During the 1990s, U.S. policy on organic agriculture focused on facilitating consumer market access to a differentiated product, and national organic standards were developed during this period. More recent State and Federal organic initiatives--expanding organic production and marketing research, technical assistance, and data development--are aimed at expanding market opportunities for producers.
- USDA implemented a national organic program in 2002, which set uniform standards and provided a "USDA-organic" label to facilitate market transactions and allay consumer concerns about product identity.
- USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service currently administers two organic certification cost-share programs. The first offers assistance to producers in 15 States and operates with $1.0 million annually as part of the Agricultural Management Assistance (AMA) program under the Federal Crop Insurance Act.The second program expanded assistance to all U.S. farmers and handlers under the 2002 Farm Act, with one-time funding of $5.0 million that has already been obligated to participating States.
- Congress included provisions in the 2002 Farm Act aimed at expanding market opportunities for organic producers. For example, Congress initiated a national cost-share program to help defray the costs of certification incurred by organic crop and livestock producers and provided new research funding to determine desirable traits for organic commodities and identify marketing and policy constraints on the expansion of organic agriculture. Congress also included several first-time research, conservation, and marketing assistance provisions in the 2002 Farm Act to assist organic producers.
- The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 includes a five-fold increase in mandatory funding for organic programs over funds mandated in the previous legislation, and authorizes additional funding for many of these programs. Most of the mandatory funds are for two existing organic programs--the organic research program and cost-share assistance program to help growers and handlers with organic certification costs. The legislation includes new organic provisions on credit, trade, and crop insurance. Organic provisions are also included in the Conservation Title for the first time, and are aimed at helping producers with the transition to organic farming systems.
- A number of States--and even some localities--have initiated organic activities in recent years. Minnesota, for example, maintains a farmer directory to promote organic sales and facilitate farmer-to-farmer communication. Montana and Washington provide organic export assistance, and a number of States offer State-subsidized certification programs. One county in Iowa has set up an organic exchange board to bring organic landowners and farmers together and is offering property tax rebates to organic farmers.
A major objective of these initiatives is to heighten organic agriculture's positive impact on environmental quality. Potential benefits from organic farming systems include improved soil tilth and productivity, lower energy use, and reduced pesticides.
Federal Initiatives on Organic Agriculture
Government research and policy initiatives often play a key role in the adoption of new farming technologies and systems. Worldwide, adoption levels for organic farming systems are currently the highest in European Union countries. Governments in the EU have been developing consumer education initiatives and providing direct financial support to producers for transitioning to organic agriculture since the late 1980s to capture environmental benefits and support rural development (for a summary of EU organic support measures, see Market-Led Growth vs. Government-Facilitated Growth).
In the U.S., a number of USDA agencies started or expanded a variety of programs on organic agriculture during the 1990s. For example, the Risk Management Agency has been developing organic crop insurance, while the Foreign Agricultural Service has been expanding organic export programs and services, USDA's Agricultural Research Service, Cooperative State Research Education, and Extension Service, and Economic Research Service are broadening their combined research on organic farming and marketing systems (see the appendix on USDA organic research, program, and regulatory activities in Recent Growth Patterns in the U.S. Organic Foods Market for a summary of these activities).
State Support for Organic Agriculture
State support for organic farmers and handlers has also been expanding. For example, the number of States offering organic certification services--mostly at subsidized rates--has risen from 12 States in 1997 to 19 States in 2005. Minnesota and Iowa began offering small subsidies for conversion to organic farming systems in the late 1990s as a way to capture the environmental benefits of these systems. The funds for this program have mostly been from Federal sources, by designating organic production as a priority for conservation cost-share coverage under the Federal Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Additional States are now using or considering the EQIP program for this objective. And counties like Woodbury County in Iowa are now providing tax rebates for those who convert from conventional to organic farming practices.
In 2003, the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) released a policy statement on organic agriculture expressing support for a wide range of activities that would expand public-sector organic research and education and provide technical assistance to organic and transitional farmers (for a list of contacts for State organic programs, see NADSA's National Association of State Organic Programs).