The Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University recently published a report highlighting 46 policy recommendations for the Biden-Harris Administration to better support organic agriculture.
Food Tank spoke to Kathleen Merrigan, executive director of the Swette Center and co-author of the report, The Critical To-Do List for Organic Agriculture, about the necessity of the actions outlined in the report and her hopes for the advancement of organic agriculture in the United States under the Biden-Harris Administration.
FT: Why are these recommendations to advance organic agriculture coming out now? Why is the Swette Center focusing on the Biden-Harris Administration?
KM: A new administration always means new policy priorities. Right after the election, a Biden-Harris Transition Team was established to help sort resumes and policy ideas to launch the new Administration post-Inauguration. During this time, many food and agriculture organizations submitted “transition papers” to seed ideas for actions to be taken in the first 100 days and in the first year of the new Administration. This was an important activity to which the Swette Center contributed, but while such transition memos can be very influential, most often they are not made public. In contrast, we wanted our Critical To-Do List report to be transparent and to circulate widely.
Obviously, the target for our report is the Biden-Harris Administration and their new team, most notably U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Vilsack. But we also hope the report catalyses action among organic advocates. We have provided a checklist of policy opportunities that are easily doable for the President and for which we expect nearly universal support from organic advocates. I am convinced that if the world of organic advocates together put their shoulders to the boulder as the saying goes, we would be surprised by what can be accomplished. The Swette Center will be tracking the Administration’s progress on our 46 recommendations, along with other potential Biden-Harris organic actions. Periodically we will share assessments on how the Biden-Harris team is doing—as a professor, I can’t help myself from grading!
By the way, we are not trying to dodge divisive issues—such as hydroponics and aquaculture. Both are briefly referenced in this report, but which have no corresponding recommendations. But stay tuned, we will address such important issues in a subsequent publication, with the goal of building sector-wide consensus on policy pathways going forward. In the meantime, these 46 recommendations, if enacted, will greatly empower the organic sector.
FT: The report claims that most of the recommendations could be attainable in the near future. What do you think might impede implementing these recommendations?
KM: More than anything, these recommendations require political will. They require political courage. They require making organic a policy priority.
Most of the recommendations could be enacted today, at least in large part. Take for example, the very important recommendation that USDA develop a national plan to advance organic agriculture. Developing a plan does not require new money or new law. It takes Executive level commitment to convene USDA staff across the 17 agencies within USDA and active engagement with organic stakeholders. Secretary Vilsack could announce today that USDA will begin this process. In 2020, California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) developed a state plan to achieve the goal of increasing organic acreage from the current 10 percent of California farm and ranch land to 30 percent by 2030. This effort provides a good example of what we can and should do at a national level.
I have spent the better part of my career in our nation’s capital, and I know how long it can take to get things done. Step one, propose a law, get it passed; step two, propose rules to implement the law and finalize them; and step three, propose funding for the new program and get appropriators to provide necessary resources. But years go by. The climate crisis requires us to accelerate the timeline of everything that can alleviate significant stress on our planet, including organic production.
When I served as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture during the Obama Administration, timeline issues were on my mind in launching the successful Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative to support local and regional food systems. I ignored the temptation to establish something new and worked within exiting budgets and statutory authorities so not to waste a minute. I directed all agencies and programs to be inclusive of local and regional agriculture and get to work right away. We need to do the same for organic.
FT: The report stresses the need for government investment to improve knowledge on the health benefits of organic food. What benefits do you think are most critical for the public to know?
KM: The number one reason people purchase organic food is health benefits. There is a library of scientific studies affirming that organic does not contain harmful pesticide residues found on and in many conventionally produced foods. Consumers also do not have to worry about antibiotics and hormones, since like most synthetic pesticides, these substances are prohibited in organic production. Organic food also contains far fewer processing aides than nonorganic food—the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved 3,000 substances that can be added in the processing of food whereas in organic, fewer than 100 are approved under the National Organic Program. By the way, nothing makes the point about additives better than this great video produced by Organic Voices! Bottom line, organic is the original clean food that consumers seek. The health benefits of organic should be clearly communicated by our government in its various dietary guidance efforts.
