Plugging Away, With Purpose
Plugging Away, With Purpose
By Stephen Walker, Accreditation & Industry Affairs Manager
After reviewing organic community news from the past several months, I’m bringing a handful of discussions to attention, including a look at legislation aimed to speed up regulatory improvements, organic “to-do’s” for the Biden administration, an NOSB update, a look at the UN Food Systems Summit, a couple international standards updates, maintaining organic verve when faced with existential uncertainty, and a dose of imagination. Please contact me at MOSA for further details regarding any of these described below.
I was talking with some friends about underlying anxiety and a sense of defeat that many of us feel when listening to news reports. For example, when driving home after a county park hike with my dog this week, a radio report described rapid old growth deforestation in the Pacific Northwest. I recalled a presentation from long ago about environmental activists’ resistance to old growth logging. That 1980’s talk influenced my career path, but now I was taken aback with dismay how this and so many other battles persist. One friend commented, “whether it’s the forests burning or fascists marching, we are rapidly running out of time.” We must actively resist. “Woke” lip service isn’t enough. However, despair hinders will.
Inspired by Victor Frankl’s classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, we also talked about how finding purpose in life is key to moving forward. For me, that reminds of our organic vision, including regenerative organic practices as potential carbon draw-down solutions that heal our existential climate change crisis. But, with so many social and environmental crises in the news, I’m wary that our work is not enough. That makes it harder to keep pushing.
In discussion followup, a friend sent a recent video chat with Chris Hedges (New York Times journalist, Presbyterian minister, author and TV host). Hedges doesn’t pull punches when commenting on our global crises. While his message is often bleak, this talk on “our prophetic tradition of resistance” was helpful. Hedges says power that’s lost its credibility is susceptible to truth, but truth-telling resistance requires moral fortitude. We should continue our good “resistance work” because it is right, with focus on the act rather than the end goal, because oftentimes the end goal isn’t successful. But, our goals certainly won’t succeed if we don’t resist. I might say, regardless of conditions, if we don’t plant our good seeds, we don’t get fruits. Hedges says the passive alternative is to accept a fait accompli, which, with the climate crisis, means mass death. And being grounded in where we come from - a diverse human history of fighting for life itself, at great cost - is protection against despair. We’re of no use to anyone, even ourselves, unless we find balance as we resist. That may be spiritual or otherwise purpose driven, like considering our childrens’ future.
Hedges warns we can’t be naive regarding the price of resistance. As we become more outspoken and affect necessary change, institutions and authorities become hostile toward our voice. Leaders of movements often suffer the most. Yet history has shown that courage is contagious, and when we’re in extreme moments, where there are fights for life against forces of death, morality clarifies itself.
Organic stakeholders are actively pushing for more rapid change in advancing our values.
Congressional legislation introduced in April aims to preserve organic’s cutting edge of a progressive food system. The Continuous Improvement and Accountability in Organic Standards Act (CIAO - H.R. 2918) would require USDA to advance and implement National Organic Standards Board recommendations in a timely manner. The rare, bipartisan bill is endorsed by a broad coalition of farmers, industry, consumers, environmental organizations and over 50 current and former NOSB members.
CIAO calls for a more responsive, transparent federal regulatory process that keeps pace with the organic market. You’re encouraged to ask your Congressperson to support the bill. Further, on July 20th, the Organic Trade Association facilitated virtual meetings with Members of Congress and staff, and from September through December, the OTA is partnering with the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University for a Future of Organic workshop series, to review National Organic Program efficacy, and set a new pathway for the future.
Biden Administration’s organic to-do list
In late June, the Swette Center published The Critical To-Do List for Organic Agriculture, including 46 recommendations for President Biden seen as essential changes to strengthen US organic agriculture, including “low-hanging fruit” that could be accomplished almost immediately. Directed by former Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, the Swette Center develops innovative ideas and solutions to pressing food systems challenges. Organic agriculture is among the Center’s top sustainable food system solutions priorities. The 38-page report’s recommendations address tasks related to Governance, Health, Economics, and Climate.
Earlier, President Biden released his full budget proposal for fiscal year 2022, including increased funding for organic, and climate resiliency. The budget includes $14 billion directly addressing the greenhouse gas effects, $1.5 billion for climate-smart ag, research and clean energy programs, $43 million for NRCS technical assistance, $46 million for the new Civilian Climate Corps, $400 million for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, and $200 million for the Rural Energy for America Program. Biden aims to boost EPA's budget by 21% and includes $936 million for a new EPA Accelerating Environmental and Economic Justice initiative, a $1 million increase in National Organic Program funding (to $19 million), and $7 million for the Organic Transition Research Program. Also, the Organic Research and Extension Initiative would receive $28 million in funding for mandatory programs funded by the Farm Bill. The Organic Certification Cost-Share Program includes $19 million through the end of fiscal year 2023.
And at the OTA’s Annual Membership Meeting in mid-June, US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack previewed his path forward for organic. Vilsack vowed to correct the USDA’s failure to implement the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) rule, addressing animal welfare issues. A day later, he announced that USDA will draft a new rule which will address the Trump administration’s outlier interpretation that negated USDA’s organic animal welfare regulatory oversight. That stalled the critical and fully-vetted OLPP rule, which would disallow porches as outdoor access in organic poultry operations. This has been in the Courts since 2017.
