Guest column: Setting the stage for a food system transformation
By Allison Johnson
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) new $300 million Organic Transition Initiative offers meaningful investments in climate-friendly farming that meet urgent needs of communities across the country. The initiative sets the stage for a food system transformation that makes organic the norm – by aligning public spending with public interests in thriving ecosystems and healthy, affordable food.
Organic farming offers sweeping health, climate, and economic benefits – but it’s not easy, especially at the beginning. Land must be managed organically – without synthetic fertilizers and most pesticides – for three years before crops can be sold as organic. During those three years, as the land and ecosystems heal and find new balance, producers may face increased pest pressure, short-term decreases in yields, and a steep learning curve.
While many producers find that organic is worth it in the long run, the costs, time, and technical challenges involved in organic transition remain a barrier, especially for smaller operations with limited resources.
The expertise, experience, and willpower to farm and ranch organically have existed – and persisted – for decades, as evidenced by the consistent growth of the organic sector. And yet, decades of agricultural policy and investments have trapped many producers, workers, and consumers in a system that relies heavily on harmful synthetic inputs and that values short-term yields over long-term sustainability, health, and equity.
Today, less than 1% of U.S. farmland is certified organic, and the number of non-certified farms actively transitioning to organic has dropped nearly 71% since 2008.
USDA’s Organic Transition Initiative seeks to shift that, by making a national commitment to organic agriculture, and the climate, health, and economic benefits that follow from it. The progress made through the Organic Transition Initiative will further the case for a wholesale realignment of our food and farm policies to ensure that organic agriculture and food are in reach for everyone.
The initiative significantly expands resources for organic transition, inside and outside of USDA, with regionally relevant technical assistance, market development, and financial support that make organic more widely accessible:
- Wraparound technical assistance, through six regional partnerships: Through a new “Transition to Organic Partnership Program,” USDA will collaborate with major organic organizations in six regions to develop regionally-tailored support networks for transitioning producers. These programs will include on-farm advising, workshops, and field days, as well as mentorship opportunities. USDA has committed to prioritizing equity in these programs and working with the regional partners to meet the needs of Black, Indigenous, and other producers of color.
- Targeted organic market development: After gathering stakeholder input, later this year USDA will identify market improvements that will increase stability in organic supply chains – from investments in processing and distribution infrastructure to developing markets for legumes and other edibles that are used to build soil health in crop rotations.
- Financial assistance through conservation and risk management programs: USDA’s initiative will also allow for a new $25 million “Transitional and Organic Grower Assistance Program” with crop insurance subsidies for transitioning crops, organic grains and feed, and whole organic farms. And the Natural Resources Conservation Service will develop a new conservation practice standard for organic management, to make it easier for transitioning producers to use the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to cover the costs of organic planning, recordkeeping, and losses they may incur during the transition process.
These new investments will complement existing resources for organic producers, including the organic certification cost-share program that the Trump administration scaled back in the midst of the COVID crisis. With the 2023 Farm Bill on the horizon, there’s more work ahead to dramatically expand support for organic and build on investments like the Organic Transition Initiative.
In the meantime, USDA should follow the lead of existing organic transition programs to ensure that these new resources will reach the farmers and ranchers who need them most, and successfully cultivate a new crop of organic producers.
- Allison Johnson is Senior Attorney, Health & Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program at NRDC. This column was originally published at NRDC.
(Opinion columns published in The New Lede represent the views of the individual(s) authoring the columns and not necessarily the perspectives of TNL editors.)