Organic Farming Is Missing from Climate Change Talks | Civil Eats

In DC, Organic Ag Gets a Funding Boost but Is Missing from the Climate Conversation

In this week’s Field Report: new federal support for organic farmers, a Supreme Court decision on an animal welfare law, and more. 

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore have a kick-off plenary discussion during the AIM for Climate Summit in Washington, D.C. on Monday, May 8, 2023. The Summit is an event “for the partners, by the partners” to raise ambition, build collaborations, and share knowledge on climate-smart agriculture and food systems innovation in the lead-up to COP28. AIM for Climate partners have shaped the Summit agenda through hosting high-level plenaries, breakout sessions, interactive exhibits, and site tours. (USDA photo by Tom Witham)

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore have a kick-off plenary discussion during the AIM for Climate Summit in Washington, D.C. on Monday, May 8, 2023. (Photo credit: Tom Witham, USDA)

“We understand and appreciate the important role that you all are playing in not only providing quality and nutritious and healthy food, but creating a value-added opportunity for farmers,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said, speaking on Wednesday to the CEOs, retailers, and farmers at the Organic Trade Association’s (OTA) annual conference.

Vilsack was there to highlight the Department of Agriculture’s progress on several long-stalled rules around enforcing organic standards and Origin of Livestock rules for dairy. In addition, Vilsack mentioned that the long-anticipated animal welfare rule will likely be finalized by late summer or early fall.

But the biggest announcements were focused on opening up new markets for organic food, getting more U.S. farmers certified to grow organic food, and helping them pay for that certification.

Under the new Organic Market Development Grants (OMDG) Program, the USDA is making $75 million in grant funding available to nonprofits and state, local, and tribal governments for projects designed to expand markets for organic food produced in the U.S.

The domestic piece is key, because while the U.S. market for organic food continues to increase, surpassing $60 billion in 2022, the most recent data shows organic farmland acreage has not grown beyond 1 percent of the total U.S. farmland—and the number actually decreased between 2019 and 2021. (OTA representatives said they don’t believe the acreage data is entirely accurate because of the voluntary nature of the survey.) As a result, the country is importing more and more of its organic food, which is a missed economic opportunity for farmers—and increases the risks of organic fraud.

“I believe the challenge is in the transition [to organic, which takes three years and typically comes with an increase in labor], and producers need to be able to have some certainty that they can recover some of the costs of that transition,” USDA Farm Service Administrator Zach Ducheneaux told Civil Eats. To that end, Vilsack’s other big announcement at the OTA conference was that the agency would increase how much it will reimburse producers for certification.

The USDA will now cover up to 75 percent of the costs associated with organic certification, up to $750. That’s the maximum amount authorized by the last farm bill, and farmers were getting that rate for several years. Then, in 2020, the USDA cut it to 50 percent, up to $500. Groups including the National Organic Coalition and the Organic Farmers Association cheered the restoration of the higher rate and said they’ll be pushing to increase the maximum even further in the next farm bill, to cover 100 percent of the cost of certification up to $1,500. The following day, Senator Peter Welch (D-Vermont) introduced a marker bill that would do just that, and a House companion bill is expected soon.

On the USDA’s side, Ducheneaux pointed to an overall message. “I think all of these [announcements] indicate the commitment of the administration to help all of our producers really reimagine what our food system looks like and stand up the resources that are needed to provide alternatives for the consumers they serve,” he said. “It aligns with our work on Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities and with our work on equity and more and better markets.”

Not everyone is drawing the connection between organic and the climate crisis, however.

A tall banner shows the corporate sponsors of the AIM for Climate Summit, including CropLife, Corteva, California Almonds, FMC and others. (Photo credit: Lisa Held)

A banner shows some of the sponsors of the AIM for Climate Summit, including CropLife, Corteva, California Almonds, FMC and others. (Photo credit: Lisa Held)

To visit the OTA conference, Vilsack stepped out of the AIM for Climate Summit, where there was almost no mention of organic farming. Vilsack said the Summit, which was much larger and higher-profile than the OTA conference, represented “the largest number of ag ministers in D.C. ever.” Over the course of several days, agricultural leaders from 50 nations and representatives from the world’s largest food and agriculture companies highlighted global projects to reduce agriculture’s climate impacts.

