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Bush’s Squeeze on Organic Farmers

More and more Americans are buying organic food. But is our government matching this groundswell of support with federal and state agricultural dollars?

No.

Organic farmers work with nature to control pests, weeds and disease. No synthetic fossil-fuel fertilizers are used and no hormones or antibiotics are used in livestock production. By many measures, organic food is healthier for our soil, water, wildlife and the people who grow it. The Agriculture Department last year issued standards and labeling rules for organic production and marketing.

But where is the government’s support, which still flows overwhelmingly to industrial agriculture?

Most observers agree that in 2002 the organic products industry received about 1.5 to 2 percent of our nation’s food dollar. Not much, some would say. But consider this: Last year consumers spent about $10 billion on organic products. Back in 1989, one agricultural economist pegged the size of the organic industry at only $89 million. That’s growth! Clearly growing numbers of Americans are saying organic farming is important.

But the government so far fails to recognize this surging support. The Organic Farming Research Foundation has determined that certified-organic land-grant university research acreage has grown from 151 acres in 2001 to just over 496 acres_this out of a massive 886,000 acres now dedicated to agricultural research.

Five years ago, OFRF published a report identifying the number of organic research projects funded by the USDA. After running 75 key words through the USDA’s 30,000 agricultural research projects database, OFRF discovered 34 explicitly organic projects. That translates to barely over one-tenth of 1 percent of our publicly funded agricultural research projects specifically dedicated to organic production practices.

What about actual dollars devoted to helping organic growers farm and market better? The news is a bit better here. Or is it? Last year, for the first time, Congress appropriated $3 million for organic research and required that this be an annual expenditure for the next five years. Our federal budget is now $2.14 trillion. The USDA budget is $74 billion. But the total annual organic outlay, which also includes money for marketing, economic analysis and enforcement of organic standards, approaches only $8 million.

Organic farmers deserve their fair share of our nation’s agricultural resources. A commitment to organic farming by the federal government that matches the commitment consumers have made to organic food would equal 1.5 to 2 percent of the USDA budget, or more than $1 billion. Think about it. That would go a long way to encourage a way of farming that is better for people and our planet.

BOB SCOWCROFT is executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, Santa Cruz, Calif. He is a member of the Land Institute’s Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.

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