Bridging Gaps: Organic Across the Aisle and Ocean
Bridging gaps: organic across the aisle and the ocean
By Stephen Walker, Operations Manager
Got some time to talk about our government? Oh, I know. Perhaps that question makes your eyes roll, or maybe even makes your blood boil. Maybe you, like me, are weary of battling the “other” side. And so, it was with some trepidation, but also with some verve for the good fight, that I recently flew to Washington, DC to attend the Organic Trade Association’s Organic Week DC: Policy Conference & Hill Visit Days. With other organic community leaders, we considered organic policy priorities, and then “stormed Capitol Hill,” with over 160 scheduled meetings in the offices of Senators and House Representatives, from both sides of the aisle. In fact, my trepidation and fight urges were both unfounded; I found bipartisan receptivity to our message. Organic has a great story to tell, and it’s high time for some positivity, eh? So, here’s some refreshing good news from DC.
Ahead of our meetings on the Hill, we heard a lot of new organic data, including some new facts from OTA’s 2017 Organic Industry Survey. Some highlights:
- In 2016, total organic sales in the U.S. were around $47 billion, up around $3.7 billion from 2015.
- In 2016, organic food sales were up 8.4%, compared to a 0.6% growth rate for the overall food market. Organic now accounts for 5.3% of total food sales in this country.
- Sales of organic protein-rich meat and poultry reached $991 million in 2016. At over 17% growth, that’s the category’s biggest-ever yearly gain.
- Over 75% of all categories on supermarket shelves now offer organic options.
- Over 82% of U.S. households buy organic.
- More than 60% of all organic businesses with more than five employees reported an increase in full-time employment during 2016, and planned more hires for 2017.
- Funding to promote U.S. organic exports has a 5370% return on investment.
- Organic farms are more than 35% more profitable than the average farm.
- 225 counties across the US are organic hotspots, with clusters of organic businesses. Hotspots boost median household incomes by around $2000, and reduce poverty levels by 1.35%.
- Government funding for the National Organic Program is only $9 Million.
The data shows that federal spending on organic produces big returns, and affirms that organic industry is a valuable economic engine that needs prioritization in the next Farm Bill. Armed with these facts, and a jacket and tie, and comfortable shoes, and an umbrella, I was among over 100 organic lobbyists who visited many Republican and Democrat House and Senate offices, to share our story and maybe bridge some gaps. These were our main talking points...
Organic is good for the US economy. Organic creates growth, averaging double-digits for the last five years. It creates jobs, as organic operations open, expand, and retool handling, manufacturing and processing facilities. Organic increases rural development (hotspot effects, including jobs). Organic supports domestic production. As a commodity class, more than 24,000 certified organic operations nationwide make organic the fourth largest food and feed commodity in the U.S. And, demand for organic still outpaces supply, so organic is a viable opportunity for U.S. farmers. And, organic increases farm net income. Organic’s increased profitability (premiums around 30% above nonorganic) often makes it profitable to stay on the farm.
Organic is a choice. It’s an elective standard, a voluntary regulatory program that rewards businesses that choose to be certified. Consumers are also free to make choices to support organic, with their purchase dollars. Organic is a market-based label, driven by consumer demand, which exemplifies American economic principles of competition and choice.
Organic relies on a strong USDA National Organic Program. Federal spending on organic produces big returns from a small investment. A healthy organic marketplace requires a clear market distinction backed by a level playing field and a trusted, verified and enforced organic standard. A strong NOP is critical to the integrity of our organic seal.
As we found general agreement on these talking points, we asked for support for the following:
- Full funding for the National Organic Program, including increases to keep pace with organic growth, and a one-time $5 million to upgrade international oversight systems and trade tracking.
- Facilitation for transitioning more domestic production to organic, including: funding the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension (OREI) program by an added $50 million per year; asking for House member support for HR2436 – the Organic Agricultural Research Act; funding to encourage organic’s eligibility within rural development programs; and recognition of required organic practices within the full suite of conservation incentive programs.
