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Organic Farming

Farm Bills: the farm bill is the primary agriculture and food policy tool of the federal government, a bill passed every 5 years or so.  When the 2008 farm bill was enacted, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the total cost of the bill (to taxpayers) at $284 billion over five years.  A major component of the bill has been farm subsidies, some of which are now direct payments to growers. Subsidies were first introduced in the 1930s after the Great Depression when about 25% of the country’s population resided on the nation’s 6,000,000 small farms.  For several decades, industrial scale efficiency is what the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been inclined to encourage. Today these subsidies are no longer really a safety net for small farmers. By 1997, just 157,000 large farms accounted for 72% of all farm sales, with only 2% of the U.S. population residing on farms. Most payments to farmers now go to the huge operations growing so-called “commodity crops” that are also export crops including corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and sugar.

Our Elected Representatives Who Make & Administer Farm Policy: as documented in our film, members of Congress who sit on powerful committees (both agriculture and appropriations) make our nation’s farm and food policy.  These members tend to receive very large campaign contributions from the agribusiness sector, which includes the pesticides and chemical fertilizer industries. As can easily be looked up on the online database at (, members of the House and Senate agriculture committees alone have received a total of more than 12 million dollars from the agribusiness sector thus far for the 2012 election cycle.  Might this campaign money influence what kind of agriculture that our national policy supports?

Commodity Crops: Growers of giant mono-culture commodity crops typically apply large volumes of pesticides and chemical fertilizer, chemicals that find their way into rivers, streams, underground aquifers and eventually into the ocean where they are known to create vast “dead zones.”  While filming in 2009 we met a very wealthy cotton grower in California’s Central Valley who received a government subsidy check that year for over $1,400,000 to grow cotton using a variety of pesticides, some of which are among the most acutely hazardous insecticides to human health as determined by the World Health Organization.  When we asked him why he’s subsidized he answered, “That’s a very good question…they [the Federal Government] don’t seem to be able to make up their mind as to why it’s determined that some crops get subsidies, some crops don’t. For the life of me, I don’t understand it…as I was saying, it’s like smoking; you know it’s bad for you, but it feels so good you don’t want to stop. It’s a tender trap that they get led into, and the biggest misconception is that it’s the safety net.”

Big Money:  The current farm bill provides about $15 billion of subsidies for growing commodity crops. From 1995-2010, just 10 percent of subsidized farms—the largest and wealthiest operations—collected 76% of all commodity payments, with an average total payment over 16 years of $447,873 per recipient. The top 10 percent of recipients still get 63 percent of commodity subsidies in 2010—cash payments that often have the effect of promoting harmful environmental practices.

Organic Farming is a system of management that prioritizes health along with productivity.  Instead of using pesticides and chemical fertilizer, organic farmers use biological methods and management practices such as diversified crop rotations that improve soil quality. Organic food products including fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and meat products contain far less residues of pesticides and other chemical inputs. Organic farming increases soil organic matter, which enhances the soil’s ability to absorb and store carbon, cycle nutrients, and absorb water.  Increased levels of organic matter in soil contributes to greater resilience under stresses including drought and flooding.  High organic matter levels in soil produces crops with a greater ability to resist insect pests and diseases.  A fuller description of these benefits is provided below from a report by the Organic Farming Research Foundation. To learn more about organic farming and the relevance of the farm bill to organic famers, visit Organic Farming Research Foundation at  and

Organic Certification:  In order to use the word “organic” to market a product, a farmer or processor must meet strict regulations to be certified organic.  Although less than 1% of America’s cropland is farmed organically, there are now more than 14,500 certified organic farmers in the United States and demand for organic foods is growing.  By 2015, the number of organic farmers required to meet projected market demand must triple to at least 42,000 organic farmers. To gain certification, a farmer (of cropland, pasture or livestock) submits an organic system plan to an accredited certifier each year. This documents how the farmer adheres to the national organic standards implemented under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program. Certified organic farms and processing facilities undergo annual inspections to verify that they are meeting the standards. Organic inspectors examine all elements of a farm operation for adherence to the standards and verify that the farm is being managed according to the farmer’s organic system plan.

