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Organic Farming Is Missing from Climate Change Talks

“We understand and appreciate the important role that you all are playing in not only providing quality and nutritious and healthy food, but creating a value-added opportunity for farmers,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said, speaking on Wednesday to the CEOs, retailers, and farmers at the Organic Trade Association’s (OTA) annual conference.

Vilsack was there to highlight the Department of Agriculture’s progress on several long-stalled rules around enforcing organic standards and Origin of Livestock rules for dairy. In addition, Vilsack mentioned that the long-anticipated animal welfare rule will likely be finalized by late summer or early fall.

But the biggest announcements were focused on opening up new markets for organic food, getting more U.S. farmers certified to grow organic food, and helping them pay for that certification.

Under the new Organic Market Development Grants (OMDG) Program, the USDA is making $75 million in grant funding available to nonprofits and state, local, and tribal governments for projects designed to expand markets for organic food produced in the U.S.

The domestic piece is key, because while the U.S. market for organic food continues to increase, surpassing $60 billion in 2022, the most recent data shows organic farmland acreage has not grown beyond 1 percent of the total U.S. farmland—and the number actually decreased between 2019 and 2021. (OTA representatives said they don’t believe the acreage data is entirely accurate because of the voluntary nature of the survey.) As a result, the country is importing more and more of its organic food, which is a missed economic opportunity for farmers—and increases the risks of organic fraud.

“I believe the challenge is in the transition [to organic, which takes three years and typically comes with an increase in labor], and producers need to be able to have some certainty that they can recover some of the costs of that transition,” USDA Farm Service Administrator Zach Ducheneaux told Civil Eats. To that end, Vilsack’s other big announcement at the OTA conference was that the agency would increase how much it will reimburse producers for certification.

The USDA will now cover up to 75 percent of the costs associated with organic certification, up to $750. That’s the maximum amount authorized by the last farm bill, and farmers were getting that rate for several years. Then, in 2020, the USDA cut it to 50 percent, up to $500. Groups including the National Organic Coalition and the Organic Farmers Association cheered the restoration of the higher rate and said they’ll be pushing to increase the maximum even further in the next farm bill, to cover 100 percent of the cost of certification up to $1,500. The following day, Senator Peter Welch (D-Vermont) introduced a marker bill that would do just that, and a House companion bill is expected soon.

On the USDA’s side, Ducheneaux pointed to an overall message. “I think all of these [announcements] indicate the commitment of the administration to help all of our producers really reimagine what our food system looks like and stand up the resources that are needed to provide alternatives for the consumers they serve,” he said. “It aligns with our work on Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities and with our work on equity and more and better markets.”

Not everyone is drawing the connection between organic and the climate crisis, however.

A banner shows some of the sponsors of the AIM for Climate Summit, including CropLife, Corteva, California Almonds, FMC and others. (Photo credit: Lisa Held)

To visit the OTA conference, Vilsack stepped out of the AIM for Climate Summit, where there was almost no mention of organic farming. Vilsack said the Summit, which was much larger and higher-profile than the OTA conference, represented “the largest number of ag ministers in D.C. ever.” Over the course of several days, agricultural leaders from 50 nations and representatives from the world’s largest food and agriculture companies highlighted global projects to reduce agriculture’s climate impacts.

Not only were representatives of organic agriculture absent, but  the conference was heavily sponsored by the chemical pesticide industry, including Corteva, FMC, and CropLife (the pesticide industry’s trade association). New AIM for Climate “innovation sprints” announced at the conference include several that tout regenerative practices but none that will focus on organic farming.

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