Sunday, June 17, 2012

Will The 2012 Farm Bill Support Organic Agriculture?

In 1990, sales of organic food in the United States totaled $1 billion. Oregon Tilth's organic certification program was less than a decade old back then, and farmers in some areas had to lobby for exemptions from rules established for conventional agriculture, such as required spraying. 

By the time Congress passed the last farm bill in 2008, organic food sales had grown to $22.9 billion. Organic production had become mainstream enough to merit a 24-page U.S. Department of Agriculture report on how organic crops should be treated in the Federal Crop Insurance Program. 

Since then, organic food has continued to explode in popularity, with Oregon taking a leading role in both production and consumption. Not surprisingly, the methods for insuring organic crops need to be updated. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., has proposed a sensible move that would ensure that producers of organic crops are treated more fairly. 

Merkley's amendment would require that organic farmers participating in the crop insurance program be compensated for losses using appropriate price assumptions within three years of the enactment of the 2012 farm bill. Under current law, producers of most organic crops are compensated for their losses based on the price of a non-organic product, which is often much lower, even though they pay a 5 percent premium buying insurance. The premiums on organic crops, which are considered riskier, would remain higher under the amendment. 

"This is an issue of fundamental fairness to our organic farmers," Merkley told The Oregonian's Lynne Terry. "Organic farmers are producing higher value crops, and they need to be compensated accordingly when disaster strikes." 

He's right, and the amendment accomplishes another important purpose. Organic crops should no longer be treated as a novelty. The gains these food products have made since the last farm bill represent an important and tangible step toward healthier eating habits for Americans. Leveling the financial playing field for organic crop producers is one way to encourage more production and consumption of their products. 

Sales of organic food nationwide have increased another 27.6 percent since 2008 to $29.22 billion in 2011. That growth came during a period when sales of many premium-priced products declined or stagnated because of the economic slowdown. 

Crop insurance administrators already have started the process of establishing fair reimbursement prices for organics, but Merkley's amendment would speed up the pace of implementation. It's one small step toward treating organic food as the important industry it has become. 

Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., an organic food pioneer and a member of the House Agriculture Committee, said Merkley's proposal "has as good a shot as any" amendment of surviving as the farm bill moves through Congress. Merkley also is optimistic. 

To date, non-agricultural parts of the farm bill, such as funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, have generated the most debate. Throw in the usual arguments over subsidies and the regional differences that are inherent to agriculture, and legislators face a tedious slog to produce a bill that can get through the House and Senate. But it's vital to Oregon and the nation that Congress pass a farm bill that positions U.S. agriculture to thrive. 

The debate over the bill comes at a time when agriculture is one of the strongest sectors of the state and national economies. Financially viable farms and farm-related businesses are essential to a healthy Oregon economy, particularly in rural areas. Trade agreements, particularly with South Korea, could open important new markets for the state's growers. 

While policies affecting organic crops are a small part of the farm bill, they are an important part of the future. Beyond the crop-insurance amendment, other aspects of the bill could help fund increased research, provide more export possibilities and reduce farmers' share of the cost of organic certification. 

It's vital to Oregon that Congress overcome regional differences and election-year politics to pass a farm bill that allows Oregon agriculture-related businesses to thrive and plant seeds for an economically and nutritionally healthy future. - The Oregonian Editorial Board 

As the 2012 Farm Bill (S. 3240) moves to the Senate floor for a vote, Senators Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) introduced an amendment (SA 2256) requiring genetically engineered foods to be labeled. Sanders gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor, saying Americans have a basic "right to know what they're eating and feeding their families."

He pointed to the powerful corporations, mostly Monsanto, that are preventing this basic right from being codified. In his own state of Vermont, state legislators didn't pass a GMO labeling law - that 90% of the state supports - because they were threatened by lawsuits. The same thing happened in Connecticut recently.

Some of the facts he discussed:
Almost 50 countries require GMO labels.
93% of pregnant women contain genetically engineered Bt toxin in their blood.
Monsanto's Roundup tolerant GMOs have led to the rise of superweeds that now infest more than 10 million acres in 22 states - predicted to reach 40 million acres by mid-decade. That's leading to approval of even more toxic GMOs like Agent Orange corn.
This week, the California Secretary of State's office announced the referendum on GMO labeling in California, the "Right to Know" initiative, will be on the ballot this November. The historic initiative would be the first GMO labeling law in the US.

There is also a move to get a referendum on Oregon's ballot.
Industries are fighting back through the "Coalition Against the Costly Food Labeling Proposition," arguing labels would increase food prices. Besides Monsanto and the GMO industry, food companies that use GMOs ingredients in products are against labeling, including Pepsi, Kraft, Kellogg's and others. They market so-called "natural" foods that sell at premium prices that rival those of non-GMO and organic foods - even though they contain GMOs.

One million people submitted comments to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on a petition for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods, more than any other petition in FDA history. 20 states have tried to legislate GMO labeling, but none have succeeded due to intense opposition from corporate special interests. Polls show nearly unanimous support (91%) across the political spectrum for labeling GMOs. If the referendum passes, major food companies say they would remove all GMO ingredients from their products - as they did in Europe - rather than label food with what consumers might regard as a skull and crossbones.

More on the Farm Bill
The Organic Consumers Association says: "Ever wonder why organic foods are relatively more expensive and sometimes hard to find, while Monsanto and biotech-derived junk foods are cheap and omnipresent?

It's because of a federal law known as the Farm Bill that uses billions of dollars of our tax money every year to subsidize factory farms, biotech crops, and chemical agriculture.

The Farm Bill is also a major reason why obesity, diet-related disease and health care costs are skyrocketing. It's partly why food production is responsible for more than half of greenhouse gas emissions and farm run-off is fouling drinking water and creating dead-zones in the ocean."

As currently written, the Farm Bill cuts spending $23.6 billion over 10 years. It leaves Big Ag subsidies unscathed, and raises funds for biofuels, while cutting important conservation programs, research on organics and beginning farmer programs, and nutritional programs such as Food Stamps. - Sustainable Business

The Farm Bill includes many important hunger-prevention and environmental conservation programs, but it is also packed with corporate welfare schemes that support filthy factory farms and pesticide-drenched genetically modified crops.

The Farm Bill is why junk food is cheap and consumers have to pay a premium for organic. It's why obesity, diet-related disease and health care costs are skyrocketing. It's why food production is responsible for a third of greenhouse gas emissions and farm run-off is fouling drinking water and creating dead-zones in the ocean.

The Senate's version of the 2012 Farm Bill makes significant changes, but none that disrupts the status quo of giving big subsidies to the rich farms, and the share for organic and sustainable agriculture programs still doesn't amount to even pennies on the dollar. In this climate of belt tightening, the Senate wants to leave subsidies for the rich intact, while making extreme cuts to food stamps (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), even as the Great Recession swells the number hungry people reliant on SNAP.

There are a number of amendments that need your attention and support. Please take action today to label GMOs, protect non-GMO farmers from contamination, save organic programs, end discrimination against organic farmers, feed hungry kids, limit subsidies for rich farms, ensure a non-GMO seed supply, legalize raw milk and industrial hemp, stop the worst factory farm abuses, conserve farmland, and get diverse young people into farming. - Organic Consumers

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