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Daily News Blog

10
Jun

USDA Announces Dramatic Increases in Support for Organic Agriculture Without Call for Total Transition

(Beyond Pesticides, June 10, 2022) The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced on June 1 that it will provide a potential 15-fold increase in funding aimed at organic food production — up to $300 million. The subject Organic Transition Initiative provision is embedded in a new USDA Food System Transformation framework (FSTF), whose raison d’être is captured in the press release: “to transform the food system to benefit consumers, producers and rural communities by providing more options, increasing access, and creating new, more, and better markets for small and mid-size producers.” That funding for organic transition, the invocation of climate as a significant driver of multiple features of the initiative, and a focus on equity concerns are all welcome news. Beyond Pesticides maintains that it will be critical that this FSTF result in concrete goals that set out specific metrics and timelines — particularly around the magnitude of acres shifted to organic production and the pace of the phaseout of non-organic substances and protocols.

The headline of the press release bespeaks the rationale: “Shoring Up the Food Supply Chain and Transforming the Food System to Be Fairer, More Competitive, More Resilient.” Broadly, the initiative addresses four sectors of agricultural activity: production, processing, aggregation/distribution, and markets/consumers.

The FSTF sets out four top-level goals; the appendix to the announcement includes more-detailed sections on each of these:

  1. building a more resilient food supply chain that provides more and better market options for consumers and producers while reducing carbon pollution; the press release notes that the increase in funding is geared to providing comprehensive supports for farm transition to organic production, including mentoring, comprehensive, wrap-around technical assistance, direct funding through conservation financial assistance and additional crop insurance assistance, and support for developing product markets in targeted areas
  2. creating a fairer food system that combats market dominance and helps producers and consumers gain more power in the marketplace by creating new, more, and better local market options; this section points to the huge reduction in producers’ power in the marketplace during the past five decades, due to massive consolidation in the food system, and to the “perils of a food system dominated by a few corporate players”; this initiative, USDA asserts, will “deliver a better deal for farmers, ranchers, growers and consumers”
  3. making nutritious food more accessible and affordable for consumers; in this section, USDA emphasizes the unacceptability of food and nutrition insecurity, and commits to its elimination
  4. emphasizing equity; here, the agency says that “rural communities, underserved communities, communities that experience persistent poverty, and the people who live there have been left behind”; it further asserts that the FSTF will create more economic opportunities in such communities and help them keep more of the food system dollar — accelerating more-equitable growth, and helping more of the created wealth remain in small towns and underserved communities

USDA’s press release notes that the effort “supports the Biden-Harris Administration’s broader work to strengthen critical supply chains as directed by Executive Order 14017 America’s Supply Chains.” Funding for the initiative will come from the American Rescue Plan Act (and other pandemic relief legislation), and a good number of the features address “lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain disruptions caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine.” USDA has emphasized that this new initiative builds on its 2021 provision of pandemic assistance to cover certification and education expenses for certified organic producers and those making the transition to organic. (See more about pandemic support for farmers here.)

The appendix section (of the USDA press release) on Food Production spotlights two initiatives: the increased funding (up to $300 million) for the new Organic Transition Initiative, and up to $75 million to support urban agriculture. Roughly $20 million for the latter will go to processing a backlog of applications from a 2018 grant program to support urban agriculture; in 2020 and 2021, a mere 6% of applications were processed. Another $40 million will help fund outreach and training programs for urban farmers, which USDA says will “expand access to nutritious foods, foster community engagement, increase awareness of climate change and mitigate the effects within urban areas, provide jobs, educate communities about farming, and expand green spaces.” The People’s Garden Initiative, recently revived, will get an infusion of $5 million for 18 flagship gardens across the country, which are used to “grow fresh, healthy food and support resilient, local food systems; teach people how to garden using conservation practices; nurture habitat for pollinators and wildlife; and create greenspace for neighbors.”

