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Bipartisan legislation shapes the road forward for organic

Organic Trade Association applauds lawmakers and broad coalition for support of farmers, businesses, and consumers

Maggie McNeil
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April 30, 2021
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The Organic Trade Association on Friday applauded the introduction of legislation that puts in place an improved federal process for the oversight of organic that will bring the government up to speed with the modern organic sector, and will enable organic’s improvement and advancement to continue to forge ahead into the future. 

Representing the most significant assessment to date of the National Organic Program’s track record on advancing standards as a primary function of organic’s public-private partnership, the Continuous Improvement and Accountability in Organic Standards Act (CIAO) was introduced on Friday by Representatives Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Rodney Davis (R-IL), Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Jimmy Panetta (D-CA), Dan Newhouse (R-WA) and Ron Kind (D-WI). The legislation, for the first time, requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to advance and implement recommendations from the organic industry in a timely manner and to ensure the continuous improvement of organic standards.

“We thank Representatives DeFazio and Davis, and leading members of the House Organic Caucus, for introducing this consequential bill, and for their recognition of the importance of organic and of the need for organic to keep pace with the increasing demands from the environment and consumers on the Organic label,” said Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association. “This legislation is the result of a broad coalition of farmers, industry, environmental and other organizations working together with Congress to preserve organic’s place at the cutting edge of a progressive food and farming system that cares about people and the planet.” 

The legislation was endorsed by the American Sustainable Business Council, Environmental Working Group, National Farmers Union, National Latino Farmers and Ranchers Trade Association, Organic Farmers Association, and the Accredited Certifiers Association, among others.

A full list of endorsers of the bill can be found here.

“Consumers trust that when they buy food marketed as organic, it meets a high standard approved by the USDA,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (OR-04). “But federal bureaucracy for the past twenty years has gotten in the way of improvements supported by the organic sector, inhibiting innovation in the industry. I’m proud to introduce legislation that will help improve transparency and accountability at the USDA as it considers regulations strongly supported by the industry. It’s time for USDA to cut the red tape, expeditiously act, and allow improvements that both the industry and consumers demand.”

“Each year, more and more consumers are choosing products with the USDA Organic label, yet producers are held back from fully meeting the demand for organic products due in part to slow rule-making at the USDA,” said Congressman Rodney Davis (IL-13). “Our bipartisan legislation will clear the backlog of rule recommendations from the National Organic Standards Board and speed up and improve rule-making in the future. As a Co-Chair of the House Organic Caucus, I’m proud to support legislation like this that cuts red tape and ensures federal regulators aren’t inhibiting a growing industry like organic.”

“For far too long, organic producers have been waiting for the Department of Agriculture to move forward with numerous consensus recommendations to improve organic standards and protect the integrity of the organic label. As an organic farmer and Co-Chair of the House Organic Caucus, I am proud to support this bill to hold the USDA accountable so we can continue to move the National Organic Program forward,” said Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (ME-01).

"As co-chair of the bipartisan House Organic Caucus, I'm committed to supporting the future of organic agriculture and working to meet the needs of organic farmers across Wisconsin and the nation," said Rep. Ron Kind (WI-03). "This legislation will take necessary steps to ensure our organic farmers can continue to succeed and innovate for generations to come."

“Central Washington organic growers should not be kept in regulatory limbo,” said Rep. Dan Newhouse (WA-04). I'm sponsoring the Continuous Improvement and Accountability In Organic Standards Act so that USDA is required to clear the backlog of recommendations to improve our organic standards. As a Co-Chair of the House Organic Caucus, I represent the highest number of USDA-certified organic farmers, ranchers, processors, and distributors in Washington state and the fourth highest in the country. It's imperative that we provide our organic growers certainty and help spark further innovation and improvement within the organic industry.”

“Unfortunately, it’s been way too long since the USDA updated its standards that America’s certified organic producers are required to follow for growing and selling their crops,” said Congressman Panetta.  “Our legislation would mandate the USDA to modernize and maintain its federal organic standards so that farmers can keep up with the 21st century marketplace.  As the representative of nearly 500 certified organic operations on the central coast of California, I’m proud to co-lead this legislation to help our local organic agriculture industry innovate and thrive.”

