Politics of the Plate: Organic Warfare

An advocacy group criticizes the USDA’s “dysfunctional” management of the nation’s organic program.
organic welfare

First Lady Michelle Obama may have planted an organic garden on the South Lawn, but the spirit of non-chemical agriculture has yet to take root at the USDA, which—at least nominally—oversees the National Organic Program (NOP).

Last week, the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based advocacy group that supports organic family farming, wrote a formal letter to President Obama and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack urging them to “turn around management” at the NOP. The organization described the organic program as “dysfunctional” and “Katrina-ed” by the Bush administration.

“The stewardship of the organic program at the USDA has been an absolute abomination,” Mark A. Kastel, Cornucopia’s senior farm policy analyst, said in a press release. “It was not just management by neglect—it was an intentional monkeywrenching of the Department’s oversight of the industry.”

The press release also says that the organic label’s reputation is being tarnished by “suspect imports of grains, nuts, and vegetables from China and other countries, questionable organic milk, beef, and eggs from giant factory farms,” and a cozy relationship between USDA managers and corporate agribusiness interests.

Kastel cites a scathing Washington Post article which claims that during the Bush years, 65 policy recommendations made by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB)—a group of scientists, farmers, and other experts who advise the NOP—were never even reviewed, let alone implemented.

Cornucopia adds that the previous administration’s political appointees at the USDA softened penalties for organic scofflaws and overruled stiff enforcement actions recommended by career civil servants for factory farms that were found to be willfully violating organic standards. The organic community praised the choice of Kathleen Merrigan as USDA Deputy Secretary. She had helped draft the original organic legislation. But many of the former managers—and attitudes—at the NOP remain entrenched. To persuade lawmakers and bureaucrats to make the appropriate changes, Cornucopia recently launched a write-in campaign called Change@USDA. Failure to shift course could have dire effects. “It will unravel everything we’ve done if the standards can no longer be trusted,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-VT), who sponsored the federal organics legislation, told the Post. “If we don’t protect the brand, the organic label, the program is finished. It could disappear overnight.”

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