Other noteworthy features of the initiative include:

  • $40 million to support doctors’ ability to prescribe fresh — and ideally organic and local/regional — produce, aka, food as medicine for patients who have poor access to proper nutrition
  • advancement of economic equity and environmental justice
  • $375 million to catalyze more independent poultry and meat processing enterprises (because currently, there are four multinational companies doing all of this in the U.S.)
  • a food supply chain loan guarantee program to shore up independent investment in mid-chain operations (te.g., rucking, cold storage, and processing) for meat and poultry
  • up to $600 million to support supply chain infrastructure beyond the meat and poultry sector
  • funds for food safety certification training for specialty crops
  • funds to levy commodity purchasing through the Farm-to-School program and other procurement programs, increasing markets for local/regional farms
  • additional support for the Community Compost and Food Waste Reduction Program, and a feasibility study (and corresponding actions) for a National Food Loss and Waste Strategy
  • increased funding to a variety of programs focused on access to healthful food — for seniors, those who live in so-called “food deserts,” patients with inadequate food and nutrition security (via the “food as medicine” or food prescription initiative mentioned above), students who participate in school feeding programs, and others; also, $25 million to support SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) technology improvements

There is a big focus on animal food processing in the FSTF, largely as a response to the pandemic experiences related to this industry. This is hardly an ideal focus in terms of climate impacts because the consumption of animal products represents a significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. This is especially true of the giant CAFO (confined animal feeding operations) sector and conventional dairy sector, from which most “industrial” meat and dairy products come. This may (or may not) be somewhat offset by the multiple other aspects of the FSTF that appear to support local small- and mid-sized, as well as organic and regenerative, farms whose practices have a far smaller climate and environmental footprint.

As the organization Moms Across America points out in its coverage of the FSTF, the initiative may have the additional impact of reducing “the dependency on GMO mono-crops that have been the reason for the destruction of rainforests and sacred lands.” The organization could be speaking for Beyond Pesticides when it writes, “Are we naive to the corruption that could result from these hundreds of millions of dollars being doled out to organizations and companies? No. Are we skeptical if the money will merely line the pockets of more Fat Cats? Yes. But is there also a possibility that we have made progress?” But the organization also asks, “Has the food movement educated Tom Vilsack and his team that regenerative organic farming and access to organic food are essential?”

On that last question, Beyond Pesticides must return to its earlier coverage of Secretary Vilsack’s unhelpful behavior in 2020, when he used a G20 summit to diss the European Union’s Farm to Fork strategy, a primary goal of which is to reduce damaging climate, environmental, and health impacts of agricultural activities, and indirectly, its overall aim to create a “fair, healthy and environmentally friendly food system.” At the time, Beyond Pesticides wrote, Secretary Vilsack “chose to counter the F2F efforts by promoting an ‘alternative strategy’ — under the moniker ‘Coalition for Productivity Growth’ — through which ‘other nations pledge not to follow the European path on farm policy.’ He has described this alternative, U.S.-led strategy as ‘a market-oriented, incentive-based, voluntary system [that] is effective’ at slashing agricultural carbon emissions.”

This corporate-friendly approach rankled the health and environment advocacy community, but the criticism was not confined to those circles. The staid outlet Forbes magazine published an article titled, “Why Tom Vilsack Is Wrong About Farm To Fork and What We Can Do About It.” The piece included this: “USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has recently downplayed the European Union’s ambitious Farm To Fork strategyFarm To Fork [F2F] is the cornerstone of the European Green Deal, and puts sustainability at the heart of the world’s largest food import and export market. But Vilsack’s dismissal of the E.U. are [sic] out of step with consumer sentimentsfood justice advocacy and the latest cutting edge research on agroecology. . . . Vilsack’s alignment with agribusiness downplays the vast inequities at the heart of the U.S. food system.”

It continued, “The USDA secretary is promoting an alternative strategy called the Coalition for Productivity Growth, based on market-oriented, incentive-based systems. . . . The Vilsack approach is music to the ears of Big Food conglomerates like Bayer, Syngenta, Corteva (Dow/Dupont), Cargill and JBS, as well as trade groups such as Vilsack’s former employers at the Dairy Export Council.”

Forbes continued to surprise with these comments: “The grassroots sustainability momentum in the U.S. is consistent with recent scientific studies that expose the yield/productivity myth of chemical intensive agribusiness. . . . The European Union Farm To Fork plan is not perfect, but shows that public food system governance is possible and that a sustainable food system is already busy being born. And grassroots efforts in the U.S. are already building such a foundation domestically. A U.S. Farm To Fork strategy based on good food purchasing principles could ensure that healthy, fresh, affordable food grown and processed with justice, transparency and equity are available to all. Now that would be the way to go.”

