, farmers can grow on one acre what it would normally take almost one and a half acres to grow, if the trees and crops were grown in separate areas,” says Keeley. The trees can be sold as lumber, nuts can be harvested, and the diversity of having both crops and trees helps lessen the risks associated with having a single crop.

One type of agroforestry that the herbal products industry has used is forest farming, or growing high-value crops under the shade of a tree canopy. “The Appalachian Beginning Forest Farmer Coalition (ABFFC), created by project director and Virginia Tech forestry professor John Munsell, is doing great work in this area,” says Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association. The coalition has received USDA funding to grow crops, including wild American ginseng, which sells for hundreds of dollars per pound. Mountain Rose Herbs is one buyer of this forest-farmed American ginseng, says McGuffin.

Another way farming can help reduce climate change: planting more perennial crops, such as berries, asparagus and walnuts. Carbon is sequestered in the soil during perennial cropping, which reduces the carbon footprint. Some of these berries, such as aronia, elderberry and black currant, have antioxidant levels that are as high or higher than acai. Plus, growing crops locally reduces the carbon footprint of overseas travel or long truck rides.

A third way to reduce our carbon footprint: creating crops that actually improve our natural resources. One example: high-quality kelp. In 2017 in Saco, Maine, the first commercial seaweed farm was created to provide a new crop for lobster fishermen. When Bri Warner took over in 2018 as President and CEO of Atlantic Sea Farms, she had a bigger vision. 

“Ninety-eight percent of seaweed is imported, and 100% is dried,” she says. “Most of it comes from China, and the water it’s grown in has high levels of heavy metals and is often near compromised waters.” Not only is the kelp from Atlantic Sea Farms grown in clean, clear Maine waters (which are heavily regulated due to the lobster industry), but cultivating it actually improves the water by removing carbon and nitrogen from it, says Warner.

Warner’s goal is to provide a healthier version of nutrient-dense kelp (both dry and fermented) to the world. “It’s a triple win,” she says. “We’re helping improve the water, providing more nutritious food and helping the livelihood of small farmers.”

The natural products industry has long led innovation in food and health trends. Over the next four years and beyond, the industry has a unique opportunity to address these opportunities on a policy level and not just a consumer level.

Looking forward to the next farm bill

Israelsen has his eyes on a big target: the 2023 Farm Bill, which offers many opportunities for the natural products industry.

Both Israelsen and DeBates are interested in getting more natural and organic products into the school lunch program, which is a part of the larger SNAP funding in the bill. Confirmation of Tom Vilsack as Agriculture Secretary might help that agenda.

Vilsack, Biden’s current nominee, served as Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture. In 2010, Vilsack reformed the National School Lunch Program, increasing servings of whole grains, greens and beans, and decreasing refined grains, empty calories and salt. “In addition to natural food products, we could also support efforts to include supplements in federally-funded nutrition programs,” says Israelsen.

The following are changes natural products industry members would like to see during the Biden administration.

Warner: “I’d like to see tax breaks and funding from the Value Added Producer Grant (VAPG) go towards crops that improve the environment.” Warner would also like to see federal policies and programs that provide technical and financial assistance to farmers of new crops who need to build processing plants.

McGuffin: “More USDA funding for forest farming would be helpful.” One way to do that, says McGuffin, is for the natural products industry to create more connections with schools that focus on agriculture. “Schools can help champion local efforts with farms and help write grant applications for funding.”

Keeley: “I’d like to see spending at the NRCS and SCRI prioritized for agroforestry farm practices that have a positive climate impact.” Keeley would also like to see insurance policies structured around whole farming systems that would incentivize and support crop diversity and perennial crops.

DeBates: “OTA have shared their concerns, and for the first year of the new administration we will be advocating for these priority actions: the reinstatement of animal welfare regulations in organic farming; finalizing organic dairy transition standards; getting Obama-proposed standards for personal care, pet foods, aquaculture and greenhouse production back into the regulatory process; and expanding the use of organic food in federal programs, such as those for food stamps and school lunches.” DeBates says policies that promote climate-friendly agriculture will also be a focus for the organization, as maintaining and building soil is a requirement of becoming a certified organic producer.

Israelsen: “In addition to SNAP policy changes, I’d like to see programs to fund new (actually old world) crops, to protect and revitalize lands that have been overfarmed, and programs to encourage greater urban organic farming, beekeeping and other horticulture activities in cities.”

There are many ways for the natural products industry to work with the new administration, to help consumers, the environment and the financial success of industry members, Israelsen says. “By banding together, we have the opportunity to influence government policy that supports innovation.” 

This article was featured in the Nutrition Business Journal Guest Editor Issue. The guest editor was Tera Johnson, founder of Tera's Whey.

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