November Policy Update

By, Patty Lovera, Policy Director

November 2020

Election 2020: What It Means for Organic

It probably shouldn’t surprise us that in 2020, like everything else, the election did not follow the normal routine. While there are still some results that are not yet clear and some ongoing recounts, as of the afternoon on November 11th, here is what we know so far about the what the election means for organic policy.

Transition to a Biden Administration – It looks likely that in 2021 we will be dealing with a Biden administration. Which means that many jobs at USDA will be filled with new people that influence the organic program, including the Secretary of Agriculture, the Under Secretary of Marketing and Regulatory Affairs, and the Administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service. It will likely be later in the fall before we know for sure who the new administration is nominating for these roles. But there will be lots of scuttlebutt and speculation about potential choices leading up to the actual announcements.

The OFA policy committee is drafting a list of recommendations to the “transition team” being assembled to guide the new administration’s arrival at the USDA. We will urge them to prioritize enforcement of existing organic standards (and oversight of how certifiers interpret the standards) and finishing up the regulations we need to make the standards better, including the Origin of Organic Livestock (OOL) rule, the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) rule, and the Strengthening Organic Enforcement (SOE) rule.

Transition to a New Congress – There will be a lot of changes for agriculture in the new Congress. In the House, Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), the long-running top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, lost his race for reelection. That means we will have a different chair of the House Agriculture Committee next year. The top contenders at this point are Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), Rep. Jim Costa (D-CA), and Rep. David Scott (D-GA). The top Republican on the committee will also be changing because the current ranking member Rep. Conaway (R-TX) is retiring at the end of this Congress. The contenders for ranking member are Rep. G.T. Thompson (R-PA), Rep. Austin Scott (R-GA), and Rep. Crawford (R-AR.) We should know more about the leadership of the House Agriculture Committee later in the year. First, the members of the House caucuses (Democrats and Republicans) will hold leadership elections in mid-November. Committee chairs and membership of committees will start to shake out after those leadership elections.

We may need to wait longer to know who will control things on the Senate side. Two open Senate seats in Georgia will go to a runoff election in January (because no candidate exceeded 50 percent of the vote.)  The outcome of these races will determine which party controls the Senate (and therefore which party chairs committees.) Both parties will likely prepare their lists of who will serve on and chair committees, but it may take longer to be official if we need to wait for those runoff elections to determine the control of the Senate. If the Democrats control the Senate, it is expected that Sen. Stabenow (D-MI) will be the chair. Because Sen. Roberts (R-KS), the current chair, is retiring at the end of this Congress, there will be a change in the top Republican on the committee, most likely Sen. Boozman (R-AR).

National Organic Standards Board Fall Meeting

The USDA’s National Organic Standards Board held its fall meeting online during the last week of October. The meeting had a very ambitious agenda and the board took over 70 votes, primarily about whether specific materials would be allowed for use by organic operations. The transcript and list of votes from the meeting will eventually be posted on USDA’s website here.  Here are a couple of highlights:

Paper Pots:  The board has for several meetings discussed paper-based crop planting aids, which includes paper pots as well as seed tape and other paper-based products like cloches. Many farmers have urged the board to figure out a way to set standards for paper pots that allow them to continue to be used by organic farms, while addressing concerns about the source of paper and the chemical components of adhesives. In our comments, OFA urged the board to move forward with a recommendation to allow paper pots. The board discussed a proposal from the crops subcommittee and voted to send the proposal back to the subcommittee for more work to address concerns about whether new requirements for the source of the paper and adhesive will be feasible for materials reviewers to evaluate. The board does seem to understand that many small farms depend on paper pots and is working to craft a recommendation that will set clear standards that will allow them to continue to be used.

Fenbendazole: The board considered a proposal to allow the emergency use of a parasiticide called fenbendazole for laying hens. In our comments, OFA urged the board not to approve this recommendation, based on concerns about residue levels remaining in the eggs laid by treated hens, the absence of a clear definition of what defines an emergency, and how allowing this drug is compatible with good management practices that provide adequate outdoor access for birds. The board had a robust discussion about this drug and ultimately voted against allowing it for emergency use in laying hens.

