Home Farm Policy Menu Inside The Beltway -- Jan. '98

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Inside The Beltway -- Jan. '98

Ag policy update from the Midwest Sustainable Agriculture Working Group.

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red ballOrganic Standard in Our Time
red ballEPA Clean Water Initiative
red ballState Tech Committee Proposed Rule
red ballDollars for Direct Credit
red ballAuburn named SARE Director
red ballDoin' the Dead Zone Dance
red ballNew Faces at 110 Maryland
red ballWorth Noting
red ballYour News is Good News

red ballPrevious editions of Inside the Beltway

Inside the Beltway is Sustainable Farming Connection's online version of the Midwest Sustainable Agriculture Working Group's Washington Report. We reproduce it with MSAWG's permission. Do not reproduce or post to any electronic network without specific permission. Contact Brad DeVries bdevries@cais.com for more information.

red ballOrganic Standard in Our Time

After seven long years – and only four years after the law required them to be done – USDA finally released a draft rule for a national standard for use of the word "organic" in agricultural commerce. Now that's done, we can all get on with our lives and pay attention to something else, right?

Not so fast, hoss.

The draft rule conforms in broad terms to the basics of the Organic Foods Production Act, which Congress included as a part of the 1990 Farm Bill. But it includes a number of glaring departures from the statute and from widely accepted organic practice, as well as a few more subtle little stinkers that will demand our attention. Three of these have seen wide play already in the press; in the rule, USDA innocently asks if anyone would mind a little genetic engineering, irradiation, or toxic municipal sewage sludge with their organic oatmeal. Thank you sir, and I'll have seconds!

Though explicitly rejected by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), this unholy trinity has become something of an evangelical mission for the USDA and other federal agencies both at home and abroad, who seem genuinely amazed that folks around the world are not convening angry, torch-lit mobs in supermarket parking lots to demand gene-altered, irradiated, sludge-fertilized soybeans. In a truly Orwellian bit of linguistic legerdemain, department and non-organic industry flacks quickly trotted out the idea that prohibiting them in the organic realm would somehow "deny" consumers these things in the entire food supply. Seems they have to destroy consumer choice, in order to save it.

There's also plenty that needs fixing in the proposed standards for organic livestock production. The proposed rule would require only 80% of livestock feed be organic, and generally loosens rules governing the therapeutic use of antibiotics (routine, sub-therapeutic use is forbidden in the statute) and the use of paraciticides. The department's rationale is that they want to ease producer entry into organic meat markets, which is simply goofy. After all, USDA has banned the use of the word organic in meat and poultry sales for quite some time. Consequently, there is currently no "market" to enter, and no compelling reason to water down the strict standard that many direct meat marketers and organic dairy producers have been meeting for quite a while now.

Two huge issues have been largely overlooked in the press coverage so far, both of which get at the heart of organic and sustainable agriculture. First, the rule demotes the NOSB from the role laid out for it in the law. Created by the 1990 statute, the NOSB is designed to reflect the views of environmentalists, consumers, organic farmers, processors and the scientific community. While the Board is generally advisory in nature, it is given broad authority over the "National List," which specifies the small number of "synthetic" substances that are compatible with organic production, and those "natural" substances that are not.

To avoid watering down the term Organic, the statute gives only the NOSB authority to place substances on the National List; the Secretary of Agriculture can only refuse to include something on the list, but cannot place things there on his own hook. The draft rule turns this arrangement on its head and, just for good measure, tacks on a couple of items on the National List that were specifically rejected by the NOSB. The USDA's proposal posits the same treatment for biotech, sludge, and irradiation, all of which were also considered and tossed by the board.. While the "big three" and the hatchet job on livestock standards are getting all the press, it's important to realize that these are just particularly ugly figures on the outside of the Pandora's Box that will swing wide if the NOSB is neutered.

The draft rule also plants another land mine that could have far reaching implications for any farm that wants to communicate its practices to a consumer. Under the guise of regulating labels that could imply organic production without using the word, the USDA asks comment on the idea of banning nearly the entire universe of eco-labeling, listing as examples for prohibition the terms "produced without synthetic pesticides," "produced without synthetic fertilizers," "raised without synthetic chemicals," "pesticide-free farm," "no drugs or growth hormones used," "raised without antibiotics," "raised without hormones," "no growth stimulants administered," "ecologically produced," "sustainably harvested," and "humanely raised."

Elsewhere in the draft, the USDA proposal would forbid private certifiers from certifying or labeling practices that go beyond the national norm. That means no certification of biodynamic, no labeling of IPM or "transition to organic," and you must be joking if you think they'd let "Not only ORGANIC, but produced without Sludge, Irradiation, or Genetic Tomfoolery" get by. Nothing snaps you wide awake in the morning quite like a little grotesque bureaucratic over-reaching.

So what is to be done? The comment period is open until March 16, and the department may honor a pending request from several organic groups to extend that deadline by 30 days. If you would like to comment on the rule, we can provide guidelines that will maximize the impact of your efforts, and some examples of the comment offered by allied organizations. Both the rule and comments submitted on it are available at http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop on the World Wide Web.

