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Original visionaries still stand strong

These lawmakers were instrumental in getting the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 included in the 1990 Farm Bill. This legislation authorized the formation of the National Organic Program at USDA and led to the current opt-in rules for the entire system of certified organic agriculture in the United States, under which organic has seen remarkable growth and has been embraced by American consumers everywhere.

The Organic Report recently interviewed Senator Leahy and Congressman DeFazio, and found that these two influential lawmakers, who weren’t afraid three decades ago to think outside the box, are still working hard to make a difference for all of us.

Why did you introduce the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990? 

Senator Leahy: Prior to the passage of the Organic Foods Production Act and what I like to call the Organic Farm Bill, the industry was growing slowly. We had farmers, consumers and retailers facing inconsistent policies and inaccurate labeling procedures across the country. It is hard to believe today, but at the time, we had 22 different states trying to manage organic and something like four separate regulations for organic foods. It made it very difficult for interstate commerce and for consumers, and was not fair for farmers.

At that time, I said that the only way this industry could grow was if the standards are met and followed, and they are enforced. Farmers and consumers need to trust that the organic label means what it says. Strong and enforced organic standards would build and sustain consumer trust in this emerging sector. Strong standards reward farmers who play by the rules. They help consumers understand what that label means when they buy something that is USDA organic. The proof is in the economic reports we see from the Organic Trade Association. This is a $47 billion industry, and growing. How many industries in America today can say they are growing the way this one is growing? However, consumer confidence is key to the organic industry's growth. I know it will be the key in the future.

Congressman DeFazio: At the time, Oregon was leading the nation in establishing uniform organic standards.  It was the first state to have an organic labeling law, passed in 1972, that established the legal definition of what could be considered “organic” for marketing purposes. Outside of Oregon, anything could be labeled “organic.” I knew that for the organic food industry to thrive, national standards were needed. Consumers needed to trust that “organic” actually meant something.  I began working with one of my constituents, Lynn Coody, one of the founders of organic certifier Oregon Tilth, to draft labeling legislation.

Did you encounter any resistance or political challenges from the Agriculture Committee or members of Congress when trying to pass OFPA?

Senator Leahy: Oh, boy did I ever. I had countless people asking me why I was doing this organic bill. Other members of the Senate Agriculture Committee would tell me that I might have a handful of farms, but that it is not going to go to amount to much. They said that it would just be some “small niche market, a hippy granola thing.” I told them that I had listened very carefully to Vermont farmers who told me they were willing to meet higher standards, but those needed to be national standards so they would be competing on a level playing field.

As for my ability to carry the legislation across the finish line, it was an issue I had first confronted even before I became Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. As a more junior member of the Committee, I introduced the Innovation Farming Act of 1982, which called for USDA support for research for organic farming, and help for farmers to use organic farming methods. I was told that it is not going to go anywhere. Then in 1987, I became the Chairman of the Committee, and I held hearings with organic farmers. We set to work drafting a bill that would move us towards creating a uniform set of standards for all farmers across the country, and a program that would evolve with time with input from farmers, handlers, and consumers alike. Passage was not assured, however. The House bill did not include anything on organic the way our bill had, so it was an issue that we had to negotiate in the conference.

Congressman DeFazio: I had some challenges. The Democrats held the majority at the time, and the Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Kika De La Garza, was opposed to establishing organic standards and so was Subcommittee Chairman Charlie Stenholm, so my bill was not included in the Farm Bill in Committee. I decided to offer my bill as an amendment when the Farm Bill came to the floor. There was no Internet in those days, so along with national advocates, I undertook a massive grassroots effort. Constituents signed petitions, wrote letters, called and attended town halls to demand an organic standard. Despite opposition by the Chairman, it passed—the only amendment that passed that the Chairman opposed. Kathleen Merrigan, Senator Patrick Leahy’s staffer who helped draft the legislation, came to the House to watch the vote. She went on be the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture in the Obama Administration. During the vote, one of my colleagues came up to me and said, “DeFazio, I don’t know what this organic thing is, but I’m going to vote for it because my constituents won’t stop talking to me about it.”

What are you doing now to promote organic agriculture in the United States?

Senator Leahy: As Vice Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I fought successfully for increased funding in the Fiscal Year 2018 Senate Agriculture Appropriations Bill for the National Organic Program, the first programmatic increase in several years. As we continue to see the rapid pace of growth in the industry, we need to ensure that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has the tools and staff necessary to protect the value of the organic seal so that consumers can remain confident in what they are buying.

As we approach the next farm bill, I am committed to fighting for the wide array of programs that support the organic industry. We know that the debate is going to be a challenging one as many interests compete to maintain or increase their funding in this fiscally constrained environment. No one comes to Congress and asks for their programs to be cut. Instead, we have constituents offering new ideas for how to improve or expand programs, usually at a higher cost. That is what makes these farm bills a balancing act, and makes it very difficult to reach a final bill and compromise that can pass both the House and Senate and be signed into law.