Ammonia Extract: Another hot topic was ammonia extract. The board was considering a petition seeking a prohibition on non-synthetic ammonia extract. Both synthetic and naturally-derived (non-synthetic) forms of ammonia can be used as a nitrogen fertilizer, and while synthetic ammonia is prohibited for organic use, non-synthetic sources of ammonia are not explicitly prohibited by the organic regulations. The petition expressed concerns about the impact of ammonia extracts on soil health and suggested that it was not feasible to determine whether ammonia extracts were derived from synthetic (prohibited) or non-synthetic (not explicitly prohibited) processes. This topic received a lot of discussion, during both public comments and the board meeting, covering soil health and the various production processes for ammonia extract. We would like to hear from OFA members about whether they use ammonia extract on their operations. You can weigh in on our 2021 policy priorities survey here.

EPA List 4 “Inert” Ingredients: Another complicated topic the board tackled is how the organic standards should treat the synthetic ingredients contained in many organic inputs — commonly referred to as “inert” ingredients. So-called “inert” ingredients are not typically disclosed on product labels and are added to provide some function or improved effectiveness for the active ingredients in a formulation – such as chemicals added to pesticides to make them more soluble or extend their shelf-life. The problem is that the organic standards have relied on a list from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to determine which of these ingredients were allowed in formulations approved for organic. But the EPA stopped maintaining this list in 2004 and there are growing concerns that some of the chemicals on this list are more hazardous than previously known. Many organic certifiers and others have raised concerns that prohibiting these ingredients without an orderly process to identify replacements will abruptly remove product formulations currently being used by organic operations. The board members and the NOP staff had a very detailed and thoughtful discussion about this issue, and there is widespread agreement that there is an urgent need to find a new process to review and approve these materials without disrupting organic operations. The board did approve relisting this list of materials as allowed synthetics for 5 more years (through the sunset review process). But they also passed a resolution urging the NOP to come up with a new system for evaluating these materials in a way that addresses health concerns but also minimizes disruption for organic operations.

Origin of Organic Livestock Rule

Unfortunately, another update at the NOSB meeting delivered some very frustrating news about the status of the long-delayed origin of organic livestock rulemaking. Earlier this summer, the National Organic Program missed a deadline set by Congress to finalize a rule about how livestock are transitioned into organic production. Congress set a deadline of mid-June for NOP to finish this rule in the 2020 appropriations (spending) bill for USDA.

Unfortunately, the NOP not only failed to meet that deadline, but explained that they believe there are significant problems with the proposed rule they have been working on since 2015 that need to be addressed before they can finish it. At the NOSB meeting in late October, NOP announced that they plan to write a new proposed rule, rather than adapt the 2015 version.

OFA is going to continue to push NOP to finish this process as quickly – but completely – as possible. We need an origin of livestock rule which the agency actually enforces, to create a level playing field for all organic dairy producers and close the loopholes in existing regulations that are being exploited by large operations.

Organic Certification Cost-Share

OFA continues to advocate for restoring the funding for the organic certification cost-share program. This summer, the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) announced that due to an unexpected shortfall in funding they were lowering the reimbursement rate to 50 percent of the certified organic operation’s eligible expenses, up to a maximum of $500 per scope. This is reduced from a rate of 75 percent of the certified organic operation’s eligible expenses, up to a maximum of $750 per scope in previous years (and the level that was specified for this program in the last Farm Bill.)

Congress’ failure to pass new spending bills on time (the new fiscal year for the federal government started on October 1st) means that the federal government is currently running under an extension of last year’s budget. This makes it more complicated to quickly get Congress to provide more funding for the cost-share program. But we are going to keep working to try to get the reimbursement level restored. In the meantime, it does help for members of Congress to hear from organic farmers about why the cost share program is important. You can find out how to take action on cost-share here.

Covid-19 Program – December Deadline

On September 21st, the USDA started accepting applications for the second round of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP), which is the program to give direct payments to farms impacted by the pandemic. This round has different rules for which crops and farms are eligible for payments, which are an improvement over the first round (which did not really address the needs of most organic farmers.) We have more detail on the second round of CFAP here. The application period ends on December 11th. Even if the first round did not make sense for your farm, it may be worth it to check out the new requirements to see if this new round is a better fit.