U.S. 'loophole' can push organic farmers to destroy wildland

by Carey L. Biron | @clbtea | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 14 July 2021 09:00 GMT

Peaches ripen at an Oregon farm in July 2020. Handout photo courtesy of Helen Atthowe via THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION

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Farmers and advocacy groups are pinning their hopes on the Biden administration to create tighter laws on how land can be converted for organic farming

* Unlike the United States, several countries bar organic farming on wildland

* U.S. organic sales saw record rise last year to nearly $62 bn

* Advocates call for tighter rules on organic farmland conversion

By Carey L. Biron

WASHINGTON, July 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Helen Atthowe has been farming organically for decades, but when she and her husband bought a new spread in Oregon in 2016, they had to wait several years before they could formally again call themselves organic producers.

The 211-acre (85-hectare) farm had long been cultivated using standard fertilizers, so before the U.S. government would certify Atthowe's fruits and vegetables through its National Organic Program (NOP), the land had to rest for three years.

Atthowe is now finally applying for certification, but for some, that wait is too onerous - the farmer said she knows of grain producers who wanted to be certified organic more quickly, so they turned to untouched land nearby.

"It (was) easier to destroy that native prairie to bring it into organic production," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation over the phone.

Native ecosystems are integral to organic farming, said Atthowe, explaining that many organic producers rely on "beneficial" local insects to cut down on the need for pesticides.

"It makes no sense to have a loophole that would allow their destruction," she said.

Now organic farming advocates are looking to close that loophole, with some putting their hope in support from the new Biden administration and others creating their own certification to make up for what they see as failings in current policy.

Organic programs in about a dozen other countries bar the conversion of wildland for organic farming, but it is not specifically outlawed under the U.S. program.

According to Department of Agriculture survey results released in 2019, the most recent available, certified organic farms reported that they were transitioning more than 255,000 additional acres to grow organic produce.

Farms that were not yet certified were doing the same with more than 60,600 acres. The report does not detail what kind of land is being converted.

The issue has been simmering at the margins of farming, conservation and policymaking circles for several years, said Jo Ann Baumgartner, executive director of the Wild Farm Alliance, an advocacy group.

"Ideally growers would just rent or buy some land that was already organic, but since that is in short supply, they will ... look for some land that hasn't ever been farmed before," she said.

Reports on the issue so far are ad hoc, but Baumgartner said the alliance has received many, pointing to one from an agricultural inspector in Colorado who found a grower had converted 1,000 acres of prairieland.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which runs the program, said the regulatory framework for organic production "includes a strong environmental protection mandate."

That mandate requires farmers to "conserve biodiversity by incorporating practices in their organic system plan that are beneficial to biodiversity on the operation," the statement said.

Sweet red peppers grow at an Oregon farm in summer 2020. Handout photo courtesy of Helen Atthowe via THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION

CONSUMER BLOWBACK

The NOP, created in 2000, revolves around a label for food and other products indicating to consumers that production took place under a set of standards that includes no use of synthetic fertilizers or genetic engineering.

It also requires producers to conserve an area's biodiversity, strengthen soil and water quality, and maintain wetlands and woodlands.

The label has seen massive use: The Organic Trade Association said organic sales in the United States rose last year by more than 12% to nearly $62 billion, a record amount which the industry group put down to increased home cooking amid the pandemic.

The organic sector worldwide is expected to near $500 billion by 2027, according to a March report from research firm Global Industry Analysts.

Of the more than 45,500 farms certified under the U.S. program last year, about 38% were outside of the United States, data from the USDA show.

For some organic advocates, that figure highlights the scope of concern around native ecosystem destruction.

"Two years ago, the Amazon was burning. Were (farmers) going to grow organic soybeans?" asked Harriet Behar, an organic farmer in Wisconsin and former chair of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a federally appointed advisory group.

There is no evidence to suggest this was the case, but she cautioned that such newly cleared land would have been perfect for organic production.

"We don't know, but we want to make sure they were not," said Behar, who as NOSB chair in 2018 helped write the formal recommendation urging the federal government to close the native ecosystem loophole.

Consumer blowback is a key concern for Marie Burcham, policy director for the Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit that works nationally on sustainable agriculture.

The worry, Burcham said, is if enough consumers become aware of the practice of converting wildland to organic farmland - and causing environmental harm in the process - trust in the organic label will fray.

"That's a problem because a lot of small family farmers rely on the organic label to make a living."

FEDERAL POLICY

Action on the 2018 recommendation would need to be taken by the National Organic Program, and so far that has not happened, Burcham explained.

Baumgartner at the Wild Farm Alliance said she and allies remain in active conversations with the NOP and organic certifiers to "identify a pathway forward" on the rule.

She notes the program's actions have been cyclical, based on who is in the White House.

"So we feel like we have a really strong case and the community is behind us, and we're going to push this through now that the Biden administration is in office," she said.

Others are not waiting for the government.

"We do recognize and value the organic program - it's the strongest we have. But there are areas where it takes years to add in new regulations," said Elizabeth Whitlow, executive director of the Regenerative Organic Alliance.

Created in 2017 by a few major brands, including clothing company Patagonia and Dr. Bronner's, a maker of organic skincare products, the alliance is in the early phase of rolling out a global certification that seeks to address what it sees as gaps in the federal standards, including around native ecosystems.

While producers under the framework have to already be certified organic, they also have to certify, for instance, that they have not converted several types of wildland into production.

"I think everybody is looking for this higher bar of certification, because there's been this sense among consumers that the organic label has been weakened," Whitlow said.

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(Reporting by Carey L. Biron, Editing by Jumana Farouky. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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