Organic Transition:  Making the transition to organic is not easy for farmers who are more equipped to farm in a conventional manner involving pesticides and chemical fertilizer.  The 2008 Farm Bill has increased the level of support available to farmers wanting to operate in a more sustainable manner through the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCP).  This program provides $22 million over the five years to reimburse farmers up to 75% of the costs of annual organic certification or to a maximum offset of $750. However, it remains a small fraction of the overall support that encourages practices relying on pesticides and chemical fertilizer.

Conservation on Organic Farms:  The 2008 Farm Bill recognized the importance of organic systems in achieving conservation goals, and also acknowledged the historic lack of participation by organic farmers in conservation programs due to lack of access. The bill included provisions in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to improve access to the programs for organic and transition farmers through a cost-share for organic farmers implementing conservation practices. Farmers who are transitioning to organic production for the first time, as well as existing certified organic farmers, are eligible for EQIP Organic Initiative assistance for the implementation of conservation practices.  EQIP operates on a continuous sign-up basis throughout the year, with applications ranked and contracts awarded at specific intervals.  It is a competitive program (one out of every two to three applications is funded on the average).

How Much Support? No specific dollar amount was set aside out of the total EQIP funding to provide organic conversion assistance in the 2008 Farm Bill, but to ensure that the provision is implemented nationwide, USDA allocated $50 million annually for the Organic Initiative from 2009 through 2012.  Congress does at times pass subsequent appropriations legislation that caps the funding level for a particular year for a particular program at less than provided by the farm bill in order to use the resulting savings to fund a different program. Therefore, despite its “mandatory” status, the funding level for a given year could be less than the farm bill dictates should the Appropriations Committee decide to instead fund other programs under its jurisdiction.

Support for Organic Research:  An investment in research underpins growth in any sector.  Organic growers rely on relevant research and extension to improve and increase production. The Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) is the flagship competitive grants program for organic agriculture administered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). OREI is a very competitive program that each year funds only a small number of proposals submitted. The 2008 Farm Bill provided $18 million in FY 2009 and $20 million annually for FY 10-12 for OREI.  In addition, the small but significant Organic Data Initiative (ODI) collects organic statistics, conducts organic price reporting, and releases economic reports on organic food production. Continued growth in organic agriculture relies on access to and understanding of data on the organic sector.

Organic Crop Insurance: Farming is a risky livelihood, and the USDA currently does not provide appropriate risk management tools for organic producers. Organic farmers pay an unjustified surcharge that was based on the false pretense that organic farming has higher risk, and organic farmers are not paid at the higher organic price after a loss. A goal of advocates of organic farming is to make sure the next Farm Bill includes federal crop insurance that works fairly for organic farmers.

Hazards of Agricultural Pesticides to Children *: Three independent studies just published also found that children whose mothers are exposed to common agricultural pesticides are more likely to experience a range of harmful effects to their cognitive development, including lower IQ, as well as impaired reasoning and memory.  The peer-reviewed studies, all funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and published online in Environmental Health Perspectives, found links between delayed cognitive development and both dietary and environmental exposure to some of the most widely used agricultural pesticides. The studies examined individuals from a range of ethnic backgrounds, and those who lived in both rural and urban settings.  The lead researcher of one of the studies, Professor Brenda Eskenazi of the University of California at Berkeley, likened the effects of prenatal pesticide exposure to that of high lead exposure. Lead has been shown to disrupt brain function in young children.

