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The Waste Land: Organic Agriculture during the Bush Years

History of Organic Agriculture series- Part 7

My previous post outlined the improbable circumstances under which the organic community found itself the belle of the ball at the tail end of the Clinton Administration. The combination of vibrant market growth and a national constituency learning how to make its voice heard commanded the attention of the powers that be in Washington, DC. While recognizably imperfect, the organic regulations issued by the USDA in December 2000 set high standards for crop and livestock production and processed foods. Most importantly, the USDA had shown some willingness to listen to the organic community in finalizing the regulations and committed itself to an active collaboration during the implementation process. But like Cinderella undone by the stroke of midnight, the organic community suffered a precipitous decline in its fortunes once the Bush administration took office.

A quick review of the separation of powers and the structure of the federal government will help to explain the Bush administration’s impact on organic agriculture. We all know that the Secretary of Agriculture and the USDA’s senior leadership are appointed by and report to the President, or executive branch. While obligated to enact the mandates of the legislative branch and heed the guidance of the judicial branch, these political appointees can be counted upon to advance the President’s agenda and perspective. Put another way, the Secretary and his team prioritize and execute their responsibilities in the manner that best serves the interests of their boss in the White House. Once the political appointees chart the Department’s course, it’s the senior civil service – the bureaucrats – who grind out the paperwork – the legal foundation, the regulations themselves and the guidance for implementing them – needed to reach that destination. When political appointees are insufficiently invested in a program area to provide direction, the bureaucrats are left to steer it on a course of their own choosing.

The newly established Bush USDA set off in hot pursuit of the same priorities that its Clintonian predecessor had valued: further concentration of agricultural production, increased emphasis on technological solutions (especially biotechnology) and breaking down trade barriers in the global marketplace. There never was and still isn’t any lack of bipartisan support in Washington for the agribusiness agenda. What did change, however, was the new administration’s willingness to acknowledge responsibility for the National Organic Program (NOP). Congressional appropriations of about $1 million annually kept it alive but with no political patron to push its agenda, the NOP became an official non-person inside USDA. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman adopted a see no organic, hear no organic and speak no organic approach that her successors scrupulously maintained throughout the Bush years. Queried at a Food and Agriculture Organization meeting in Rome about the benefits of organic agriculture, Secretary Veneman limited her response to the multiple and tangible benefits already being achieved through agricultural biotechnology! Top that for staying on message!

As noted earlier, bureaucrats inherit responsibility for managing USDA programs that political appointees choose to abandon. Such was the fate of the NOP and it came at an especially difficult time since its miniscule staff was barraged with questions about interpreting the new regulations. The livestock standards were particularly vague; in places they read more like haiku than enforceable requirements. Major provisions such as how much pasture would be required for dairy operations had been left unanswered in the federal standards with the expectation that they would be worked out over time. The NOP faced the very daunting challenge of fleshing out paper standards into a myriad of real world circumstances at the same time it undertook the accreditation of the certifying agents who would ultimately apply those standards in the field. With their political appointee bosses not returning phone calls, the NOP bureaucrats were left to spin their wheels while repeating “We don’t know” to the critical questions raised by the increasingly frustrated organic community.

Being leaderless is not the same as being powerless, but it did compel the organic community to function in a much more reactive and defensive manner. For example, the organic community found itself a small fish in a big pond in February 2003 when a Capitol Hill backroom deal put a major dent in the vaunted organic standards. Fieldale Farms, a major integrated poultry production corporation, had marketed organic chicken for several years prior to the finalization of the federal standards. Back in those Wild West days, Fieldale was free to define “organic” as it chose, and it chose not to require organic corn in its poultry ration. This dramatically reduced their cost of production and allowed them to establish a small market in conventional grocery stores at a reasonable price point. However, the requirement in the now superseding federal standard that all agricultural livestock feed ingredients be organically produced threatened to wipe out their nascent enterprise. Fieldale tried to change the standard through the routine regulatory process but the organic feed requirement had been a major victory for the organic community and there was no room for compromise.

