by Mark Lipson, Senior Associate
This is an overview of 2023 Farm Bill developments and initiatives concerned with organic production and regulation. Suggested action items are provided at the end of the article.
Situation Normal: Way Behind and Getting Worse
The U.S. Congress has left Washington (“on recess”) for the month of August. They are far behind schedule on their required work, including renewal of the food and agriculture policy omnibus known as the Farm Bill. The current legislation expires on September 30. Neither the House or Senate Agriculture committees has yet taken up a draft for a new bill, so it is very likely that the deadline will be missed, and federal food and ag programs will drift into limbo this Fall.
The situation is complicated by the delays in crafting the annual appropriations bills for running the government. Current spending authority for all government agencies also ends on September 30th. At the end of July, the House of Representatives attempted to pass a bill for funding USDA and FDA (one of the 12 appropriations bills that comprise federal spending authority). Usually this is one of the less controversial bills but conflicts within the Republican Caucus led the House leadership to pull the bill from consideration and leave town a day earlier than planned. This is not a good sign for avoiding a government-wide shut down in October, let alone making progress on a Farm Bill. The House does not return to work until September 12th and has only 11 workdays scheduled for the entire month.
Given the radical fractures within Congress, a timely Farm Bill was already a shaky proposition. Its outlook is now even more uncertain. Legislative leaders will likely propose some form of temporary extension but this even this will be tied up with maneuvering around Fiscal Year 2024 Appropriations and the threat of a shutdown. Agreement on an extension package could easily take until the end of the calendar year.
In an improvised extension scenario, the risk for some existing organic-related programs is being left out of an extension and being suspended until there’s a new bill, or even being lost.
Meanwhile, organic advocates have been busy all year advancing various proposals for inclusion in an ultimate Farm Bill. These range from expansion of existing organic-wide programs (e.g., research) to new policies tailored for sub-sectors of the organic ecosystem (e.g., family-farm dairy). A number of these proposals have been included into “marker bills” submitted by various Members of Congress for consideration by the agriculture committees. Below we look at the content of several.
The number of organic (and organic-adjacent) groups and coalitions working to influence Capitol Hill is greater than ever. While this might seem to indicate increased political maturity for the organic sector, the various group entities are mostly not presenting as a unified front. A wider footprint for organic does not necessarily mean greater impact. It often reduces the impact when organic advocates appear to have many different priorities. As the “cone of possibilities” narrows in the coming months, the opportunity and necessity for a united front will become more distinct.
On the Organic Plate: A Smorgasbord of Marker Bills
Here’s a brief rundown of the organic-specific initiatives that have been submitted in “marker bills” awaiting attention of the Senate and House agriculture committees. I have listed these here in rough order of potential for inclusion by the committees, but many factors can change those odds.
Please Note: One major Farm Bill priority that is commonly stated among various organic groups is doing something about the backlog of NOSB recommendations that have not been acted on by USDA (often referred to as “continuous improvement”). Specific legislative proposals to address this have not been put forward in marker-bill form in this cycle. A proposed bill for this purpose (instigated by the Organic Trade Association) was introduced by several House members back in 2021 but never received a hearing.
The potential effectiveness of the previously proposed language was highly debatable. The complexity of this problem goes far beyond USDA and NOP into the deep structure of federal rulemaking, and workable solutions would need to be equally complicated. This is one reason why the problem remains a political orphan in this Farm Bill cycle.
This bill will ride mainly on the strength of Rep. Chellie Pingree as a veteran member of the House Agriculture Committee, although in the minority now. It also has gravitas as the early marker for addressing programs around soil health and “regenerative” goals. It addresses numerous aspects of USDA conservation programs. Its main feature for organic producers is removing the discriminatory payment cap in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) Organic Initiative. The regular EQIP program has a much higher payment cap than the dedicated organic funding pool.
This bill is organic-specific. It is targeted at expanding certification cost-share and supporting the recent USDA initiatives for organic transition. Rep. Adams is a member of the House committee and Sen. Welch is on the Senate committee. (Although Rep. Panetta is a primary champion of organic agriculture, he is no longer a member of the House committee.)