Designing a road forward for organic

The CIAO bill lays out a road forward for organic through three main areas:

  • Clearing the backlog of recommendations. The bill requires USDA to issue an Organic Improvement Action Plan comprised of the backlog of industry recommendations put forward by the advisory body the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) that have not been implemented. The plan must include detailed timelines, prioritization, and implementation plans for dealing with each recommendation. 

  • Establishing a new framework for advancing future organic standards. When the National Organic Standards Board passes a recommendation that is supported by the majority of the board, the bill requires USDA to issue a final rule implementing the recommendation within two years.  

  • Improving oversight and ensuring consistent enforcement. The bill requires USDA to report annually to Congress on whether accredited third-party certifiers have implemented new rules and guidance, and identify any inconsistencies found.

“Progress is imperative for organic agriculture’s continued growth, and the Continuous Improvement & Accountability in Organic Standards Act is needed to maintain the overall integrity of this successful public-private partnership with USDA,” said Domenic Borrelli, President of Premium Dairy and Plant-Based Food & Beverages, Danone North America, and Vice Treasurer of the Organic Trade Association Board of Directors. “We look forward to continued work with our farming partners to propel the entire industry forward.”

What’s been stuck

Since the first nationwide organic standards were officially established on Dec. 21, 2000, the strict and comprehensive network of federal requirements and regulations that monitor and check the organic industry, from the farm gate to the dinner plate, have been transparent, and powered and driven by stakeholders throughout the supply chain and the organic community. This unique private-public partnership has made the organic regulatory system the gold standard for food and agricultural systems around the world.

The organic sector has thrived under the system, growing to more than a $55 billion market in the U.S., with the USDA Organic seal one of the most trusted consumer labels. 

But in the last several years, the federal regulatory apparatus has fallen behind the evolving organic sector and the market, and has slowed innovation and continuous improvement within the industry. 

“Over the last decade the National Organic Program hasn’t upgraded high profile standard topics the organic community wants resolved.  For example, clarity on how dairy farms source organic cows, Origin of Livestock, has been stuck in the mire since 2015. We need a better process and that’s what this bill does,” said Adam Warthesen, Director of Government & Industry Affairs for the organic dairy cooperative Organic Valley, member of the Organic Trade Association Board of Directors and Vice-Chairman of the association’s Dairy Council.. 

In the past 10 years, the organic industry has advanced 20 consensus recommendations for improvements to the organic standards, yet USDA has not completed rulemaking on a single one of them. These recommendations include implementing clear and consistent livestock requirements, strengthening organic seed usage, and creating organic production standards for aquaculture, pet food, personal care products and greenhouses. 

“Continuous improvement is a fundamental tenet of organic. As organic farmers, we are always adapting our practices and becoming better stewards. This bill directs the USDA to reform its management of the NOP and respect the work of organic farmers, the advice of the NOSB and the demands of consumers for a dynamic standard that recognizes positive innovation and maintains organic as the "gold standard” of agriculture,” said Doug Crabtree, organic farmer and owner of Vilicus Farms in central Montana, member of the Organic Trade Association Board of Directors and Co-Chairman of the association’s Farmers Advisory Council.

Kate Mendenhall, Executive Director of the Organic Farmers Association, stated, "Organic farmers continually rank organic integrity as a top priority and we encourage the USDA to move quickly to create a plan for moving the long backlog of NOSB recommendations to practical rules that protect organic integrity."

“This legislation directly addresses the challenges of organic over the past decade, and it provides a clear way to get things back on track for the industry, and for the consumer,” said Megan DeBates, Vice President of Government Affairs for the Organic Trade Association. “We applaud Representatives DeFazio and Davis and members of the House Organic Caucus for their vision and their commitment to maintaining the integrity of organic and ensuring that it will continue to be the model for the future.”