Congressman DeFazio: Each year, Representative Ron Kind and I lead the House effort to ensure robust funding for USDA organic programs like the National Organic Program and Organic Transition Integrated Research Program, among others. Organic agriculture is one of the fastest-growing sectors in U.S. agriculture, yet funding for programs makes up less than one percent of the USDA budget. Not only are organic foods a healthy alternative that consumers increasingly desire, they are also creating thousands of American jobs.

Earlier this year, I held an Organic Roundtable in my district. My district and Oregon overall are still at the forefront of industry—whether for organic seeds, wholesalers, farmers’ markets, or organic food processors. Oregon State University is a leader in organic products and production research, and it was part of the discussion as well. We talked about what was working and wasn’t, and how I could help.

What do you see as the greatest challenges now facing U.S. organic agriculture and the organic food sector?

Senator Leahy: Organic agriculture and products have come a long way from that niche market that other Senators told me “would never amount to anything.” Now we have a multi-billion dollar industry that is the fastest-growing sector in agriculture, with growing profits, investments, and interest. With that come some free-riders who may try to take advantage of the system without putting in the hard work and investments required. From fraudulent imports with falsified organic certifications, or farmers who may try to skirt important organic requirements on their farms for soil health or animal care, those are all big challenges that these free-riders are threats to consumer confidence. 

I am also concerned about whether we are giving our farmers all the tools they need to be successful and as productive as they can be. That is all based on our investments in research, extension, and education programs. While we have a great extension program in Vermont, I know that both in Vermont and nationwide, we need to be making more investments in cutting-edge research for organic agriculture to bring down the costs to farmers and consumers, and address the critical challenges organic farmers are facing every day in their fields.

It frustrates me when some in Congress portray organic issues as if organic and conventional farmers are pitted against each other. None of us is saying that there is a good way or a bad way to farm. Instead, we want to give all farmers the tools and ability to make choices about how they want to grow food on their farms and support their families. No one farming method is perfect. They each have their pros and cons, and we all have more to learn to help our farmers be more productive and support them in every way we can.

Congressman DeFazio: The good news is that all sectors of the industry are booming. Now, with that success come growing pains. It is important to ensure that organic producers and processors have access to ingredients. One of the issues I am currently most concerned about is organic import fraud. I am a co-sponsor of Representative. Faso’s bill that would modernize and improve our ability to track and test imports that claim to be organic to ensure their authenticity.

It is also vital to help transitional producers shift towards organic production. There is no indication that demand for organic is going to decrease. To keep up, we need more American farmers transitioning to organic production, and it makes good economic sense for them to do so. Consumers are willing to buy organic products at a premium. In 2010, the Organic Transition Program was funded at $5 million. Since then, that funding has been slashed by twenty percent. Cutting spending is not helping producers or consumers. Without enough producers, prices for organic could increase, and foreign producers stand to gain domestic market share.

How important do you think the next farm bill is in efforts to advance organic agriculture in this country?

Senator Leahy: Every recent farm bill has been important to advancing organic agriculture—from maintaining the mandatory funding for the Certification Cost-Share program, to directing the Risk Management Agency to expand crop insurance to better support organic producers, to supporting organic research efforts or the National Organic program, and the Value Added Producer Grants to help these diversified operations as well. This next Farm Bill should maintain those important programs and ensure that any changes proposed to the Organic Foods Production Act are to ensure that we continue to have a strong, uniform, and credible federal set of standards. Without those strong, uniform and credible standards, we will lose consumer confidence and have nothing.

Congressman DeFazio: It is unlikely that we will see movement on individual organic bills in the near future, given the current climate in Washington, D.C. The Farm Bill will set the stage for organic policy for at least the next four years.

USDA is questioning whether the Organic Foods Production Act gives the National Organic Program the right to establish specific organic standards regarding the raising of organic poultry and livestock, and has proposed to withdraw the final Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices regulation.

What do you think of USDA’s action, and how do you think this could impact the organic industry?

Senator Leahy: I am concerned that this will continue to sow confusion in the organic industry and will perpetuate an uneven playing field for those farmers trying to operate in this market. When we wrote the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990, the organic livestock sector was still in its infancy. Some said there were perhaps as few as 100 organic livestock producers at the time. That is why the consensus was that USDA, with the assistance of the National Organic Standards Board, would recommend livestock standards in addition to those specified in the bill, and ensure that humane conditions were provided for livestock rearing. Unfortunately, USDA is reversing years of work on this rule, and further delaying livestock and poultry standards that are needed to give our farmers a level playing field and a clear set of rules to operate under.

Congressman DeFazio:  I think USDA’s action is another attempt by the Trump Administration to weaken the organic industry.  The proposed rule has been under review for over a decade and, as noted, has been fully vetted and is supported by the industry. Consumers expect and demand organic products to be held to a higher standard than traditional products. That includes animal welfare and good husbandry practices. If the USDA withdraws the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule, I’m concerned consumers may lose faith in what is considered organic, which could reduce demand for organic products.   //