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Setting Up Priorities for Organic for Next Farm Bill

It seems like just yesterday that the 2018 Farm Bill was signed into law. Now, the fruits of that labor are finally being implemented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In fact, the Organic Trade Association’s top priority for the last farm bill was giving USDA’s National Organic Program more tools, authority, and resources to combat global fraud in organic.

New regulations for the organic sector are set to debut this spring that will implement those critical provisions in the 2018 Farm Bill via the release of the Strengthening Organic Enforcement final rule. As the ink barely dries on that rule, Congress will have already kickstarted the process for developing the next farm bill as the current bill expires and must be renewed by 2023.

Although Congress has written and passed many farm bills over the years dating back to the 1930s, organic did not make its debut until 1990 when that year’s Farm Bill included the Organic Foods Production Act—legislation that established national organic standards and led to the creation of USDA’s National Organic Program. Over the past 30 plus years, organic agriculture has made many advancements in each subsequent farm bill.

What will be different about the 2023 Farm Bill?

Several factors will make the next farm bill negotiations different than the development of the 2018 Farm Bill. Farm bills are drafted by the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, and the Chairs and Ranking Members from both political parties make up the leadership of the committee. They are oftentimes referred to as “the Big Four” because they have an outsize influence on the negotiations and shepherding the legislation through the congressional process. Three of the big four players are new this time around.

Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), a member of Congress first elected in the early 1980s and the only lawmaker to have served as both the Chair of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees throughout his long career, retired in 2020. He participated in eight farm bills and helmed the committee for two of them. Congressman Collin Peterson (D-Minnesota), first elected in 1990, was the lead Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee serving both in the Chair and Ranking positions since 2005, making him a lead negotiator for three out of the five farm bills he worked on throughout his career. Peterson lost his reelection in 2020. Congressman Mike Conaway (R-Texas), Chair of the House Agriculture Committee during the 2018 Farm Bill negotiations, retired in 2020.

That leaves Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) as the only remaining veteran of recent farm bill negotiations. She is currently Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Senator John Boozman (R-Arkansas) is the Ranking Member. The new leaders of the House Agriculture Committee are David Scott (D-Georgia), who is Chair, and Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-Pennsylvania), who is the Ranking Member. These leaders will protect their states and farm constituencies closely in the negotiations. Although organic is still a burgeoning sector in the Southeast, it is firmly established in both Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Another major factor different from the last farm bill is political control in Washington. In 2018, Republicans controlled the White House, House, and Senate. Party control flipped during the 2020 elections, and currently Democrats control the White House, House, and Senate. And while farm bill negotiations will start in earnest this year, the actual farm bill won’t likely be on the table until 2023, which means the outcomes of the 2022 midterm elections this fall will be crucial to how the farm bill will play out.

It is possible that the Republicans could take control of the House and Senate, setting a collision course with the Democratic President, or win back one of the chambers in Congress to seize total control of the legislative agenda from the Democrats. That being said, the farm bill has traditionally been one of the few remaining bipartisan pieces of legislation left in Washington, although it is not immune from partisan and regional fights over agriculture subsidies, spending, and the food stamp program.

Lastly, writing and passing a new farm bill could be a difficult prospect with current budget constraints, setting up a scenario where the 2018 Farm Bill might just be extended temporarily rather than fully reauthorized. Both President Trump and the current administration have lavishly spent on shoring up farm country outside of traditional farm bill programs. During the Trump administration, tens of billions of dollars were given to farmers to offset retaliatory tariffs and actions taken against the U.S. agriculture sector because of international trade conflicts. And then, COVID disrupted the food supply chain resulting in billions more in assistance for agriculture.

The future of the label is at stake

So, what will be the top priority for the Organic Trade Association in the next farm bill? It’s been more than 30 years since the passage of OFPA and more than 20 years since USDA implemented the final rule that established the regulations. Although the USDA Organic label remains the gold standard around the world for transparent standards in agriculture, the sector is losing steam to competing private labels in the marketplace.

Much more can be done to meet the evolving expectations and demands of consumers concerned about the impacts of our food system on climate change, soil health, animal welfare, and the health and well-being of humans and workers. Organic must be well-positioned to meet these needs into the future. Although OFPA is updated and amended every farm bill, now is a good time to take a fresh look and make major changes to ensure a sustainable market.

While the organic market has skyrocketed from $8.6 billion in sales in 2002 to more than $62 billion today, USDA—the regulatory body charged with updating the organic standards—has not kept pace with industry growth or consumer expectations. The biggest challenge facing organic businesses, farmers, and consumers is USDA’s failure to update and clarify the organic standards regularly, leading to inconsistent enforcement and competitive harm in the marketplace.

In the lead up to the next farm bill, the Organic Trade Association has partnered with Arizona State University’s (ASU) Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems led by Dr. Kathleen Merrigan who, when congressional aide to Senator Patrick Leahy, helped write OFPA during the 1990 Farm Bill. The Organic Trade Association and ASU recently hosted a series of virtual workshops bringing together a diverse array of stakeholders from certifiers, inspectors, retailers, consumer-facing brands, farmers, researchers, non-profits, and advocacy organizations to discuss the future of organic.

Over 200 individuals participated and contributed their ideas and perspectives. The workshops explored topics such as the structure of the public-private partnership between USDA and the organic sector, continuous improvement in the organic standards, accreditation, certification, accountability and enforcement, and the future of marketing claims and their relationship to organic. The outcomes of these dynamic conversations will culminate in the release of a report later this spring that will help shape necessary updates to both the organic law and regulations in the next farm bill.


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Megan DeBates is Vice President of Government Affairs for the Organic Trade Association.