Not only were representatives of organic agriculture absent, but  the conference was heavily sponsored by the chemical pesticide industry, including Corteva, FMC, and CropLife (the pesticide industry’s trade association). New AIM for Climate “innovation sprints” announced at the conference include several that tout regenerative practices but none that will focus on organic farming.

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“Regenerative,” in fact, was the term most often used by attendees at the Summit—from the CEO of PepsiCo to Syngenta executives. As the term has gained momentum among farmers and food companies over the past several years, whether chemical-intensive systems can be considered “regenerative” has been a source of debate. While definitions vary, regenerative agriculture is generally intended to prioritize soil health, while chemical pesticides can decrease biodiversity in soil ecosystems.

For his part, Vilsack has generally rejected agricultural approaches that limit chemical use in any way. For example, he has pushed back on the European Union’s “Farm to Fork” plan, which sets concrete targets to cut chemical pesticide and fertilizer use.

While OTA conference speakers repeatedly declared that “organic is the original climate-smart agriculture,” Vilsack talked about organic purely as a market opportunity for farmers. And the dissonance between the events illustrated a chasm in the realm of “climate-smart” agriculture that seems to be deepening as more attention and funding flows into the space.

“I’m encouraged by the fact that [climate] is on everyone’s agenda,” said OTA CEO Tom Chapman when asked about the lack of overlap between the two events, “but I would like organic to be recognized further.”

Read More:
Can Organic Farming Solve the Climate Crisis?
What Does the Future Look Like for Organic?

Talking Trash. The climate impact of food waste was on the agenda at the AIM for Climate conference, while elsewhere in D.C., Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), Dan Newhouse (R-Washington) and U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conneticut) reintroduced their Food Date Labeling Act. The bill would standardize how the expiration-date labels on packaged foods to reduce the amount of food Americans throw out for fear that it has gone bad. Studies have shown the current system is confusing, and home cooks often end up tossing food that has not actually expired. The provisions will likely be considered for inclusion in the farm bill, especially because similar solutions are also included in Pingree and Senator Martin Heinrich’s (D-New Mexico) Agriculture Resilience Act, which was reintroduced earlier this year and has garnered support from food and agriculture groups.

Read More:
Stopping Food Waste Before It Starts Is Key to Reaching Climate Goals
A New Bill Aims to Fix Food Waste in Schools

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The Supreme Court Rules on Cages. After hearing arguments in National Pork Producers Council v. Ross last October, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision this week to preserve Proposition 12, the California law banning the sale of pork from pigs kept in tight cages. The case was the latest in a long list of attempts by the pork industry to challenge the voter-approved animal welfare measure, and it hinged on the regulation of interstate commerce. Interestingly, it was one case in which the justices did not vote along their typical ideological lines. While the case was specific to California’s law, other states are considering similar measures, so it will have larger implications for animal welfare on farms (and beyond). Groups and companies including the Humane Society, ASPCA, Public Justice, Farm Action, and Niman Ranch cheered the decision, while the meat industry’s trade association issued a statement saying its members were “disappointed in the Court’s decision and will carefully study the ruling to determine next steps.”

Read More:
Morality at the Center of Supreme Court Arguments Over Raising Farmed Pigs in Crates
Next on the Supreme Court Docket: Farm Animal Welfare

Iowa Water Crisis. Speaking of the powerful pork industry, University of Iowa research engineer Chris Jones suddenly retired last week after he said two state senators pressured the university to take down his popular blog on the pollution of Iowa’s waterways. Jones has been outspoken about how the agricultural industry in Iowa has contributed to terrible water quality and about the political power that allows farms to avoid regulation. His new book on the topic, The Swine Republic: Struggles with the Truth About Agriculture and Water Quality, which draws on those blog posts to explore the issue, comes out on June 1.

Read More:
Op-Ed: Water Pollution in Iowa is Environmental Injustice
The Trickle-Down Effect of Agriculture in Iowa

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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