cows in field

From the NODPA Desk

By Ed Maltby, NODPA Executive Director

After a few days in Washington DC, I was left with very mixed emotions. The NODPA’s primary reason to be in DC this year is to represent the important concerns of organic dairy farmers to legislators, their aides, USDA officials and members of the organizations participating in this Organic Farmers Association (OFA) event. The Hill meetings followed a similar pattern to last year; OFA Farm Bill priorities had not changed, and legislators’ aides and the USDA came up with the same reasons as last year, for not having money to support new programs. But the lack of a Farm Bill meant there was a plethora of marker bills to present to legislators’ offices. The dysfunction of the House gave us an opportunity to immediately include requests for additions to 2025 appropriations. Influencing federal programs is slow, with change coming after a disaster or too late for all but large-scale organic Ag. Luckily, we have repeated disasters!

The Final Rules for the Origin of Livestock (OOL), the Organic Livestock and Poultry Standards (OLPS) and the Strengthening Organic Enforcement (SOE) were published in 2023-24. Rapid, consistent implementation of new regulatory language must now be a priority of advocates. In many cases, these aren’t new organic standards but a clarification and legal justification of the intent of the original organic standards. Certifiers have been aware of the possible changes for years and have had plenty of time to plan to implement the provisions. Some certifiers increased the complexity of their certification forms in response to new regulations because of their lack of planning. Farmers should not pay the price for inefficient certifiers with excessively long Organic System Plans (OSP). Certifiers charge farmers because they are USDA accredited to audit organic supply chains to detect and deter fraud and therefore bear the responsibility to immediately enforce non-compliance when fraud occurs. The third-party annual inspection using federal standards makes the organic seal the gold standard against a background of other labels. Certifiers are not there to agree with the client operations’ interpretation of those standards. If there are no standards for the practice that the operation follows, such as Hydroponics, the certifier shouldn’t undermine their own integrity and that of the organic seal by adapting the existing standards to meet the clients’ needs. That is a race to the bottom. Organic dairy faced a similar threat in 2008 when a vertically integrated dairy company worked with their state certifiers to design their implementation requirements of the Access to Pasture and OOL standards. With only a staff of 8, NOP took legal action to enforce the regulation but failed. The organic community worked on regulation to make the regulation legally enforceable with the Pasture Rule in 2010 and over a decade later the OOL. With many USDA programs, the power of large scale, wealthy operations dictate how regulations are enforced to meet the ‘consumers’ needs, and the profit of those companies. We must protect NOP’s authority from being further eclipsed by large, consolidated corporations and large, multi-national certifiers because of the ‘too big to fail’ theory. If we don’t, small to mid-size organically certified farms from all organic commodities will continue to disappear, being absorbed by national and international consolidated companies.

The number of NOP certified international operations is nearly the same as domestic operations, and imports dominate the organic market because of low-cost production, fraud, and the certification of Hydroponics as organic. We need to continually hold certifiers and the NOP accountable for the failure to consistently enforce organic regulations.

When we advocate for organic standards and support for certified operations in Congress and at the USDA, they prefer a united approach to issues from as many stakeholders as possible. It is easier for them if there is a ‘big tent’ approach with one voice, that they can say comes from diverse stakeholders. Big money interests do that with ease. A decade ago, one voice on certified organic positions was possible, with strong relationships that bridged divided interests and opinions. Not so much now as reality struck and well financed groups took advantage of those good intentions. The best examples are the growth of certified Hydroponics, delayed organic dairy and animal welfare regulation, and the growth of CAFO-style organic poultry. The art, science, and luck of making your voice heard as an underfunded minority voice in DC is not straightforward. The mission needs to be strong and well-defined; have priorities that are clear and reflect membership wishes; an authentic and honest ‘story’; a strong, relevant media presence, not just with platitudes. It is essential to work with other organic stakeholders but maintain independence. Compromise is the end game, not the beginning position. Despite my years of cynicism, I still believe in the importance of honesty and strength of mission, with a dose of political maneuvering thrown in.