In a Civil Eats interview that challenged some of the Secretary’s previous positions, he said, “This announcement is designed to do is to say, ‘We’d like to see that higher-value opportunity [that farmers access through the organic premium] more available and even more easily obtainable.’ We know it’s a problem: [organic certification is] complicated. It’s expensive. It’s tough. And they need help. So, here’s money to get a mentoring program in place. Here’s money to potentially look at ways in which we can either right-size the market where there’s too much supply and not enough market or right-size the demand where there’s a lot of market but not enough demand, not enough supply. That’s what we’re trying to do with the $300 million. I think it’s a very important signal about the significance and importance we place on organic as part of the overall system.” Civil Eats coverage calls the FSTF emphases on regionalism, support for organic and urban farming, and nutrition “a significant shift for the agency, which has historically prioritized efficiency over all else.”

Response from elsewhere in the nonprofit world has included this from the Organic Farming Research Foundation’s Gordon Merrick, Policy & Programs Manager: “In the past year, OFRF has had numerous meetings with USDA officials and provided in-depth written comments on how the agency can best support farmers and ranchers transitioning to organic production systems. . . . This is a meaningful first step to truly working towards a just and equitable food system. We at OFRF are excited to see the details of this historic investment into the National Organic Program.”

Beyond Pesticides advises that, in its development of specific goal metrics and plans, USDA look to the example of EU’s F2F plan, particularly in regard to such metrics on transition to organic production and reduction of the use of synthetic inputs (pesticides and fertilizers) on a specified timetable. For example, F2F:

  • sets out an objective of moving at least 25% of the EU’s agricultural land to organic farming by 2030
  • directs major funding to boosting sustainable practices, such as precision agriculture, agro-ecology (including organic farming), carbon farming, and agroforestry
  • establishes the goal of reducing, by 2030, overall use and risk of chemical pesticides by 50%, and the use of more-hazardous pesticides by 50%
  • makes changes to outdated regulations governing sourcing and use of pesticide data in order to address data gaps and promote evidence-based policymaking

What to make of USDA’s (and presumably the Secretary’s, given that he is promoting FSTF) apparent shift to greater organic, climate, and equity focus via this initiative? Certainly, the Biden/Harris administration’s concerns and priorities about the food system, climate, environment, and equity are a likely and significant impetus. Experiences during the pandemic have clearly been catalysts, as well, including problems such as supply chain issues, transportation problems, staffing shortages, insufficient inventory, and lack of redundancy in systems. Other issues are emerging as a function of the Russian war on Ukraine.

The press release on FSTF concludes with this: “In the Biden-Harris Administration, USDA is transforming America’s food system with a greater focus on creating new, more, and better markets to support farmers, ranchers, and consumers. USDA will do this by building more resilient local and regional food production [and] fairer markets for all producers, ensuring access to safe, healthy and nutritious food in all communities, building new markets and streams of income for farmers and producers using climate smart food and forestry practices, making historic investments in infrastructure and clean energy capabilities in rural America, and committing to equity across the Department by removing systemic barriers and building a workforce more representative of America.”

Such a values-driven, rather than corporate interest–driven, approach at USDA would be far preferable and appropriate to the needs of people and the planet; perhaps this FSTF signals movement in that direction. Critically, the federal government needs to heed Beyond Pesticides’ call for ending our ubiquitous use of toxic pesticides over the next decade, and for protection of strong organic standards and integrity in the National Organic Program and National Organic Standards, for which we regularly advocate. (An important feature of those standards is the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, which controls what can and cannot be used in organic crop and livestock production.)

The devil, as always, will be in the details of this new Organic Transition Initiative. For now, Beyond Pesticides is cautiously hopeful that this new injection of funding, and greater focus on the importance of the organic transition, will bear out on the ground — in more acres under organic production and significant reduction in use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, as well as for the other environmental, climate, equity, and economic benefits it may engender.

Source: https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2022/06/01/usda-announces-framework-shoring-food-supply-chain-and-transforming

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

 

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One Response to “USDA Announces Dramatic Increases in Support for Organic Agriculture Without Call for Total Transition”

  1. 1
    Elizabeth Tuminski Says:

    This last call to prevent poisoning Americans by excessive use
    of pesticides

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