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red ballClean Water Initiative – Bold Stroke or Bureaucratic Busywork?

Back in October, Vice President Gore announced a new Clean Water Initiative on the 25th anniversary of the Clean Water Act (see last issue of the Washington Report). At the time, it seemed full of promise. More than just of compilation of ongoing activities within EPA, USDA, NOAA etc., it included some new announcements, such as a new goal of 100,000 acres of net wetland gain per year and the start of the Conservation Reserve State Enhancement Program.

As a result of the announcement, an interagency team was set up to develop an action plan, now set to be announced on or about Valentine's Day. Maybe the timing is to make us think we going to love this plan, but if a recent briefing is any indication it might be underwhelming.

The action plan will be grouped under 3 goals: "build a watershed approach;" "strengthen core programs;" and "expand program funding." Whether or not there is much to cheer about may hinge largely on what is in the third goal. The President's budget request is in the very final stages of being set in stone. If it includes more money for CAFO permitting and enforcement, or an increased EQIP budget, or any number of other potential items to help implement the initiative, it may be worth cheering.

Among the items to be included under the first goal (watershed approach) are moving to unified watershed assessments, developing Restoration Action Strategies with public participation, creating a new Watershed Assistance Grants program (i.e., small grants to local watershed groups and alliances), expanding a watershed training program, starting a national watershed awards program, and creating a new, ongoing Federal Interagency Working Group.

The second goal (core programs) includes objectives related to public health, natural resources, polluted run-off, and citizens' right-to-know. From the information presented at the briefing, it was not at all clear there was a realistic plan for getting to the 100,000 acre net gain goal. One interesting exchange on agricultural wetlands left EPA and USDA officials split on whether the interagency Memorandum of Agreement in process on Swampbuster and Section 404 would be included in the action plan, with EPA ruling it out but USDA leaving the door open.

On polluted run-off, the plan will attempt to spell out ways to enhance state programs, reduce nutrient overenrichment, improve the stewardship of federal lands, create financial innovations, and increase incentives for prevention. One element under consideration for financial innovations is a new IPM insurance product. With respect to animal feeding operations, it appears EPA's work on a new strategy will receive mention in the action plan, but the actual strategy will remain on its own, slower timeline.

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red ballState Tech Committee Proposed Rule

The long awaited proposed rule for the operations of the State Technical Committees appeared in the Federal Register on December 4. A SAC response was submitted just prior to the holidays.

Our comments called attention to two items assigned to the STCs in the 96 farm bill but left out of the rule -- recommendations on implementation of the Conservation Reserve Program and guidelines for evaluating new conservation practices and systems to be added to the field office technical guides.

We also raised several procedural concerns. We urged that all final decisions be communicated to the STCs in writing, that written minutes be made available, that meeting notification be sent to anyone requesting it at least 2 weeks prior to any meeting, and that state conservationists be required to call at least 2-3 meetings a year. A final rule is expected early in 1998.

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red ballBudget Coup for Beginning & Minority Farmers

In February, the Clinton Administration will be making its sixth budget proposal to Congress and, for the first time since it has been in office, it will include full funding for direct farm ownership and operating loans for beginning, minority and other family farmers. Kudos to Secretary Glickman and Deputy Secretary Rominger for winning approval for a FY 99 request of $85 million in direct farm ownership funds and $500 for direct operating loans from the normally anti-direct loan Office of Management and Budget.

Maybe perseverance pays off sometimes. These are the loan levels we advocated for and won (without Administration support) in the 96 farm bill and have continued to ask Congress for in the annual appropriations process. Full funding was one of several recommendations made to Glickman and Rominger during a special meeting on beginning farmers last May arranged by SAC, and has been the subject of several follow-up meetings with USDA staff. Full funding was also a recommendation of the Civil Rights Report and will be in the Small Farm Commission's report.

If approved by Congress, it will represent a greater than 50% increase in farm ownership funds and a more modest increase in operating funds compared to current levels. More dramatically, the farm ownership request is a near 200% increase over what the Administration proposed for FY 97.

The USDA announcement was made on December 17 to coincide with a meeting at the White House between the President and farmers representing the minority farmers and the Small Farm Commission. At the same time, Secretary Glickman announced the budget would also ask for full funding of $10 million for the "Section 2501" Outreach and Technical Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmer program. Last year they requested $5 million and Congress actually appropriated $3 million for this important program.

Seventy percent of whatever is appropriated for farm ownership (real estate) loans is reserved for beginning farmers, of which 60% is targeted to the beginning farmer down payment loan program. Twenty-five percent of operating loans are also reserved for beginning farmers. Funds are also reserved for socially disadvantaged farmers, with percentages varying by state and region.

In FY 97, USDA exceeded both beginning farmer set-aside goals, reaching 88% on ownership loans and 31% on operating loans, though they fell short of the down payment program subtarget. These compare quite favorably to the record on guaranteed loans, where the corresponding rates were only 18% and 12%. Loans to beginning and established minority and women farmers in FY 97 represented 19% and 13% of the total for ownership and operating loans respectively. The corresponding guaranteed loan rates were 7% and 4%.

