Sustainable agriculture is having its political moment.
The Biden administration deserves credit for being the first to recognize that food system reforms can go a long way toward solving the climate crisis. Yet for all its big-picture vision, some critical details are getting overlooked.
A big one is a loophole within the USDA’s National Organic Program that undermines its mission and impedes the nation’s path toward climate-smart agriculture.
The rule glitch has the effect of encouraging farmers to cut down native forests and grasses so the land can be used to grow organic crops — a net loss for the environment. Despite the advantages of organic farming over conventional practices, pristine ecological habitats are vastly better from a climate and biodiversity standpoint than any form of agriculture.
Early in his presidency, Joe Biden vowed he would “position American agriculture to lead our nation and the world in combating climate change.” And he’s making an effort to deliver. With 92 votes, the Senate recently passed the Biden-backed “Growing Climate Solutions Act,” which aims to help farmers and ranchers participate in markets so they can get paid to sequester carbon in their soil.
Meanwhile, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has introduced a “Climate-Smart Forestry and Agriculture Strategy” and is sinking $4 billion into production practices that include $500 million for small- and mid-size local meat producers to compete with Big Ag and new funding to expand organic agriculture.
These are wise investments. Small, distributed producers support nimble supply chains in an era of increasing environment disruption; organic farms improve soil health — and healthier soil draws down more carbon.
Organic farms sequester about 25% more carbon than soils from nonorganic farms. They also emit far fewer greenhouse gasses, including 56% less nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide that’s produced by the evaporation of chemical fertilizers, according to University of California at Davis data.
Yet those benefits are being undermined by the misuse of an ostensibly sensible rule that requires farmland to be free from pesticides for three years before its production can be certified for sale as organic. It’s a necessary precaution, but also a costly one for farmers who must fallow their fields to transition from conventional to organic production.
So some have come up with a more expedient alternative: simply clear wildlands that have never been treated with agrochemicals and get certified without the wait. The profit motive is strong; organic foods can be sold at a premium over conventional products and demand is growing. U.S. sales rose by more than 12% to $62 billion in 2020.
According to a recent University of Wisconsin study, hundreds of thousands of acres of native forests and grasslands have been converted to agricultural use in the last year — and millions of acres in the last decade — with no penalty to the growers. California vineyards have been eating away native oak woodlands. Wheat farms are taking over former prairie lands in the Northeast. Overseas, organic palm oil sold in the U.S. is being produced on forestland that was once crucial orangutan habitat.
Not all of the converted acreage has gone to organic production (there’s no data distinguishing between the lands razed for organic and conventional crop production), but regulations governing the organic label have created a perverse incentive for taking over raw land.
The good news is there’s a swift and easy solution that doesn’t require an act of Congress. The fix was teed up in 2018 when a collective of environmental and industry groups led by the Wild Farm Alliance and the National Wildlife Federation proposed a 10-year waiting period before converted grasslands and forests can be certified for organic production. The logic is sound: pay a penalty for taking out a native ecosystem.
The solution was widely supported by the organic farming industry groups. “The loophole allows unfair competition for the organic farmers who are doing it right, and we all understood that if the public got wind of it, it could put a black eye on the organic program,” Abby Youngblood, executive director of National Organic Coalition, told me. What environmentally savvy consumer would pay a premium for a box of organic strawberries if they thought it might be responsible for destroying critical songbird habitat?
The proposed rule change was almost unanimously accepted by the National Organic Standards Board, which makes recommendations to the government’s organic program. Yet it was entirely ignored by the Trump administration and still today has not been adopted.
Whereas Trump had priorities other than the environment, it’s disingenuous for Biden to tout climate-smart agriculture while failing to close this loophole.
When I asked officials inside the USDA’s organic program about the delay, the answer amounted to classic bureaucratic paralysis: They’re reviewing a backlog of recommendations that built up over the previous administration and it will take time. But there’s no time to waste and no additional review necessary. The rule should be closed immediately to prevent more harm.
While they’re at it, the Biden administration should throw its support behind the “Sodsaver” provision proposed by the National Wildlife Federation for the 2023 Farm Bill. It would deny government subsidies to any agricultural development, conventional or organic, that wipes out native ecosystems for crop production. Sodsavers is already being implemented by six states, including Iowa and Minnesota, and should be expanded nationwide.
Research overwhelmingly shows that protecting native forests and grasslands is a critical natural solution to minimizing climate change. For climate-smart agriculture to succeed, the Biden administration needs its big-picture vision, but it can’t neglect the details.
Amanda Little is a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University.
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