Organic Agriculture Just Got Better at Being Nature-Friendly

photo courtesy of USDA/NRCS

The following blog post comes courtesy of the Wild Farm Alliance, one of our many partners.  The National Organic Program recently clarified their requirements for natural resource conservation on organic farms.  This is good news.  Increased biodiversity on farms and protection of natural resources come with multiple benefits, including greater resilience to more extreme weather events. 

Organic certification agencies now have to show USDA that they are making sure their farmers and others using the USDA organic seal are conserving natural resources. It’s not like this hasn’t been in the regulations since they were first published in 2001, but the buck is finally stopping here.

USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) updated two sections of their Audit Checklists to include the natural resources standard that requires farmers, ranchers, wild harvesters, and processors to “maintain or improve the natural resources of the operation, including soil, water, wetlands, woodlands and wildlife.” These Checklists are used by the NOP to accredit certification agencies in the U.S. and around the world.

Lynn Coody, of Organic Agsystems Consulting, who assists many organic certification agencies in maintaining full compliance with NOP regulations, says, “I am so pleased that the NOP has finally revised its accreditation checklists so that they clearly prompt collection of information about certifiers’ efforts to check on biodiversity and natural resources during inspections of organic operations.”

Not Done Yet

Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition says, “Now it could (eventually) get interesting.  For the first time, the conservation “in theory” part of organic certification may actually have to mean something tangible.  Just how tangible remains to be seen, but this is a very important advance.”

If all goes well, detailed direction from the NOP should be coming out later this year. In May, Wild Farm Alliance (WFA) with the help of many organic certifiers and others, submitted draft Biodiversity/Natural Resource Conservation Guidance for the NOP’s consideration for inclusion in their Handbook. Ideally, the NOP would publish this or something similar soon; so that organic certification agencies clearly understand how they are expected to comply and can smoothly pass their accreditation.

The Ice is Melting

Wild Farm Alliance and others have been trying for years to breakthrough to the NOP, so that they would require compliance of the biodiversity and natural resources conservation regulations. In 2005, with our assistance, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) adopted a set of biodiversity inspection questions into their model farm plan. That same year, WFA published Biodiversity Conservation guides for organic farmers and certifiers. The NOP continued to ponder, very slowly embracing conservation when in 2008 with a change in leadership, biodiversity made it to third on their priority list, and we cheered. But then it languished amidst all the competing priorities that had accumulated from previous years.

In 2009 to jump-start the process, WFA published a biodiversity conservation compliance guide for certifiers, and the NOSB took a fervent stance recommending that the NOP comprehensively address biodiversity conservation, from farmers and certifiers to the NOP. It wasn’t until last year that the ice started to melt and the NOP published their own Organic System Plan to include a list of practices operators can use to comply with this and other biodiversity and natural resource conservation related requirements.

Organic Operations and Wild Nature Benefit

Not just individuals, but whole populations of species will now benefit from the USDA accrediting only those certifiers who comply with the natural resource standard. Coody states, “As a result of this change, every certified organic operation will now be documenting their efforts to maintain or improve natural resources.”

Almost 5 million acres were organically managed in the U.S. in 2008. With retail sales growing a third from 2008 to 2011 (from $21.1 billion to $31.4 billion), the land managed organically continues to increase significantly, and will now be havens for ecosystem processes that support soil microorganisms important for food safety, native pollinators that are in decline, and beneficial predatory insects, birds, bats, and four-footed creatures that keep pests in check.

More organic lands will be supporting native plants that yield food and cover for these species, and as biodiversity increases, it will lead to an ecological balance between pests and prey. Wetlands and riparian areas will be conserved to help keep water clean for human and wild communities, and will serve as wildlife stepping-stones to wilder landscapes.

Support Is Strong

Former NOSB chair Jim Riddle, stated, “The NOSB adopted a recommendation years ago to strengthen compliance with existing conservation and biodiversity requirements, and we encountered no opposition. I’m pleased that the NOP has finally taken action to make it clear that organic farmers and ranchers must ‘promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity’ as stated in the definition of ‘organic production’.”

Ever since WFA started working on this issue, we have suspected that the majority of farmers would support biodiversity conservation compliance because they value ecosystem functions, and this has played out in NOSB meetings. Besides, who in their right mind will stand up and say they are against biodiversity and natural resources conservation, without giving themselves and organic a black eye. Many organic companies tout that their practices are nature-friendly. Kashi talks about “farming practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony,” Nature’s Path discusses “improved farm biodiversity” and Cascadian says their “organic farming methods help protect and nurture the environment.”

There are others who have held the biodiversity conservation banner high for organic agriculture over the years. Independent Organic Inspector Association makes sure biodiversity conservation is covered in their organic inspector trainings, Rodale Institute in their educational efforts, and most sustainable agriculture conferences address some aspect of it every year. Most laudably, some certifiers have been complying with biodiversity regulations since the NOSB first took action in 2005, such as Florida Organic Growers, and others such as the newly merged CCOF/Oregon Tilth, and Idaho Dept. of Agriculture’s Organic Program began complying after that.

USDA NRCS

Another branch of the USDA–Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)–is more recently supporting organic farmers. NRCS now helps farmers who apply with the cost of certification and have reimbursed them more than 6 million dollars. Currently, WFA is part of a team that is helping NRCS serve organic farmers better, and this includes identifying how best wildlife and biodiversity supporting practice standards can work for organic farms and ranches.

Changing the Landscape

Farming is not done in a vacuum. Whatever a good farmer does, whether organic or not, the farm community notices. Organic farmers are innovators by nature, and their practices often serve as models for others. Accordingly, organic certifier compliance with the natural resource standard should have a rippling effect through U.S. farmscapes. Not that long ago ‘organic’ was a seldom-used word–it was a new ‘way’ of farming–a kind of daydream. Born out of a fire in the bellies of people who care for the land and all its inhabitants, organic climbed to 4.2% of U.S. retail food sales in 2010, and has proven otherwise.

Worthy of the USDA Organic Seal

Now there is a pause before more is issued from the NOP. We are glad to see definitive action taken with the audit checklists and are looking forward to the completion of this process with further direction issued from the NOP. USDA’s program is finally starting to speak up for the soil micro organisms, clear flowing streams, wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife; for biodiversity and natural resources conservation that leads to a resilience in our food systems and ecosystems, and helps these farmers and others market a product worthy of its seal.

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