New Congress Shows Hostility to Organic Farming

Federal spending cuts proposed by some members of Congress could eliminate a program popular among organic farmers.

January 25, 2011

Enemy territory? Observers worry about a hostile attitude towards organic in Congress.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—At a time when more people are buying organic food than they were a year ago, and a time when organic farms are grossing higher profits than their chemical counterparts, Congress, it appears, wants to pull the federal spending that makes organic farming possible. A caucus of conservatives in the House of Representatives introduced a spending-reduction bill last week that would eliminate funding for a cost-sharing program that helps farmers defray the costs for organic certification. Although it isn't clear whether the bill has any legs, it does concern many in the organic community about congressional attitudes towards sustainable farming. "The fact that this program is listed at all is an example of more to come in the future," says Ariane Lotti, policy director for the Organic Farming Research Foundation.


THE DETAILS: The Republican Study Committee, a group of 175 House Republicans that tend to vote more conservatively than other members of their party, published the "Spending Reduction Act of 2011," which was sponsored by Representative Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). The proposed spending cuts would amount to $2.5 trillion over a 10-year period, according to the bill. The cuts include eliminating funding for the Department of Energy's Energy Star program, as well as state grants for home weatherization projects, but of most concern to supporters of organic farming is the proposed elimination of the National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program, a program set up to reimburse farmers up to 75 percent of the costs required to pay for organic certification, with the maximum amount refunded being $750. The bill says that cutting funding to the program would save $56.2 million. The proposed cuts to the National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program are the only cuts to the agriculture funding in the bill, with the exception of $14 million in cuts to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Sugar program, designed to keep domestic sugar prices lower than those of sugar imports.

WHAT IT MEANS: Scary as the cuts to the cost-share program may sound, advocates of organic farming say the numbers just don’t add up. "We have no clue how they came up with this [$56.2 million] number," says Lotti. "It seems like they misplaced a decimal point." She says that the cost-sharing program was allotted just $22 million to begin with by the 2008 Farm Bill, which provides the funding for it and which would need to be amended if the cuts were actually approved, and most of that money has already been spent. That $22 million was supposed to last the entire five-year life of the farm bill, she says, and because the program has been so popular among farmers "we're not sure there's going to be enough to meet demand through the 2012 fiscal year," when the farm bill comes up for renewal. "If they were to do something with this bill today, it's questionable what the savings would be at all," adds Liana Hoodes, director of the National Organic Coalition, a Washington nonprofit that represents farmers, ranchers, consumers, and anyone else who has an interest in organic agriculture.

In addition to the fact that the numbers just don't add up, Lotti says, "it’s a very small drop in a very large bucket in terms of spending cuts." The USDA devotes a paltry 1 percent of its budget to organic agriculture, and the cost-sharing program doles out an average of about $300 a year per farm. On the flip side, some of the nation's largest nonorganic, chemical-based farms received $2 million in 2009 alone for subsidies on commodity crops such as corn, cotton, soy and wheat, according to data compiled by the Environmental Working Group (in 2009, the federal government doled out a total of $7 billion in subsidies to farmers growing corn just for polluting and fuel-economy-killing ethanol). And, Lotti adds, funds from the crop-sharing program are usually the only federal funds organic farmers receive.

Both Lotti and Hoodes agree that besides any economic impact, proposed cuts such as this signify a growing hostility towards organic agriculture in Congress, and particularly among those who sit on the influential House agriculture committee. "This program has been up for cuts four or five times now, and we expect it to continue because the Republicans really don't like it," Hoodes says, adding that lawmakers often view the program as supporting "hobby farmers." And, Lotti adds, "part of their logic, apart from just strong support for the status quo in agriculture, is essentially that organic farmers bring these regulations upon themselves, and we shouldn't help them offset those regulations—despite all the benefits for rural communities and the environment, and despite the fact that more and more consumers are choosing organic every day."

"The demand for organic produce backed by the USDA Organic label is growing, and we need to support America's farmers' ability to provide that for us," says Mark Smallwood, executive director at The Rodale Institute.

This bill may not pass, but it's likely the cost-sharing program could wind up on the chopping block in the next Farm Bill, our sources told us. So now is the time to speak up!

• Call your congressmen. "If you're a farmer, tell them what the program means to you, and if you're a consumer, why organic is important to you," says Hoodes. She recommends paying particular attention members of the House Committee on Agriculture, who are listed here.

• Stay alert(ed). Both the National Organic Coalition and the Organic Farming Research Foundation will be voicing concerns on behalf of farmers and consumers as the next Farm Bill gets drafted, which will begin later this year. You can sign up for alerts on their respective websites: and And subscribe to's daily news updates, so we can bring you more stories about organic food and organic farming.

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