Farm bill is victory for organic future

In a partisan year, American farmers, consumers, and taxpayers of all stripes should be pleased with a victory that took place in the bipartisan farm bill that was recently passed by Congress and signed into law by the president. The legislation for the first time establishes permanent funding for organic research by authorizing $50 million in annual funding for the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative by the year 2023.

The $50 million threshold for this program in the $867 billion farm bill is something of a magical number because it makes the program “baseline” or mandatory in the United States Department of Agriculture budget, creating more stability for organic researchers and farmers. Agriculture research is essential to bringing more farmers and acres into organic production, since less than 1 percent of American farmland is organic.

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Demand for organic agriculture far outstrips supply, causing our country to import many organic crops that could be produced domestically. Capturing the more profitable value of organic production for American farmers is particularly important at a time when net farm incomes across the country have fallen down to the lowest level in 12 years, declining more than 14 percent this year, and showing little sign of turnaround.

Research is proven in delivering farmers improved innovation and a greater understanding of how to manage organic systems. It is important that farmers transitioning to organic production have a strong public research and extension system to help them learn the most effective techniques for soil fertility and pest management. Similarly, organic plant breeding remains an essential area of research investment that can help farmers increase yields and use resources more efficiently, and yet it remains very underfunded compared with conventional plant breeding.

Unfortunately, organic research funding was stuck at $20 million for over a decade. To help fill in the gap, the company I work for stepped up to the plate to become the largest private funder of organic research in the nation with a commitment of more than $10 million. That has led to some important advances and other gains for farmers and rural communities, including job creation. However, the private sector cannot do it alone. In fact, private investment does not reach its full potential if there are not public research grants to further leverage those commitments. So we celebrate public funding scaling up to a new level of $50 million a year.

While the farm bill will always have room for improvement, this landmark new gain of stable funding for organic research is critical to the survival of organic farms and the expansion of organic acreage. It is good for rural communities, good for farmers, and good for the planet. It shows what a bipartisan approach to issues impacting all of us can do. The food we eat and the research behind it are not red or blue issues. They are American issues. This permanent boost in organic funding is a gain for all of us.

Matthew Dillon is senior director of agricultural policy and programs for Clif Bar & Company, an American producer of organic foods and drinks.