What we support, or not, in a farm bill

PCC sent the following letter to Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), and several U.S. representatives for Washington Congressional districts in August, as the Senate and House worked to reconcile their respective draft Farm Bills.

You can take action by writing your representative — refer to our letter below to help shape your comments. Find your representative’s contact information here: https://www.govtrack.us/congress/members/WA.

Now that the House and Senate have drafted their Farm Bills and reconciliation is to begin, we want you to know what we support — and what we don’t support in the respective bills — and why.

PCC Community Markets is the largest U.S. grocer owned by the people who shop our stores. Our 59,000 consumer-members own and operate our 11 full-service, certified organic supermarkets in Washington state, with 2017 sales exceeding $275 million. We employ more than 1,500 people and serve 250,000 patrons each month. PCC is one of 14 members in the National Organic Coalition (NOC), an alliance dedicated to advancing organic food and agriculture and to ensuring a united voice for organic integrity.

PCC is very pleased to see many organic priorities addressed, especially in the Senate Farm Bill. We also are strongly aligned with NOC in opposing provisions that would make statutory changes to the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and NOSB’s process to review and approve materials for use in organic products.

The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 created the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) as a peer advisory board with carefully crafted authorities and structure to ensure all organic stakeholders are represented — farmers, certifiers, handlers, scientists, environmental conservationists, retailers and consumers. The role of the NOSB is critical to preserving retailer and consumer confidence in the USDA organic label.

Our chief concern is that the NOSB’s statutory authority and structure should not be amended through the Farm Bill. We and our allies in the National Organic Coalition unanimously and strongly oppose any Farm Bill amendments to the NOSB’s statutory role. We urge you and other Senators and Representatives who respect the success of the organic standards to ask conferees to reject four such House and Senate NOSB proposals.

 

I. In the Senate bill

In the Senate bill, we strongly oppose a proposed statutory change to the Organic Foods Production Act regarding NOSB voting procedures in reviewing and approving materials for organic products:

 

• The Committee summary says the proposed change “codifies the requirement for an amendment to the National List to be a decisive vote that requires 2/3 of the votes cast at a meeting of the National Organic Standards Board at which a quorum is present.” This provision already is addressed directly in OFPA (Sec. 2119 (i) and is redundant. It is unnecessary. We strongly oppose the Senate’s proposed statutory change to NOSB authorities and the functional value and intent of a Sunset Provision. We urge you and other Senators and Representatives who respect the success of the organic standards to ask Conferees to reject the Senate proposal and three such House proposals.

 

II. In the House bill

We oppose three provisions in the House bill for statutory reforms that are unnecessary and would weaken the authority granted to the National Organic Standards Board by Congress in OFPA. Specifically:

 

• A provision to amend the statutory membership structure of the NOSB to allow board seats allocated for farmers, handlers and retailers to be filled with employees working for those entities.

We strongly oppose this provision because the voice and expertise of independent organic farmers must be retained in the standard-setting process. Replacing them on NOSB with non-farmer office employees, for instance, weakens the farmer’s voice as a crucial constituent of the organic community. The farmer seats on NOSB must be filled by actual farmers who can represent relevant knowledge and expertise.

 

• A provision requiring the Secretary of Agriculture to establish procedures for NOSB that would expedite review of petitions for synthetic post-harvest substances to be used in organic handling, if the substance is related to food safety.

This provision is unnecessary. The NOSB already has procedures for prioritizing petitions that involve the National Organic Program. NOSB procedures have not been found inadequate. It also undermines NOSB authority.

 

• A provision requiring NOSB to establish a task force to review any petition regarding materials approved by FDA or EPA (for use in agricultural production, food processing or handling) to allow FDA or EPA to consult with the NOSB about the material.

This provision is not necessary. OFPA already requires input from relevant agencies. The technical reviews provided on contract to the NOSB also contain such information.

This provision would confuse the standards of the Organic Foods Production Act with those of other statutes. Organic certification is a standard that already requires additional legal requirements be met.

 

III. We support the following:

We support the following program provisions and funding levels:

• The Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) is a USDA competitive grants program dedicated to the growing needs of the organic community.

OREI has a proven track record of addressing the unique research challenges that organic farmers and processors face. Much of the research conducted by OREI is relevant to conventional farmers, too — particularly those seeking the latest science on ways to reduce input costs on their farms.

