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Daily News Blog

14
May

Multiple Studies Demonstrate the Importance of Strengthening Organic in the Farm Bill

As research continues to emerge on the value of organic farming, U.S. Congress debates its future as Farm Bill negotiations continue.

(Beyond Pesticides, May 14, 2024) As research continues to emerge on the value of organic farming, U.S. Congress debates its future as Farm Bill negotiations have been stalled for months. Recent studies published within the past few months show the significance of organic agriculture’s support of fungal and microbial life, which is essential to soil health. Meanwhile, last week the Democrat-led Senate and Republican-led House of Representatives presented their respective visions to amend the 2024 Farm Bill. The office of U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, released an initial Senate framework for the (now 2024) Farm Bill. At the same time, U.S. Representative Glenn Thompson (R-PA), chair of the House Agriculture Committee, released an outline of the House version, then followed up with more details.

While the Senate Democratic proposal includes more robust support for expanding and strengthening organic product supply chains and domestic production, the House Republican support for organic land management principles and practices demonstrates that the Farm Bill could recognize, across the political spectrum, its economic, ecological, and public health benefits in the United States. Despite this, a growing coalition of advocates is alerting the public and members of Congress that the chemical industry and allied companies are pushing to simultaneously preempt state authority to allow stricter bans of toxic pesticides at the municipal level and shield the producers and users of toxic pesticides from liability lawsuits associated with the harm that their products cause.

Farm Bill Breakdown

The National Organic Coalition [Beyond Pesticides is a member organization] summarizes the funding and policy proposals from the Senate Farm Bill framework relating to the National Organic Program as follows.

Addressing Organic Certification Costs:

  • Increases reimbursements to organic operations to $1,000 to help defray annual certification costs.
  • Provides mandatory and stable funding for the Organic Certification Cost Share Program to ensure that it does not run out of funds as the organic sector grows.

Funding Organic Oversight and Enforcement Activities:

  • Provides authority to fund the National Organic Program, the agency that oversees and enforces organic regulations, at a level that keeps pace with growth in the organic marketplace.
  • Provides $5 million in mandatory funding for database and technology upgrades related to organic import certificates and other fraud and enforcement data tracking required by the newly implemented Strengthening Organic Enforcement regulation.

Supporting Organic Transition:

  • Authorizes an Organic Market Development Grants Program.
  • Moves toward codifying ongoing support for organic transition.

Addressing Regulatory Bottlenecks with Organic Regulations:

  • Directs the National Organic Program to solicit public input on the prioritization of organic regulations to be promulgated or revised.
  • Directs the Agriculture Secretary to publish an annual report regarding recommendations received from the National Organic Standards Board, all regulatory and administrative actions taken, and justifications on why actions were or were not taken on those recommendations.
  • Directs the Government Accountability Office to conduct a study on the efforts of the National Organic Program to improve organic standards and provide recommendations on how the National Organic Program can ensure that organic program standards evolve in a timely manner to meet consumer expectations and benefit organic producers.

Providing Mandatory Funding for Organic Research and Data Collection

  • Continues existing mandatory funding at the $50 million level for the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative.
  • Requires greater coordination of organic research activities within USDA.
  • Provides $5 million in mandatory funding for organic production and market data initiatives.

Making USDA Programs Work For Organic Farmers

  • Increases the payment cap and establishes equity for organic producers who apply for Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) conservation funding through the EQIP Organic Initiative.
  • Directs the USDA to improve collection of organic dairy market data, which is critical to farm viability for organic dairy producers.”

One other noteworthy addition in the Senate Framework is the proposal to establish an Organic Agriculture Research Coordinator who will “coordinate and establish annual strategic priorities on organic agriculture research at USDA, to conduct and publish a survey of USDA research relating to organic agriculture, and to make recommendations to enhance USDA research and coordination on organic agriculture.” This is essential in fostering further academic exploration of organic agriculture and land management principles in the coming years and decades given the lackluster number of research applications and institutional support in the past.

The House outline, while it does not include as many provisions for the expansion of organic policy as the Senate outline, agrees with several of its key components. For example, the House outline includes mandatory funding provisions for “database maintenance and technology upgrades,” as well as mandatory funding for “the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative at $50 million per year.” The House outline also calls for an additional “$10 million in mandatory funding for the Organic Production and Market Data Initiative based on a request for increased funding in H.R. 2720” on top of $5 million in “mandatory funding for the continued database maintenance and technology upgrades,” while the Senate outline calls for just $5 million in funding for the latter. Beyond Pesticides welcomes bipartisan consensus that organic supply chains and markets must continue to be nurtured as recognition of its importance to sustainability, rather than put on the legislative chopping block.

If adopted, these legislative priorities will elevate the already successful organic market to greater heights in terms of improving domestic production capacity and instilling public confidence in the regulatory system and accompanying standards. The U.S. still has the opportunity to lead the adoption of organic agriculture principles on the international stage. For example, the Biden Administration launched the Organic Transition Initiative last year, opening $300 million in funding to support aspiring and current organic farmers, yet falling short of setting a target of total percentage of farmland by a certain date. The European Union has audacious goals for organic agriculture, including its target of 30% of its total farmland as organic by 2030; currently, European Union boasts roughly 15% of its total farmland under organic standards which compared to the United States (less than 1% of total farmland certified organic) is far ahead of the curve. To learn more, see the Daily News section on Alternatives/Organics.

