July Policy Update

July 2021

By Patty Lovera, Policy Director

There has been a lot of news coming out of USDA as we enter summer, with multiple public comment periods and announcements about new programs using pandemic relief money.

Increasing Resilience in Food Supply Chains

In late June, OFA submitted comments to USDA answering a series of questions about weaknesses and risk in agriculture and food supply chains. The comment period will generate input for USDA to use as it comes up with recommendations to increase the resilience in the food system, in light of the serious disruptions that happened to some food supply chains during the Covid-19 pandemic. We submitted stories of how organic farmers around the country adapted to the pandemic as well as pointing out the unique characteristics of organic production that need to be considered in future programs, such as the need for updated organic regulations, strong enforcement by USDA, affordable organic certification, increasing organic research and building more organic processing infrastructure.

Organic Certification Cost Share

After nearly a year of working to get Congress or USDA to restore the reimbursement level for the organic certification cost share program, we hope to hear some good news soon. Last August, USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) announced a reduction in the reimbursement rates for the Organic Certification Cost Share Program. The cost share program reimburses organic farms and handling operations up to 50 percent of an operation’s certification expenses, to a maximum of $500 per certification scope (crops, livestock, wild crops, or handling). Previously the limit on reimbursement was 75 percent, up to a maximum of $750 per scope. In June, USDA announced a series of programs it intends to start this summer, using funding provided by Congress to deal with effects of the pandemic on the agriculture sector. Included on the list was funding for organic transition and organic certification cost share. We hope to get the details from USDA soon and will let you know when we do. In the meantime, you can take action below to remind Congress about this funding gap that still needs to be filled.

Origin of Livestock Rule

Yesterday was the deadline for a public comment period on potential revisions to a proposed rule on how livestock can be transitioned to organic production. The Origin of Livestock rule has been a source of controversy for over a decade, and organic dairy farmers have been urging the National Organic Program (NOP) to tighten up the standards to close a loophole that is exploited by some operations to continuously transition conventional animals into organic production. The NOP’s failure to strengthen the standards for organic livestock has allowed large-scale organic dairies to undermine those organic farms that comply with the intent of the organic label.

In 2015, the NOP published a proposed rule to clarify that, after completion of a one-time transition from a conventional dairy farm, all new dairy animals milked on an organic dairy farm would need to be managed organically from the last third of gestation. The 2015 proposed rule garnered strong public support from the entire organic community but has never been finalized. The NOP took public comments on the proposed rule in 2015, again in 2019 and now again in 2021. Yesterday, OFA submitted detailed comments to urge the NOP to make sure that conventional animals that are transitioned to organic using the one-time allowance are not transferred or sold as organic animals and to set the fastest possible effective date for this new rule.

Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices Rule

In mid-June, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced that the USDA would revisit the critical issue of strengthening the animal welfare standards for organic operations. The controversy over the OLPP rule has spanned multiple administrations, with a final rule released at the end of the Obama Administration, only to be withdrawn by the Trump Administration. Two lawsuits then challenged USDA’s decision to withdraw the rule, objecting to USDA’s position that it did not have the authority to regulate animal welfare standards under the Organic Foods Production Act. In his statement, Secretary Vilsack said that once the lawsuits are resolved, the USDA intends to draft a proposed rule on OLPP, including addressing the issue of porches in poultry houses. We will keep you posted on when the rule-writing process begins.

Climate Change and Agriculture

Just like last month, the debate on climate policy in Congress continued to be tied to the negotiations over the infrastructure package. In June, the full Senate passed one of the many bills that have been introduced related to climate and agriculture, in hopes that it could be included in an infrastructure package.

The bill that passed the Senate is the Growing Climate Solutions Act, which would give USDA the job of providing technical assistance and certification services for private carbon payment programs. The idea of carbon markets, whether private or run by an government agency like USDA, remain very controversial. The prospects for the Growing Climate Solutions Act in the House are not clear and some powerful members of the House Agriculture Committee do not yet support the bill. And the GCSA is not the only bill related to climate and agriculture that Congress could include in an infrastructure package. Another bill that would encourage the expansion of UDSA conservation programs to promote climate-friendly practices, and that highlights organic as a climate solution, is the Agriculture Resilience Act. You can take action here to support the Agriculture Resilience Act.

Take Action – Organic Certification Cost Share

While we are hoping for good news from USDA about restoring the reimbursement level for the cost share program, we are also continuing to let Congress know that this funding gap needs to be filled. This is the time of year when Congress works on the “appropriations” bills that set the spending levels for each federal agency, including USDA. Congress could get USDA to restore the reimbursement levels for organic certification cost share through the next appropriations bill. You can help by asking your members of Congress to make sure that USDA restores the reimbursement level for organic certification cost-share.  You can take action here.