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Organic Agriculture in the United States: Program and Policy Issues

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Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990 as part of a larger law governing U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs from 1990 through 1996 (P.L. 101-624, the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990). The act authorized the creation of a National Organic Program (NOP) within USDA to establish standards for producers and processors of organic foods, and permit such operations to label their products with a "USDA Organic" seal after being officially certified by USDA-accredited agents. The purpose of the program, which was implemented in October 2002, is to give consumers confidence in the legitimacy of products sold as organic, permit legal action against those who use the term fraudulently, increase the supply and variety of available organic products, and facilitate international trade in organic products.

Policy issues affecting the National Organic Program since implementation largely reflect the differences in interpretation among stakeholders of the language and intent of OFPA and the actual operation of the program under the final rule. The NOP was challenged in 2003 by a lawsuit claiming that many of the regulations were more lenient than the original statute permitted. A resulting court order issued in June 2005 required USDA to rewrite regulations concerning the use of certain synthetic ingredients in organic-labeled foods and the conversion of dairy herds to organic production. Subsequently, however, conferees on the FY2006 USDA appropriations bill attached a provision that amended the OFPA in a way that largely permits the regulations on synthetics to stand as they were before the court decision. USDA published the final rule reflecting both the court order and the OFPA amendments in June 2006. Further rulemaking is necessary on the dairy herd conversion issue.

A second issue concerns USDA's efforts to write a new regulation governing access to pasture for organic dairy cows (and other ruminants). Tight supplies of certain organic commodities, particularly dairy products, and the entry into the market of major grocery retailers wanting to sell organic foods are adding pressure to this debate. Critics charge that large organic dairy operations are not abiding by the intent of OFPA by feeding organic grain to cows in feedlots, and that the principle of grazing is central to consumers' concept of organic milk. Supporters of existing regulations point to the need for flexibility in order to maintain an organic dairy sector that can meet growing demand.

There is wide consensus that no further amendments to the OFPA are necessary at this time. Nonetheless, some major industry groups would like Congress to consider other related policy matters when it takes up consideration of new, omnibus farm legislation in 2007. Among the policy recommendations that various groups have begun to draft are proposals to establish a National Organic Agriculture Initiative to provide policy direction for the industry, and to improve organic producers' access to and benefits from federal crop insurance.

This report will be revised as events warrant.