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red ballAuburn in at SARE Helm

Dr. Jill Auburn, currently the Associate Director of the University of California's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, will take on the directorship of the national SARE program later this month. After Dr. Rob Myers left that position last year, Dr. Jerry DeWitt filled in on a temporary basis.

Dr. Auburn served as UC-SARE Associate Director starting in 1993, based out of her office at the University of California at Davis. A significant portion of her work there was to coordinate the Western SARE Professional Development Program. She is an active participant on the governing boards of the Henry A. Wallace Institute, the Consortium for Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, and the Organic Farming Research Foundation. Many of you know her well; and those who do would certainly concur that she will be a real asset to the SARE program, despite the questionable judgment evident in trading Davis for D.C.

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red ballDoin' the Dead Zone Dance

The EPA's December 4 meeting of its Mississippi River/Gulf Nutrient Task Force was, if nothing else, a very posh place to vent. It started with the state representatives noting with dismay that they weren't at the table when the effort got underway, continued with NGOs (like us and MSAWG member Mississippi River Basin Alliance) noting that they weren't at the table at all, and went throughout with everyone pretty put out about how blessed long it was taking for the Task Force to actually do anything.

Hypoxia in the Gulf is an annual phenomenon of relatively recent origin, where low oxygen conditions at the mouth of the Mississippi leave a "Dead Zone" linked, at least in part, with nutrient run-off from Midwest farms. The reports by various Task Force members shed light on both the problem of hypoxia in the Gulf and on the responses of EPA and the other agencies. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report noted that the hypoxic zone in the Gulf was quite extensive in 1997, covering an area of ocean floor the size of New Jersey (insert your favorite Jersey cheap shot here…). They reported that the annual nutrient loading in the Mississippi has tripled since the 1950s, though it has leveled off somewhat in the past decade. Ninety percent of those nutrients come from non-point sources, and seventy percent of those enter the Mississippi north of the Ohio River. Tom Hebert reported on behalf of USDA that it has a number of programs in the field (CRP/Buffer Initiative, the Small Watersheds program, CRP, EQIP and WHIP) that can help farmers reduce nutrient runoff.

EPA snapped smartly into action and, well, appointed several committees with spiffy titles. At the same time, they promise to move forward on "proven" nutrient runoff reducing efforts before the Task Force completes its final work. Don't hold your breath (unless, of course, you want to try out this hypoxia thing you've heard so much about…).

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red ballNew Faces in New Places

Just as we were getting used to all the extra space in our new office…

As noted above, we are very pleased to have two fine people joining us at the beginning of next month. MSAWG is very pleased to welcome Martha Noble, who is an attorney with considerable expertise and teaching experience in agricultural and environmental law. From 1989 to the end of 1996, she was a staff attorney and Assistant Research Professor at the National Ag Law Center, located at the University of Arkansas' Fayetteville campus, after which she remained associated with the Center as a consultant ("of counsel"). She will be living in the D.C. area during the week, but most weekends expects to return to Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, where she and her husband call home.

On the same day, we will also be helping Mark Keating settle in here in Suite 211 as a new employee of the Wallace Institute. Mark comes to us from North Carolina, where he is an extension agent administering an EPA-funded Environmental Justice through Pollution Prevention program. He has a strong background (and, in all likelihood, a strong back) from several seasons working on organic farms, CSAs, and a family-managed orchard. His masters degree work at the University of Wisconsin integrated the cultural and biological aspects of agricultural sustainability, and was balanced throughout with work on local farms and at the Madison Farmers Market, as well as two summers teaching sustainable farming practices to cooperative members in El Salvador.

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red ballWorth Noting
  • The Minnesota Project is seeking an Executive Director, and wants you to apply by February 1. Send a resume (yours, of course) and three references to Minnesota Project, 1885 University Ave. W., #315, St. Paul, Minnesota 55104. For a full job description, call (612) 645-6159 or e-mail water007@gold.tc.umn.edu
  • The North Central SARE Region is calling for proposals for Professional Development Projects in sustainable agriculture, as well as proposals for a Professional Development Program (PDP) coordinator and a region-wide training effort. Project Proposals for the PDP grant program are due February 13, and PDP coordinator and training project are due February 20. Get your application from the North Central SARE office, at (402) 472-7081/e-mail sare001@unlvm.unl.edu/via the Internet at http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/ncsare -- or you can contact Dr. George Bird for more information at (517) 353-3890/e-mail bird@msue.msu.edu
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red ballYour News is Good News

We are pleased to receive the newsletters of many MSAWG organizations. It helps us keep up with what you are doing and what issues are hot for your membership. If we aren't on your mailing list, please consider adding the Washington SAC office to your list. We're at:

Sustainable Agriculture Coalition
110 Maryland Avenue NE, Box 76
Washington, D.C. 20002

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