Vilsack announced other plans including: finalizing the Origin of Livestock rule in 2021 (MOSA submitted additional comments in July); re-establishing a USDA Organic Policy Advisor; increasing Organic Certification Cost Share funds by “tens of millions of dollars,” to help farmers transitioning to organic; expanding USDA’s emergency foods procurement to include “small- and medium-sized distribution systems,” and giving “socially disadvantaged producers” more funding access; a USDA initiative to provide resources for building out processing capacity, boosting competition and providing value-added products with more processing outlets; expanding the number and diversity of those involved in inspections and certifications; and, prioritizing climate-smart agriculture and regenerative practices, and creating "new revenue streams for producers who are embracing climate-smart agricultural practices in a way that’s beneficial to farmers.”
At this time, we’re right in between bi-annual National Organic Standards Board meetings. The Spring 2021 Meeting, again held virtually, brought some critical organic progress. Approved new proposals include the Allowing Paper-Based Planting Aids for crop production, clarifications on Ion Exchange Filtration materials used in handling, and a Strategy for Recruitment and Talent Management of Organic Inspectors and Reviewers. The NOSB also unanimously supported a resolution calling for USDA to re-issue the OLPP rule with policy considerations related to outdoor access and space requirements, and support for the CIAO Act.
MOSA provided a number of written comments among over 800 received for the meeting, and Jackie Deminter and I provided verbal testimony on MOSA’s behalf. Jackie spoke on various materials concerns and answered some pointed questions from Board members, and I spoke to the importance of keeping certification accessible as we address human capital challenges in our regulatory sector. (Soon after the meeting, the NOP launched a new opportunity for funding projects aimed at organic inspector and reviewer workforce development, recruitment, and retention.) We also enjoyed watching the American Sign Language interpreters used in this virtual format for the first time, demonstrating NOP’s commitment to inclusion in meetings.
A couple international standards updates
US organic operators that export products to Mexico have a little more time to meet new requirements. In December, Mexico announced that organic imports must be certified to Mexico’s Organic Products Law (LPO) or an equivalent standard, by late June. While negotiations continue, Mexico has not yet recognized the USDA organic standards as equivalent, so US organic products going to Mexico must be LPO certified. However, in May, Mexico extended the compliance deadline for US products until January 1, 2022.
Also, back in January, MOSA provided NOP with requested feedback regarding Korea's planned electronic import system plan, Implementation was to be July 1st, with additional governments’ guidance expected. We’ve since heard that Korea was delayed in getting their system up and running. We still expect further information regarding the new timeline and process.
UN Food Systems Summit
Also thinking globally, our organic community is doing some critical thinking ahead of the 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit, to be convened in September in Rome, to raise global awareness, commitments and actions that transform food systems to resolve hunger, reduce diet-related disease, and heal the planet. I found an informative overview via thenewhumanitarian.org.
The stakes are high. Over 34 million people are said to be one step away from famine, and aid organizations say “these people are not starving; they are being starved.” We hope the gathering will help the world learn how to feed itself in a more effective, equitable and environmentally sound manner. The summit will address converging pressures of food consumption and production, and climate change, against the backdrop of growing global hunger, rising food, extreme job losses, and a widening gap between needs and humanitarian funding. In April, over 250 hunger aid groups called on global leaders to “act now” and come up with $5.5 billion in emergency food assistance funding.
There’s some resistance regarding the role of agribusiness at the summit. Some farming organizations and human rights groups, accusing others of a “corporate takeover,” are boycotting the event and planning parallel discussions. They say that if agricultural technology solutions are left unchecked, less affluent farming communities could lose control over the way food is produced, traded, and consumed – to private corporations. This could further impoverish farming families who already struggle to make a living.
But Agnes Kalibata, the summit’s special envoy, denied behind the scenes agribusiness control. She told The New Humanitarian the summit is meant to build “stronger, healthier, more inclusive, nutritious, and resilient food systems” over the next decade that could change the lives of nearly 700 million people who are going hungry, and reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions.
The summit is organized around five interconnected themes - ensuring access to safe and nutritious food for all, shifting to sustainable consumption patterns, nature-positive production, equitable livelihoods, and building resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stress. A “food systems” approach looks at all the interlinked issues rather than just farming or trade.
Farmers and civil society organisations make up about a third of the groups leading the summit. The rest are academics, researchers, government representatives, and youth organizations.
One more recommended video came to my attention in recent months. It’s a talk from Rob Hopkins from the 2021 Oxford Real Farming Conference. Hopkins is best known as the founder of the Transition movement. He spoke on themes from his latest book on environmentalism and activism - From What Is to What If - and why we need to cultivate imagination alongside agricultural produce. We have allowed our collective imagination to contract at the worst time possible. Hopkins says a zero carbon future, with a sustainable, resilient agricultural system, will be achieved through creating the best conditions for the imagination and through inspiring examples. He says the next 10 years need to be many things, but they must also be, and feel like, a revolution of the imagination. Again I say, think forward.
"The future must enter into you a long time before it happens." - Rainer Maria Rilke