When the proposed 2018 Farm Bill was announced earlier this month, most of the attention was focused on changes to SNAP, the supplemental nutrition program. One of the items that flew under the radar, however, was a mandatory boost in funding for the Organic Research and Extension Initiative. The budget would grow from $5 million to $30 million by 2023.
So, what is the Organic Research and Extension Initiative? From the program’s website:
The Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) seeks to solve critical organic agriculture issues, priorities, or problems through the integration of research, education, and extension activities. The purpose of this program is to fund projects that will enhance the ability of producers and processors who have already adopted organic standards to grow and market high quality organic agricultural products. Priority concerns include biological, physical, and social sciences, including economics. The OREI is particularly interested in projects that emphasize research, education and outreach that assist farmers and ranchers with whole farm planning by delivering practical research-based information.
In other words, that is an additional $25 million to support research that will boost organic agriculture. Of course, there is nothing wrong with researching organic productions methods, or assisting organic farmers. But when we are talking about all of that money, I can’t help but feel like there is a better way to use all those dollars…
The USDA’s organic certification focuses on the concept of “natural from the Earth.” Production methods are allowed in organic agriculture so long as they are considered natural. For example, although there are exceptions for some synthetic pesticides, organic pesticides are generally all derived from nature. While synthetic fertilizers are not allowed, naturally-derived fertilizers are allowed. In some cases, the difference is so ridiculously technical that it makes absolutely no sense, such as sprout inhibitors applied to potatoes. The organic variant is chemically identical to the synthetic version, only it has to come from a “natural” source.
But organic’s obsession with “natural” means it excludes a lot of production practices that are actually better for the environment, farmers, and people. Consider GMOs. Organic production prohibits the use of genetically modified foods. Conventional agriculture, which embraces biotechnology, has seen lower pesticide applications and higher yields as a result of using GMOs. It also supports other good practices. Farmers have been able to adopt the use of no-till or conservation tillage, which promotes soil health.
These are all good things that we should be promoting!
That’s why I’m suggesting an alternative to dedicating $30 million solely for organic research. Instead of spending a bunch of money on research that will only help one, artificial (pun intended) government certification, why don’t we instead invest that money in research that will help solve universal problems in agriculture?
For example, drought has been a real problem in California, where so much of our fruits and vegetables comes from, for several years now. How about we fund research that will help fruit and vegetables farmers use water more effectively. Period. If the solutions we find are compatible with the USDA’s requirements for the “organic” program, then organic farmers can utilize them. If not, then those farmers can either ditch the certification and save water, or they can continue to meet the organic requirements.
This situation highlights a stark difference that people seem to miss: if a production method that is approved for organic farming is somehow better, conventional farmers will adopt that practice too. Conventional farmers do not turn away from a technique or practice simply because that practice is allowed under the organic label. On the other hand, sometimes organic farmers cannot adopt a better practice because it does not meet the requirements of organic certification.
Investing that $30 million into further research for sustainable agriculture and support for farmers makes so much more sense than propping up a label that may or may not realize benefits for the environment, farmers, or consumers. Instead of worrying about a label and the misguided ideal of “natural,” we should just work to find answers to our agricultural problems.
So, let’s drop the OREI. Let’s drop the mandatory spending of $30 million for organic research. Let’s stop with the silly differences.
Let’s just fund research into better practices for all farmers.