We’re very pleased that both the House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill increase mandatory funding for OREI. The Senate bill increases mandatory funding for OREI to $40 million annually for fiscal year 2019 and 2020, $45 million for fiscal year 2021, and $50 million for fiscal year 2022 and beyond, achieving permanent baseline funding status.

We support the Senate provisions for OREI funding levels.

 

• Organic Certification Cost-Share Assistance is critical to expand domestic production of organic food and fiber to meet increased domestic demand. The cost of annual organic certification for farmers and handlers has increased in recent years and likely will increase more as USDA addresses challenges to enforcement of organic standards.

Two federal programs provide organic certification cost share assistance — the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP) and the Agricultural Management Assistance (AMA) program.

Each program serves different states and uses different parameters. The Senate bill provides level funding of $11.5 million annually for the NOCCSP and leaves the AMA program intact.

We support the Senate position to ensure on-going organic certification assistance for farmers and handlers in all states.

 

• Organic Import Oversight and Enforcement. Mechanisms for ensuring imports comply with USDA organic standards must be enhanced to ensure all imported organic products are meeting U.S. standards.

Strong and clear enforcement is critical to ensure consumer expectations are being met and that U.S. organic producers are not disadvantaged by unfair competition from products that do not meet U.S. organic standards.

We are very pleased that both the House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill include increased authorities, responsibilities and resources for the National Organic Program for organic import enforcement, including provisions to improve tracking of organic imports and to ensure that imports fully comply with U.S. organic standards. Both bills also include $5 million in one-time mandatory funding for improving import data tracking systems. While the core aspects of these provisions are very similar in both bills, both bills have unique and important aspects that are not included in the other but should be included in the final legislation.

The House bill includes a very important provision — to give the USDA National Organic Program authority to enforce a higher level of scrutiny on organic imports from countries with a track record of fraudulent activity. Specifically, Section 9006(a) of the House bill gives the Secretary authority to conduct annual accreditation reviews for satellite offices and overseas operations of organic certifiers. In the Senate bill, Section 10104(d) clarifies the Secretary’s accreditation and oversight authority over certifying agents operating in foreign countries, but it fails to recognize the need for annual reviews in certain circumstances. Therefore, we support the House position on this provision.

The Senate bill includes important provisions to delineate certain circumstances that warrant expedited investigation procedures for foreign operations. Specifically, Section 10104(f) would require the Secretary to carry out expedited investigation procedures of an organic certifying agent — if a foreign government revokes the accreditation of that agent, or if there is a sudden and substantial increase in the rate and quantity of imports of an individual organic product. The House bill fails to address this issue. Therefore, we support the Senate provisions on this issue.

The Senate bill, relative to the House bill, includes more detailed provisions for inter-agency coordination and collaboration to address organic import fraud and enforcement, given the multiple federal agency roles at ports of entry. Specifically, Section 10104(h) of the Senate bill establishes an Organic Agricultural Product Imports Interagency Working Group to facilitate coordination and information sharing between USDA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection on imports of organically produced agricultural products. The House bill does not include this provision. Therefore, we support the Senate provisions for this interagency working group.

 

• Public Plant Breeding and Regionally Adapted Cultivar Development. Farmers need seeds and animal breeds suited to their local growing conditions, changing climates, and farming systems. Without these tools, farmers are handicapped, and their productivity is impacted.

Congress, USDA, and public research universities must reinvest in public plant and animal breeding programs to provide farmers with regionally adapted seeds and breeds. The Senate bill includes two provisions that address this concern, in part.

Section 7205 of the Senate bill requires USDA to develop a national strategic germplasm and cultivar collection assessment and utilization plan to address the significant backlog of characterization and maintenance of existing accessions critical to preserve the viability of, and public access to, germplasm and cultivars. We support this Senate provision.

Section 7206 of the Senate bill includes helpful language to amend the statutory language governing the National Genetic Resources Advisory Committee (NGRAC) to require the advisory committee to do an assessment of needs related to public cultivar development, and to make recommendations to the Secretary regarding funding gaps. It also requires the Secretary to designate 4 seats on the NGRAC for members with public cultivar and animal breed development expertise. We support this Senate provision.

