The Department of Agriculture (USDA) was all ears on Tuesday as it opened up its hall to organic stakeholders to ask the question, “What activities should the Department focus on to serve the organic community?”
Many took the opportunity to respond. During a day-long listening session hosted by USDA, organic stakeholders shared their thoughts, concerns, praises, and requests with the department that administers the organic certification program and enforces the country’s organic standards.
The USDA’s National Organic Program, part of the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), currently serves a $29 billion industry on a budget of less than $7 million—and the industry continues to grow amidst challenging economic conditions. In support of that growth, USDA has a goal to increase the number of certified organic operations to over 20,000 by 2015–that’s a 20 percent growth from 2009.
This challenge served as an important backdrop for USDA to hear feedback from the community on how the agency could prioritize its resources and shape future workplans related to organic agriculture and markets. Anchoring the panel of listeners were Mark Lipson, organic policy advisor to the Secretary and key coordinator of the department’s organic agenda, and myself, as well as a host of rotating officials who represented agencies like the Foreign Agriculture Service, which engages in trade negotiations to expand agricultural product exchange with other countries, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which administers the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).
A full spectrum of topics was covered during the day. Some shared their concerns about effects of genetic engineering on their businesses (genetic modification is an excluded method in the organic standards). Some emphasized the need to continue international negotiations that would facilitate trade and expand markets for their organic products. Some recognized the value of small farmers in organic sector innovation. Others highlighted the vital role of NOP enforcement in ensuring organic integrity. And still others highlighted the importance of engaging a new generation of farmers and expressed their support of programs that help alleviate the cost of certification.
The wide range of topics and the people who shared them speak to the unique market value of USDA organic and the desire of organic stakeholders to protect the integrity of the seal.
A transcript of the listening session will be available on the AMS website soon. For those that were not able to attend in person, we are continuing to accept comments about the activities and priorities related to our continued support of organic agriculture production, handling, and markets. Comments should specifically address the activities of the NOP and/or other USDA agencies and programs. You can submit them to firstname.lastname@example.org through Oct. 1, 2011.