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Inside The Beltway -- Jan. '98
Ag policy update from the Midwest Sustainable
Agriculture Working Group.
Organic Standard in Our Time
EPA Clean Water Initiative
State Tech Committee Proposed Rule
Dollars for Direct Credit
Auburn named SARE Director
Doin' the Dead Zone Dance
New Faces at 110 Maryland
Your News is Good News
Previous editions of Inside the Beltway
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
firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Organic 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
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
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
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.
Clean 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
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
State 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.
Budget 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
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%.
Auburn 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
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.
Doin' 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
New 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.
- 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
- 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
or you can contact Dr. George Bird for more information at (517) 353-3890/e-mail
Your News is Good News
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Previous editions of Inside the Beltway
Sustainable Agriculture Coalition
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Washington, D.C. 20002
©1998 Committee for
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