Certification cost-share has long been a feature of the Farm Bill but the bundle of organic transition support programs is a new frontier. The current USDA organic-transition programs have a lot of money to spend – orders of magnitude more than organic programs have ever had. But these funds were allocated by the Administration from the Inflation Reduction Act and COVID relief funds. If those programs are going to live beyond that one-time windfall, Congress has to endorse them and fund continuation. That fact makes this a highly important objective for the organic community.
The bill has wide-ranging endorsement within the organic community so the bill will at least get some attention from the committees and some version of some provisions it has a decent chance of surviving mark-up.
3. Strengthening Organic Agriculture Research Act (SOAR)/Organic Science and Research Investment Act (OSRI)
SOAR – H.R. 2720, Reps. Newhouse (R-WA), Pingree (D-ME), Panetta (D-CA)
OSRI – S. 2317, Sens. Fetterman (D-PA), Booker (D-NJ), Brown (D-OH), Casey (D-PA), Gillibrand (D-NY), Welch (D-VT), Wyden (D-OR)
These bills represent a strong show of force for support of dedicated organic research and extension. The Senate language has not yet been published so it’s not clear how closely it will match the House bill’s very robust provisions. The Senate co-sponsors include most of the Senate committee Democrats so there is near certainty that some or all of the eventual language will appear in the committee mark-up. On the House side, the co-sponsorship of Rep. Newhouse makes it a bipartisan effort and therefore greatly increases the likelihood of inclusion by the full committee.
Organic research (i.e., the Organic Research and Extension Initiative – OREI) has long been the flagship policy success of the organic community and this seems likely to continue if and when this next Farm Bill comes to fruition. One key aspect of these bills is remedying the neglect of organic by USDA’s in-house research agency, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS).
4. Seeds and Breeds for the Future Act. S. 2023, Sens. Baldwin (D-WI), Heinrich (D-NM), Smith (D-MN), Fetterman (D-PA) and Wyden (D-OR)
This bill also deals with USDA research programs and specifically addresses the need for alternative seed and animal breeds that are adapted to regional conditions and alternative production systems (e.g., organic). There is not yet a House counterpart for this bill, but the co-sponsorship of several Senate agriculture committee members gives this a good chance of making it into a final Senate bill.
5. Food and Farm Act of 2023. H.R. 1824, Rep. Blumenauer (D-OR).
This is a long-shot (really, no-shot), “visionary” bill that would overhaul numerous aspects of the Farm Bill for the sake of regional food systems, food justice, environmental sustainability, and animal welfare. The bill contains numerous references to organic agriculture and overall envisions organic as more central to USDA’s overall efforts. Rep. Blumenauer is a dedicated champion of organic farming and at least has the gumption to articulate a deeper renovation of U.S. food and farm policy.
TO DO: Advocating and Educating your Senators and Representatives
The August Recess is a good opportunity to make direct contact with your Congresspeople while they are away from Washington. Find them at a local event or town hall, set up a meeting in their district office, invite them to visit your business. It’s a golden opportunity for putting a word in for organic priorities and asking for a commitment. If they are a member of the House or Senate agriculture committee, triple your impact points!
- If you don’t already know your district and elected officials, you can find contact information for your U.S. Congressional Representatives and Senators here: https://www.congress.gov/members/find-your-member
- Contact their office and ask to speak to a legislative aide.
- Emphasize the importance of supporting organic agriculture and food businesses in the Farm Bill, and why this is important to you and your business.
- Point them to one or more of the marker bills noted above and ask them to co-sponsor or otherwise express their support to the bill’s authors.
- If they are on an agriculture committee, ask them for a commitment to support organic provisions in the committee mark-up.
- Ask them to keep you informed as Congress comes back into session and the Fall proceeds.
Thank you for you continued engagement in the organic community and industry! Please reach out to us at Wolf & Associates if we can be of additional service for you or your business.