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Listening Session Gives the Floor to Organic Community

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.

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan addresses stakeholders and members of the public during the USDA Activities and Priorities Related to Organic Agriculture and Markets Public Listening Session held at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in Washington DC, Tuesday, September 20, 2011. The purpose of the event was to gain the perspective of stakeholders and members of the public, important tools to help USDA Programs examine and prioritize their activities and objectives in order to best serve the organic community. To Secretary Merrigans’ left are: Miles McEvoy, Deputy Administrator, National Organic Program, Steven Smith, National Program Leader, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Heather Velthius, Foreign Agriculture Service and David Shipman, Acting Administrator, Agricultural marketing Service. USDA Photo by Bob Nichols.

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan addresses stakeholders and members of the public during the USDA Activities and Priorities Related to Organic Agriculture and Markets Public Listening Session held at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in Washington DC, Tuesday, September 20, 2011. USDA Photo by Bob Nichols.

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 2011organiclistening@ams.usda.gov through Oct. 1, 2011.

2 Responses to “Listening Session Gives the Floor to Organic Community”

  1. Brian Rakita says:

    I’d like to see commodity crop subsidies phased out and replaced with subsidies for organic (and conventional) crops identified by the FDA as deficient in the American diet. In addition to solving a lot of our erosion and mono-cropping dilemmas, it will have a hugely positive impact on our health as a nation.

  2. B. Sea says:

    One has to ask why USDA has the goal of increasing organic operations… why isn’t this simply left to the market? Is it because USDA has now come to believe that organic is somehow better than…. what? Organic is not equivalent to sustainable. Sustainability is based on many factors and management is the single key one. Any size or type of farm can be sustainably managed. There seems to be too much biting the hook by USDA around organic. By many definitions, reducing erosion, soil compaction, chemical use, and other inputs are key indicators of sustainability. Guess what, GMO meets all of those with no-till seeding and one pass herbicide application with GPS guidance precision. Let’s not back ourselves into the corner of one management system (organic) is THE answer. It’s not. Neither is GMO for all crops. They each have a place and we need it all. Let’s get USDA out of the business of choosing sides and moving forward on co-existence.

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