Supporters celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Organic Foods Production Act last week. Leaders reflected on how far the movement has come in the past few decades during a virtual press conference hosted by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, one of the nation’s first promoters of organic food.
Signed into law in 1990, the OFPA was a battle before and after implementation.
Liana Hoodes, National Organic Coalition adviser, said prior to the OFPA there was no national standard for organic farming.
“It’s important to remember the development of the law came from farmers and consumers, joined by environmentalists and industry in the very beginning,” she said.
Kathleen Merrigan served as head of the Agricultural Marketing Service from 1999 to 2001 and is known as the chief architect of the present-day organic standards. She later served as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture from 2009 to 2013.
Prior to the OFPA, Merrigan said a deep mistrust had grown between organic farmers and government. With growth in the organic sector, farmers were concerned organic standards would be watered down, so they went to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for help.
Merrigan said the USDA originally tried to work with label rules but decided the issue needed legislation. Government officials, farmers and organic stakeholders partnered to write the bill.
“I think that partnership, that collaboration, is embedded in the law through the construction of the National Organic Standards Board,” she said.
Even after the draft bill was written, the group had trouble getting it passed. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Senate Agriculture Committee chairman, introduced the bill in a chamber with a Democratic majority. While the Senate went along with the bill, Merrigan said, the House was a different story.
“When I look back on that time, this is a very classic David and Goliath story,” she said.
Merrigan said the USDA had trouble finding a Congressman to introduce the legislation before Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., agreed to sponsor it. He was not on the House Ag Committee and had an uphill battle before the bill passed and President George H.W. Bush signed it into law.
After passage, the law was slow to get off the ground, hampered by a lack of appropriations for USDA staff and the National Organic Standards Board to develop the rules.
The first draft rules were finally published in 1997, but contained what Hoodes described as a “headline grabbing” allowance of three controversial things: GMOs, irradiation and sewage sludge.
Hoodes said grassroots groups pulled together and the draft rules received 325,000 comments in an era before Internet submissions. Hoodes said the comments represented the most submitted on a USDA rule up to that point.
During Merrigan’s tenure at USDA, the rules, which she described as “a phone book” thick, were refined and published in 2002.
Merrigan said while food safety was the motivation at the time of the OFPA’s passage, environmental health, sustainability and farm structure have benefited.
“I think we have seen in time that we are ready to start going beyond that initial food safety, consumers driven to organic because of concerns about pesticide residues,” she said. “Now, consumers in the marketplace are reaching for the organic label because of a whole host of attributes.”
Abby Youngblood, executive director of the National Organic Coalition, said organic food sales have grown to $40 billion, representing 5 percent of U.S. food sales.
“We have seen really astounding growth in a short period of time,” she said.
However, research funding has not kept up. Youngblood said just one-tenth of 1 percent of the research in the USDA’s flagship program is dedicated to organic systems. She said more federal funding is needed for organic research to help farmers breed seeds better adapted to changing climate and organic systems.
Youngblood said farmers are benefiting from the OFPA by organic farming practices and price premiums. It also offers a way for beginning farmers to start a career.
“Organic is a key opportunity for those who are getting into farming,” she said. “We know that if we want to continue to produce food domestically, we need to have more farmers and we need to attract young people to the profession.”
Youngblood also said the OFPA laid the foundation for a much more democratic and transparent food system.
“It is this opportunity that citizens have to participate in the process and to engage in helping to decide what that organic label means,” she said. “It’s really so important and so exciting, because we know that we can keep building the organic label. It’s not static, and it can keep changing and adapting to reflect new production methods.”