Playing DC power politics, Fieldale arranged to have a few sentences inserted into a 3,000 page appropriations bill with no prior notice that exempted producers from the organic feed requirement when the cost exceeded twice the conventional price. Far from being a surgical quick fix, however the legislative rider elicited howls of objection about the duplicitous process and the diabolical intent behind the effort. Traditional organic supporters in Congress including Senator Leahy from Vermont and Representative Farr from California demanded a rollback while Speaker of the House Denis Hastert became remarkably unfamiliar with how the rider had found its way into his appropriations bill. Secretary Veneman weighed in to defend the higher standard (that must have hurt) and, after extensive media coverage and a successful campaign to mobilize support in Congress, the rider was removed and the organic feed requirement restored. The organic community had flexed enough muscle to protect its interests – but only to re-gain a victory it thought it had already nailed down and after some bad press.

The NOP itself was responsible the next time the organic community got sand kicked in its face, though once again a grassroots campaign snatched, if not victory, at least the status quo from the jaws of defeat. In the absence of any interest in the organic regulations from the political appointees, the NOP bureaucrats decided to start making and implementing policy pronouncements themselves. In April 2004 the NOP unilaterally issued what it called “guidance” and “directives” related to some of the most sensitive issues in the standards including antibiotics in dairy production, livestock feed ingredients and allowable inert materials in pesticides. These policy interpretations had been drawn up without input from the organic community and were widely seen as seriously degrading the standards. They would have allowed a host of new synthetic materials into organic production without review and facilitated the recycling of dairy animals between organic and conventional operations. Furthermore, the NOP hadn’t run its proposals past the USDA lawyers, much less taken any of the steps required to establish new regulations.

Once again the media announced the trashing of organic standards, the usual suspects from the organic community and Congress denounced (in this case) the USDA’s actions and the tumult soon penetrated Secretary Veneman’s bubble. The Bush Administration had no interest in taking credit for what was going right in organic agriculture but they certainly weren’t going to take criticism when things went wrong with it. Secretary Veneman called a meeting with several recognized organic community leaders (that must have really hurt) and announced that the guidance and directives had been arrived upon in error and were forthwith null and void. Once again the organic community had avoided a potentially catastrophic blow from an unexpected adversary yet found itself pretty much back where it started. Now neither the political appointees nor the bureaucrats would substantively address organic policy or standards issues as the NOP reverted to its black hole approach to information sharing and decision making. Fortunately, USDA had successfully accredited almost all of the historic certification programs and their credibility helped to preserve broad consumer confidence in the USDA organic seal. However, the Bush Administration was only half over and the organic community was in for several more surprises before it was done.

Next Time: Having survived their run-ins with predatory legislators and self-important bureaucrats, the organic community soon learned that the judicial branch of government could be equally problematic. The fallout from the legal challenge to the NOP by the mouse that roared – Maine blueberry farmer Arthur Harvey – would turn the standards upside down once more and split the community like nothing before.

  1. Organic Agriculture: Its Origins, and Evolution Over Time
  2. Industrial Agriculture and the Organic Alternative: Rachel Carson’s Contribution
  3. The Organic Certification Process: Early Beginnings
  4. Genesis of the USDA’s National Organic Program
  5. The Organic Community, the USDA, and the Morning After
  6. U.S. Adopts National Organic Standards: Victory for All, but…
  7. The Waste Land: Organic Agriculture during the Bush Years
  8. A loosening of the Organic Standards: Synthetic Substances
  9. Organic Agriculture and Organic Certification: Not So Ying and Yang
  10. Organic Certification Standards for Poultry: An Insider’s Look
  11. The History of Organic Agriculture: Final Installment

Mark Keating has worked in the natural, sustainable, organic and local food movements since 1982. His work experience includes stints in commercial food service, farm labor, retail sales and marketing, state and federal civil service, non-profit advocacy and academia. While at the USDA between 1999 and 2004, Mark helped draft the national organic standards for crop and livestock production and spent two years working to develop and promote farmers markets. An inveterate believer that naturally raised and locally distributed food offers the best opportunity for human health and planetary survival, Mark lives in the Kentucky Bluegrass with his wife and their daughter.

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