- Export promotion, including expansion of the Market Access Program, and House Member cosponsorship of HR2321 – the Cultivating Revitalization by Expanding American Agricultural Trade and Exports (CREAATE) Act.
- Support for implementing the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices Rule, as soon as possible.
Indeed, it was refreshing and empowering to find that our positive organic messages bridge some of the large partisan gaps across the Senate and House aisles. Some of the Members of Congress or staffers were not very familiar with the organic standards, but were open to our basic “Organic 101” education. Others were well versed in our issues and further encouraged by our facts and asks. Most all seemed supportive. Our “storming the hill” made a difference.
Strengthening supply chain integrity: new imports review policy
Our DC organic discussions occurred amidst ongoing organic supply chain integrity concerns. Organic regulators have been aware of supply chain oversight concerns for some time, but this recently gained more mainstream attention after reports of fraudulent imports of soybeans and corn from Turkey which violated federal organic regulations. The NOP responded in part with trainings on ensuring organic integrity in the supply chain, including a special focus on imports and related recordkeeping requirements. MOSA is strengthening review policies to close these gaps.
Anytime there is fraud anywhere in the organic system, it devalues our Organic Seal, and hurts organic farmers. Oversight of foreign organic suppliers must be robust. Fraud cannot be tolerated. So, we’re proactively working on several fronts to improve organic supply chain integrity, to help prevent future incidents of fraudulent imports.
We currently lack confidence in the organic status of foreign grain, especially including organic corn, wheat, and soy from eastern Europe and non-EU member states (Ukraine, Turkey, Russia, Poland, Yugoslavia, Czech Republic, and Slovenia). Current concerns include volumes, with imports increasing rapidly in a very short period of time, and sourcing and potential for noncompliant treatments. To increase confidence, in solidarity with other organic certification and enforcement community members, we’re increasing requirements for approval of shipments of at-risk grains from Eastern Europe.
Effective immediately and until further notice, approval is required for all imported grain shipments received directly by MOSA-certified operations. Any MOSA-certified operator who receives imported grain directly from a ship must demonstrate full traceability - back to growers - along with volumes, and must also demonstrate that no prohibited materials were used in shipping. Any shipments that MOSA does not specifically approve are considered to be noncompliant with requirements to provide information necessary to verify compliance.
MOSA will then review these required records and disclosures, and will work with other agencies and certifiers as necessary to ensure that volumes are legitimate, that products are not treated with prohibited materials in the supply chain, and that products meets organic standards. Administrative fees will apply to this added review process.
Operations that receive imported grain shipments are strongly advised to consider their suppliers very closely and review, test and/or visit the production locations to verify the legitimacy of products. Operations with grain that is found to not meet organic standards will be notified that such product is not compliant. If an operation knowingly sells noncompliant product as organic it may face suspension of organic certification and potential civil penalties.
The new policy can be found in this issue of the newsletter, or you may contact our office for a copy of our formal policy.
In addition to these added requirements for Eastern European imports, MOSA will be increasing our organic system plan and inspection scrutiny to ensure organic integrity in the supply chain in general, especially when parts of the supply chain are uncertified, or when organic commodities come from foreign sources. In 2017, MOSA will also be conducting extra unannounced surveillance inspections of some brokers, traders, and larger feed handlers who may source imported grains.
Supply chain concerns give more urgency to our organic messages for government. Demand for organic grain to feed dairy cows, hogs and egg-laying hens is currently outpacing domestic harvests. In response, imports increased, taking advantage of a strong dollar and cheap freight. We’re bridging enforcement gaps. But, the best solution is increasing our domestic organic grain supply. Our talking points and asks aim to build a secure organic supply chain that can support demand. This effort goes hand-in-hand with securing more domestic organic acreage, developing programs to help farmers transition to organic, and encouraging new farmers to farm organically. The success of our organic industry results from the integrity of the organic certification process and organic operators’ commitment to compliance and enforcement. You also can help, at any time. Contact your representatives and share this organic good news, the facts and the asks. Or maybe, just talk it up locally. Build bridges in your own neighborhood. Our unified voices make a difference to our industry, and ultimately, to our stressed world, and our global neighbor.