Certified organic agriculture has proliferated over the past four decades from a voluntary standard organized by farmers and grassroots consumers and organizations representing farmers, environmentalists, community leaders, physicians, and rural and urban communities to a $70 billion industry. In the same period, considerable scientific literature continues to underscore the significance of a wholesale transition to organic from chemical-intensive food systems to adequately address the cascading crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and public health. Despite this, there is also continued efforts by the chemical industry and those companies that use its products to undermine environmental and public health within the Farm Bill and state legislatures.

Local Authority and Pesticide Immunity Bill Riders

Federal preemption of state and local authority to establish pesticide bans and stricter pesticide regulations is also on the menu for Farm Bill language across the board. As reported in Daily News previously, Agricultural Labeling Uniformity Act (ALUA) and Ending Agricultural Trade Suppression Act (EATS Act) could be included in the 2024 Farm Bill as riders that inevitably undermine local and state authority to enact more stringent agricultural and land management policies that would support public health, biodiversity, and climate action. The EATS Act’s stated purpose is to “prevent States and local jurisdictions from interfering with the production and distribution of agricultural products. . .,” effectively preempting local and state health and environmental concerns regarding agricultural land use. Meanwhile, ALUA threatens to undermine local and state authority to protect the health of their residents from toxic pesticide use on public land—effectively overturning decades of Supreme Court precedent. See previous Actions of the Week (here, here, and here) to contact your U.S. Senator or Representative to vote against these bills and/or vote against this language from inclusion in the finalized text.

While industry is attempting to undermine environmental and public health protections at the national level, there is an equally concerning, industry-led campaign to undermine victims of pesticide exposure from seeking legal restitution through failure-to-warn claims under state toxic tort law. This, too, could pop up in the Farm Bill as a vehicle to stop litigation against chemical companies by those harmed. Dubbed by advocates as “pesticide immunity” bills, state legislatures in Missouri, Iowa, and Idaho have attempted to change state civil tort law to enshrine in state legal codes that:

“any pesticide registered by the United States Environmental Protection Agency under the Federal Insecticide Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), a pesticide label approved by the [EPA], or a pesticide label consistent with the most recent human health assessment performed under FIFRA, or consistent with the [EPA] carcinogenicity classification of the pesticide under FIFRA, shall be sufficient to satisfy any requirement for a warning label regarding health or safety or any other provision of current law.”

This argument that “the label is the law” is in direct contradiction of FIFRA’s mandate that obligates pesticide manufacturers to disclose all relevant information regarding the proper use of pesticides for applicators, who include farmworkers and farmers. This effort is a direct response to thousands of cases involving Roundup/glyphosate that have resulted in large jury awards and settlements against Bayer/Monsanto in the billions of dollars. While sponsors of these bills claim that the labels on pesticide products provide sufficient warning of hazards, users have been misled by advertising that falsely touts product safety. As Beyond Pesticides previously reported, Bayer’s efforts have been rejected twice in the last few years by the U.S. Supreme Court, letting stand two lower court rulings against the company. The company’s most recent loss, on February 5, 2024, came from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which decided in favor of the plaintiff in Carson v. Monsanto on Bayer’s claim that FIFRA preempts a failure to warn claim.  See previous Actions of the Week (here and here) to contact local elected officials in Iowa, Missouri, and Idaho to raise the importance of protecting failure-to-warn claims in state civil torts.

Organic Agriculture Cultivates Beneficial Fungi

Researchers find that organic farming systems have three times the proportion of beneficial fungi relative to chemical-intensive farms that rely on toxic pesticides. 

An interdisciplinary team of Brazil-based researchers at Sao Paolo State University’s Laboratory of Microbial Bioinformatics and Department of Soil Sciences at the University of Sao Paolo conducted this research published in World Journal of Microbiology and Biotechnology on March 2, 2024. “Altogether, our results uncover that beyond differences in microbial community composition between the two farming systems, fungal keystone nodes are far more relevant in the organic farming system, thus suggesting that bacteria-fungi interactions are more frequent in organic farming systems, promoting a more functional microbial community,” the researchers share in the study abstract. There is a symbiotic relationship between fungi and microbial bacteria in soil, the latter of which will be expounded upon in the next study.

The study drew upon data from conventional no-till and organic farming systems on the Mokiti Okada corn field in a Brazilian tropical savanna biome. Ammonium sulfate fertilizer was sprayed on the conventional site, with the addition of singular applications of atrazine and benzoyl cyclohexanedione herbicides as well as two applications of Bayer insecticide Connect® with the active ingredients imidacloprid and cyfluthrin. The organic site, meanwhile, employed no synthetic fertilizers and just one application of the NOP-approved insecticide Spinosad. Nine soil samples were collected from each site within the 2018-2019 growing season. For the methodological breakdown of how researchers ascertained pH levels, soil enzyme activities, nitrogen forms, permanganate oxidizable carbon, soil fertility, aluminum, and macronutrients, see the subsection “Soil fertility and enzyme activity analyses” on page 2 of 13.