While the bill gives NGRAC additional responsibilities in public plant and animal breeding, it fails to require any USDA funding for the work nor does it require any USDA coordination.

We urge conferees to include additional provisions in the final bill to require USDA to use existing competitive grant research programs to expend at least $50 million annually on public cultivar and breed development activities. We also urge establishment of a Coordinator position within the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to oversee these activities.

 

• The Organic Production Market and Data Initiatives (ODI) is USDA’s multi-agency organic data collection initiative that collects information vital to maintaining stable markets, creating risk management tools, tracking production trends, and increasing exports.

Like conventional agriculture, the organic industry cannot continue to thrive and maintain stable markets without good data collection. Both the House and Senate bills reauthorize annual appropriations for the ODI and provide $5 million in mandatory funding for the program.

There are no differences to resolve during Conference on ODI.

 

• Conservation Programs- The Conservation Stewardship Program, the Environmental Quality Incentive Program, and the Conservation Reserve Program are important programs for organic farmers.

a. Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) – PCC Community Markets strongly opposes the House bill provisions that would eliminate the CSP. We urge conferees to preserve funding for this critical CSP program, in line with the Senate position. We urge conferees to retain the Senate CSP provision within Section 2204 of the bill to require an allocation of funds to each State to “support organic production and transition to organic.”

 

b. Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) – The payment limit currently for the EQIP organic Initiative is $20,000 per year or $80,000 over 6 years, whereas the limit in the general EQIP program pool is $450,000 over 6 years. This inequity in payments has limited the effectiveness of the program for organic farmers.

Section 2303 of the Senate bill contains a provision that reduces this inequity by increasing the payment limit for the Organic Initiative to $160,000 for the period of fiscal years 2019 through 2023.

We urge conferees to include this provision in the final bill and to include a state organic allocation for EQIP, similar to the language included in Section 2204 of the Senate bill’s CSP provisions.

 

c. Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) – Section 2206(b)(1)(B) of the House bill would make it easier for landowners with CRP contracts to start the 3-year organic transition process prior to the expiration of their CRP contract, to be eligible for certification when the contract expires.

We support the House provision for this CRP issue.

 

• Crop Insurance and Risk Management – Both the House and Senate bills failed to make meaningful improvements in risk management options for organic farmers.

We support efforts in Conference to address some of the risk management challenges and inequities facing organic farmers. Specifically, we support including new provisions to:

a. Direct the Risk Management Agency (RMA) to prioritize development of additional organic price elections for crop insurance coverage, and to review policies that cap Contract Price Addendums at two-times the conventional price election for any specific crop.

 

b. Continue Whole-Farm Revenue Protection established in the 2014 Farm Bill and recognize the change in farm revenue after a farm has transitioned to organic. Eliminate the 30 percent cap on increased production value under the expansion provision.

 

c. Direct the Farm Service Agency to develop organic price elections for storage loans offered. Producers then could access working capital based on the actual value of their crops to cash flow their operations. Existing data developed by the Risk Management Agency (RMA) can be used to establish storage loan prices.

 

d. Direct RMA to consider organic farming practices when developing the “good farming practices guide” and ensure that organic producers’ ability to obtain crop insurance is not impacted negatively.

 

The investments made through the Farm Bill for organic agriculture are quite modest relative to the economic importance of organic agriculture in the marketplace, even at the funding levels that we are recommending. Organic programs are a very small part of overall investment that will be made through this Farm Bill, yet they are critical to address unique needs of this rapidly growing sector. For Washington state, ranked #2 in the country for organic farmgate sales, they are extremely important.

We ask that our concerns and issues are incorporated into the proposed Farm Bill that emerges out of the conference committee. We urge you to protect critical organic programs that lack baseline funding if a short-term extension to the Farm Bill is necessary. When the previous Farm Bill lapsed at the end of 2012 and a short-term extension was passed, it failed to fund key organic Farm Bill programs. That caused a great deal of disruption for the organic sector in 2013.

Please support the organic sector’s growth by rejecting statutory changes to the National Organic Standards Board, by reauthorizing key programs, and by making the modest investments above.

 

Respectfully submitted,

Trudy Bialic Director, Public Affairs and Quality Standards

PCC Community Markets

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Securing funding for WSU's organics research

Thank you to Senator Patty Murray; re: supporting the organic crop research and education program at WSU.