We also need greater public investment in research on organic food. Back in the mid-2000s, as a professor at Tufts University, I was engaged in research comparing the antioxidant capacity of organic versus conventionally grown blueberries, cranberries, and tomatoes. It was one of the earliest experiments of its kind and we found that the organic and conventional samples clustered confirming that we were on the right track—production methods do have impact on the nutritional content of food. Fast forward to today and there are numerous studies showing organic food has higher levels of various beneficial polyphenols and omega-3 fatty acid. But we need to go deeper into this research.
Our report recommends that USDA spend 6 percent of its research budget on organic, which would be about US$240 million. We picked 6 percent because organic now represents 6 percent of the US market share of food. With this kind of research investment, we could learn so much more about the benefits of organic food consumption including, I suspect, whether a connection exists between healthy soil microbiomes and healthy human guts.
FT: The report highlights the health inequalities in the food system, and the need to improve BIPOC communities’ access to organic food. What steps do you think the Biden-Harris Administration should take to achieve this?
KM: Inequities in our food systems run deep and wide. The new Administration has announced pursuit of racial justice and social equity as a top priority, thank goodness. Maybe before I die, I will share some disconcerting stories of what I have faced, over time, as a woman leader in agriculture. But I know full well that whatever I have dealt with comes nowhere close to the challenges confronted by BIPOC colleagues who have endured cruel discrimination for generations and generations.
Our report has numerous recommendations related to improving BIPOC access to organic food as well as support for BIPOC farmers and ranchers. We recommend, for example, that USDA procure organic food for our school feeding programs to ensure that all children have access to such healthy food. We recommend that various USDA programs prioritize funding for BIPOC applicants, such as organic transition support. We recommend that Congress enact law in the forthcoming farm bill to provide greater land access to BIPOC farmers. We recommend certification schemes to facilitate greater Tribal Nation participation in the National Organic Program. Our 46 recommendations provide details on all these topics, but frankly, we are just scratching the surface of what must be done. We are so far behind in creating just food systems.
FT: How do you think True Cost Accounting might affect the accessibility of organic food for consumers?
KM: In the short term, not at all; in the long term, substantially. True Cost Accounting (TCA) is an emerging methodology designed to fully disclose the true costs and benefits of what it takes to put food on the table. This includes placing a monetary value on aspects of food production, such as environmental and social harms and benefits that are typically dismissed as externalities and therefore not calculated in decision-making. For people who want to learn more about TCA, the new True Cost Accounting for Food book, available free online, provides lots of information—I was excited to see it on Food Tank’s summer reading list!
If we succeed in getting policymakers to adopt TCA, I expect that organic will be understood widely as a best buy. By this I mean that when so-called externalities, such as farm worker health, animal welfare, and rural economic development are fully calculated into the equation, organic will emerge as the least costly means of production. But I hasten to add, the goal of TCA is not to make food more expensive. We have 50+ million food insecure people in the U.S. alone. TCA will not alter the real cost of producing organic food, but it will provide the kind of transparency that, hopefully, will cause leaders to double-down on organic and invest in growing the organic sector. More policy investments mean more organic food which means greater accessibility.
FT: The Swette Center calls these recommendations the low hanging fruit of organic policies that this Administration can reasonably implement. What are examples of policy changes that you would like to see, but consider more ambitious?
KM: At this writing, large amounts of money are being spent to bolster the food and agriculture industry in the wake of the pandemic and, assuming Congress reaches agreement, it will soon be followed by significant infrastructure investments. In the midst of this spending, I would like to see organic prioritized. We know that organic is climate-smart, it supports human and animal health, and it is a tool of economic development (later this year, the Swette Center will, in partnership with Natural Resources Defense Council and Californians for Pesticide Reform, publish a report providing the latest science in support of these statements). The organic sector should be on the minds of policymakers as they make these ambitious and historic investments as well as in their design of the forthcoming 2023 farm bill.
If that is all too vague, let me provide some specific examples. Secretary Vilsack and his team are now at work on a transition program as part of the pandemic relief; we hope to see support for organic as its centerpiece. As Congress and this Administration work out an infrastructure deal, we hope supply chain investments that serve small-scale and beginning farmers are included. As Congress develops the next farm bill, we hope that new rural development initiatives based on organic hotspots are enacted. These examples, and others, are found in our list of 46 recommendations.