Using this data, researchers determined the number of “nodes” within “co-occurrence networks” between fungi and soil bacteria. “An important feature of microbial co-occurrence networks are the keystone nodes, which account for highly associated taxa that individually or in a guild, exert considerable effects on the microbiome structure and functioning [],” the researchers say in explaining the significance of nodes within this methodological framework. “Our results showed that, despite being sparser, the [organic farming] co-occurrence network had higher abundance and proportion of fungal keystone taxa than the [conventional farming] co-occurrence network.” This is consistent with numerous studies documenting the repercussion of toxic pesticide dependency in conventional agriculture leading to fungal resistance from dependency on pesticides, including fungicides. Beyond Pesticides documents the growing prevalence of fungal resistance to pesticides and its implications for ecological and public health. See a 2019 Pesticides and You essay by Terry Shistar, PhD, “Fungi- Underappreciated as Friends, Overrated as Foes,” to learn more.

Organic Agriculture Boosts Soil Health and Microbial Activity

Farmers that adhere to organic principles for cultivating their land, meanwhile, are found to support the microbial density and richness of soil relative to conventional agriculture practices dependent on synthetic inputs.

An interdisciplinary team of Chile-based researchers at Millenium Institute Center for Genome Regulation, Institutio de Ciencias Biologicas, Center of Applied Ecology and Sustainability, Laboratory of Soil Microbial Ecology and Biogeochemistry, among other institutions, conducted this research published in Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment online May 4, 2024 for an official release date of August 14, 2024 in the full journal. “Organic [fertilization] promote[s] the abundance of bacteria involved in [carbon] and [nitrogen] cycling,” researchers found corroborating a recent metanalysis finding sustainable agriculture practices such as organic fertilizers “increases soil microbial biomass.” The researchers continue, “the contrast between conventional and organic agricultural systems was included in the pest management (PM) [category] since the no application of synthetic pesticides is the basis of organic agriculture.”

The goal of this study is to incorporate soil ecology analysis in agricultural management to determine “whether [sustainable agriculture practices] Sust-APs, in general, shape soil microbial communities and concomitantly soil functions.” The researchers conducted a literature review to gather requisite data on soil health, management practices, and fungi-bacteria relationships. They utilize a “publication bias assessment” to test the robustness and degree of significance for the final 232 selected articles. Within these studies, there are contrasts found between certain agricultural practices (e.g. tillage, pesticide management, fertilization, and soil organic carbon management.) Noteworthy contrasts include distinction between synthetic pesticide use and organic fertilization in the pest management section, as well as the distinction between organic and conventional management within the pest management category (as referenced above). “We considered 59 datasets: 39 for bacteria (Appendix D) and 20 for fungi (Appendix E) originating from 46 research articles,” the researchers delve into the methodological approach of different research sets for this study. “In turn, these 59 datasets involved the [standardization] and reanalysis of 924 microbial community data at the Family taxonomic level of bacteria and fungi (647 and 277 for bacteria and fungi, respectively).”

In summary, sustainable pest management (Sust-PM) practices (i.e., organic land care principles and practices) “increased bacterial richness, entropy, and it was the only practice that increased bacterial evenness.” This is consistent with numerous studies on the detrimental impacts of conventional synthetic pesticide use on soil biota. The adoption and adherence to organic principles improve soil health, water health, and human health, as documented in various sections of the Daily News. For example, a 2021 study published in Agrosystems, Geosciences, and Environment found that the U.S. corn belt has lost approximately 35% of its topsoil since the turn of the 21st century due to reliance on monoculture farm systems and conventional pesticides.

Keeping Organic Strong

”To reflect the science and seriously take on the challenges of the public health crisis, biodiversity collapse, and the climate emergency, the Farm Bill must make a very large investment in organic land management and end our country’s dependency on petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers,” said Jay Feldman.  

Beyond Pesticides co-founder and executive director, Mr. Feldman served on the National Organic Standards Board during the 2010-2015 cycle, witnessing the importance of public engagement in protecting and building on the growth of the organic sector. As the Farm Bill negotiations continue, with the chance that they could continue for many months, advocates will continue to drive transformative policy change with equally transformative solutions grounded in peer-reviewed, independent science. See Keeping Organic Strong to learn more about the importance of maintaining and building upon the foundation of National Organic Program. Consider subscribing to our Action of the Week or Weekly News Update to learn more about how to engage in advocacy and receive a recap of the week’s top reports and developments.

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

Sources:

Matteoli, F.P. et al. (2024) ‘Organic farming promotes the abundance of fungi keystone taxa in bacteria-fungi interkingdom networks’, World Journal of Microbiology and Biotechnology, 40(4). doi:10.1007/s11274-024-03926-y.

Mondaca, P. et al. (2024) ‘Effects of sustainable agricultural practices on soil microbial diversity, composition, and functions’, Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 370, p. 109053. doi:10.1016/j.agee.2024.109053.

See U.S. Senate Farm Bill Framework and House Farm Bill Framework

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