Note — The following comments were submitted by Chuck Benbrook to the AMS/USDA today, in response to the Department’s proposal to withdraw the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices Rule.
I am writing to urge the Department to quickly finalize the OLPP rule, rather than withdraw it. If the USDA continues on its proposed course of action, the Department will likely incur another embarrassing defeat in court. Its actions, and media coverage of the underlying issues, will assure continued, negative press coverage of certain, currently allowed animal care practices on organic farms, not to mention the comparable and often much worse practices on many, large-scale conventional livestock farms.
Bagging the proposed rule will undermine further the already lagging consumer confidence in AMS/USDA management of the NOP. It will also needlessly subject animals on some organic farms to animal care practices that lead to unnecessary pain and suffering, and do not meet the threshold expectations of consumers seeking out organic livestock products.
I was struck by one of the explanations offered by the Department for withdrawing the proposed rule. I am quoting from section B. in the USDA/AMS Federal Register notice announcing the proposed withdrawal —
“AMS notes that organic producers have already made significant investments in facilities and infrastructure to support the growing organic market under the current USDA organic regulations, and there has been significant growth in the organic market under the existing regulatory regime. This suggests that the present regulatory regime is meeting statutory objectives of reassuring consumers of organic integrity and facilitating interstate commerce in organic products, which coincides with the growth in the organic poultry sector.”
The first, long sentence is unarguably true, but the second sentence is clearly not, and suggests a serious breach in clear thinking in the USDA. The present regulatory regime is clearly NOT meeting statutory objectives, which obviously include sustaining consumer trust and confidence in the USDA’s organic label. The strong growth in sales of organic livestock products is truly remarkable, given the 10+ year lack of badly needed actions by the NOP to address long standing, highly controversial aspects of the NOP rule (e.g., grazing standard, replacement of livestock, animal welfare standards). Shame on USDA for claiming that strong organic livestock product sales growth is a sign the current regulations are working. Growth would likely double if consumers understood fully the suite of benefits stemming from organic livestock production, compared to conventional livestock systems.
And if the USDA/NOP got serious about driving constructive innovation on the livestock side of the organic industry, by adding new provisions to the NOP that will markedly enhance the safety and nutritional quality of livestock products, the pace of growth would accelerate even more. Done well and without apologies from USDA to leaders in the conventional livestock industry, exports of organic meat, dairy products, and eggs/poultry would emerge as a shining star in the economic revival of rural America.
The nuts and bolts of the OLPP do not please everyone, and do not go as far as I feel they should in setting the stage for continued, animal health and welfare innovation across the organic sector. But at least the core provisions are directionally correct, and will alter the kinds of investments being made in new organic livestock industry infrastructure.
I agree with some other commenters that a fresh look is warranted at the transition provisions governing relatively new, organic livestock facilities. It is unfair to radically change the rules applicable to a recently certified livestock production facility, especially if the change in rules will lead to abandonment of the facilities well-before the end of their productive life.
Facing similar situations in many other sectors of the economy, both the Congress and executive branch agencies find a compromise that allows such facilities to be used during a transition period, a time period when some combination of public and private sector incentives are used to retrofit existing facilities. Clearly, the USDA’s popular conservation and livestock facility cost-share programs could include in 2019-2020 a special program helping organic livestock farmers with non-compliant facilities cover part of the costs of conversion.
In addition, there would also need to be a clear mandate in the final rule that no new construction of non-compliant facilities will be allowed on organic farms, and that the grandfather period for existing facilities is set and ticking (e.g., existing facilities may be used for up to two-thirds of the structure’s initial, expected life cycle).
Last, there has already been a major investment of USDA/NOP, Congressional, and organic community resources in crafting the sometimes delicate balance in the existing provisions in the OLPP rule. Don’t throw this away, compromise is an increasingly precious commodity in D.C. these days.