Though not everything the natural products industry wished for has come true—a National Organic Program standard for personal care, for example, is still a pipe dream—marks for the U.S. Department of Agriculture under President Obama are generally positive.
“The initiative out of [Agriculture] Secretary Tom Vilsack’s office, ‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food,’ has already created benefits for organic farmers,” says Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, Calif. Among the programs supported by the initiative is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which funneled $50 million in both 2009 and 2010 to help farmers convert to organic and to provide technical support for those already farming organically.
"The program gives an individual farmer up to $20,000 a year," Scowcroft says. "Technical support might include soil fertility efforts or, for ranchers, information on what trees to plant to keep cattle from polluting them." Scowcroft also lauds new USDA farmers' market programs, school lunch programs and funding for hoop houses to help extend the growing seasons for organic family farmers.
Other organic organizations are also fans of the new USDA. "I think this administration has been very positive to the organic industry and has helped enlarge our megaphone regarding organic products," says Christine Bushway, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, based in Greenfield, Mass. "The staffing for NOP has gone from about 13 people to 41, which is a huge increase."
But an agency the size of the USDA doesn’t change overnight. "There are some glitches," Bushway says, “such as the dietary guidelines issue.” Guidelines are released every five years by the USDA and Health and Human Services; the 2010 guidelines caused a stir by including a document, "Conventional and Organically Produced Foods," stating that "our current understanding of conventionally and organically produced foods indicates that their nutritional values and contributions to human health are similar."
"The president's cancer panel said in April that pesticides should be minimized to every extent possible," Bushway says, "so this document certainly doesn’t meet the [administration's] stated goal to speak with one voice."
Change has come more slowly in other areas, such as genetically modified organisms. "The Obama administration inherited several ongoing GMO matters, such as Roundup Ready alfalfa, from the Bush administration, and it isn't clear yet whether this administration will do a better job," says Bill Freese, science policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety, based in Washington, D.C. CFS and other organizations successfully sued the USDA for granting the Monsanto GMO alfalfa seed market approval before considering ways to prevent the GMO seed’s environmental impacts.
On the other hand, the Obama administration did restore funding for the USDA’s pesticide-reporting program. "This is critical because the report is the only way to know what amount of each pesticide is being used, and to counter misinformation that biotech crops can reduce pesticide use," Freese says.
The organic industry also has a new voice on the inside. Mark Lipson, previously senior policy analyst at OFRF, moved to the USDA in June as program specialist for organic farming. "Mark will be facilitating the organic presence within all the agencies under the USDA so all the agencies know what the others are doing," Scowcroft says.
Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.