September 15, 2010
On Wednesday, September 15th, the Senate Agriculture Committee gathered for an oversight hearing entitled “The National Organic Law at 20: Sowing Seeds for a Bright Future.” The hearing in part commemorated the 20-year anniversary of the passage of the Organic Food Production Act (OFPA), which standardized organic certification and labeling regulations across the country. Before the passage of the Act, 22 states had different regulations for organic foods.
Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) made opening statements and questioned the witnesses. Leahy, who chaired the hearing, has been a long-time champion of the organic industry, and was the original sponsor of OFPA. In attendance as witnesses were Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan, Vermont organic dairy farmer Regina Beidler, Georgia organic beef farmer Will Harris, Michael Sligh of the National Organic Coalition, and Sarah Bird of Annie’s Homegrown. All of their testimonies, as well as a video rebroadcasting of the hearing, can be found here (click on Wednesday, September 15th).
The hearing highlighted the successes in the organic industry over the 20 years since the passage of OFPA. The organic industry is one of the fastest growing industries in US agriculture, and one of the few growing sectors in the struggling US economy. As Kathleen Merrigan stated, “Our national debate over organic agriculture has progressed, from an initial tone of conflict and confusion, to one of budding curiosity as to where this sector was headed, to the current dialogue centered on economic opportunity. I think we are on the right track.”
The witnesses and senators also discussed the current challenges facing organic farmers, including funding the expensive certification process, and competing with non-organic producers who use labels like “natural” to appeal to health-conscious consumers. Each witness also indicated the growing problem of contamination of organic farms by nearby genetically modified crops, an issue that must be addressed by legislators and seed companies in the very near future.
Witnesses highlighted the need for increased research into organic growing practices, as well as the certification process; as Deputy Secretary Merrigan stated, “With the growth of both the organic industry and the regulatory system, the need for research and extension support is very pronounced.” In the 2010 fiscal year, the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service will invest $17.2 million in research of organic agriculture issues. These issues include how organic agriculture can help mitigate climate change, and how growers can maximize production efficiency through practices like rotational grazing and perennial cover cropping.
The hearing was a useful discussion of the successes and challenges of the organic industry, and will hopefully promote dialogue between legislators and organic farmers to further aid organic farming, research, and consumption.