The Benefits of Organic Farming Practices **:

Environmental Benefits:  Crop rotation enhances soil quality, disrupts weed, insect, and disease life cycles, and sequesters carbon and nitrogen. It also diversifies production that can have market benefits. The application of composted manure, compost, nitrogen-fixing cover crops enhances soil quality, sequesters carbon and nitrogen, and contributes to productivity. Cover cropping also reduces erosion, sequesters carbon and nitrogen, and prevents dust (protects air quality). The avoidance of synthetic fertilizers reduces contamination of surface and ground waters, enhances soil quality, sequesters carbon, and can mitigate salinization. Avoidance of synthetic pesticides enhances biodiversity, improves water quality, enhances soil quality, assists in effective pest management, prevents disruption of pollinators, and reduces costs of chemical inputs. Planting habitat corridors, borders, and/or insectaries\enhances biodiversity, supports biological pest management, and provides wildlife habitat. Preserving buffer areas improves water quality, enhances biodiversity, and prevents wind erosion.

Human Health Benefits: Organic farming is specifically designed to grow food without the use of toxic substances.  Exposure to chemicals used in agriculture has been linked to cancer in many parts of the body including the brain and central nervous system, breast, colon, lungs, ovaries, pancreas, kidneys, testes, and stomach, according to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services’ President’s Cancer Panel’s 2010 report. The President’s Cancer Panel examined the impact of environmental factors and the use of synthetic chemicals on cancer risks and recommends that American consumers eat food grown without pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. There is a large body of literature that documents the negative impacts of synthetic pesticide exposure on conventional farmworkers and their families, much of it summarized in the President’s Cancer Panel report. Some of these problems include increased incidence of certain types of cancers by farmworkers and their spouses, increased exposure to pesticides by children living in agricultural areas, and increased incidence of leukemia in children living in agricultural areas.  By not applying toxic synthetic pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides, organic farmers do not contribute to these health issues.

Organic Farming is Good for Job Creation:  As our country has been dramatically affected by the worst economic downturn in 80 years, the organic industry has remained in positive growth territory and has come out of the recession hiring employees, adding farmers, and increasing revenue. The organic industry has grown from $3.6 billion in 1997 to $29 billion in 2010, with an annual growth rate of 19 percent from 1997‐ 2008. The organic agriculture sector grew by 8 percent in 2010. In the United States, 53 percent of organic farms hire labor in comparison to 22 percent for the entire sector. The labor share of production costs is higher on an organic farm for several reasons, primarily because many small‐ and medium‐sized organic farms specialize in growing high‐ value crops such as fruits and vegetables, which typically require more hand labor than field crops.  Organic farms rely on labor‐intensive practices including planting and incorporating cover crops, hand‐ or mechanical tillage, and planting flowering hedgerows or corridors to attract beneficial insects and birds that can control crop pests.

Organic Farming is Good for the Economy:  Organic farming is profitable. Census data shows United States organic farms on average have higher sales, higher production expenses, and higher operating profit than the average for all U.S. farms, creating real opportunity for rural economic livelihood.

Organic Farming is Good for Soil and Water:  Organic farming practices improve soil quality and water quality and retention. Using biological forms of fertilizer such as compost, animal manures, and legume cover crops build organic matter in organically managed soils, even when routine tillage is used for weed control. Building the organic matter in soil increases soil water retention and nurtures more active soil microbial communities that retain nitrogen in the soil longer and transform it into non‐ leachable gaseous forms.  There is a small but telling body of research in the United States that suggests that improved soil quality influences crop ability to withstand or repel insect attack and plant disease.  Organic biological fertilizer sources release their nutrients slowly over time, providing more opportunity for the nitrogen to be digested by soil organisms and taken up by crops before leaching below the root zone. Organic management that utilizes cover crops to take up excess nitrogen recycles nutrients and reduces soil erosion potential. Increased soil organic matter in the soil leads to tighter nutrient cycling and greater water holding capability in organically managed soils, with the result that nitrate leaching into groundwater is about half that of conventionally farmed soils.

Organic Farming is Good for the Birds and the Bees:  Certified organic farmers in the United States are required to “conserve biodiversity” on their farms. Because of their reliance on diversified cropping systems, organic farms are being found to support larger populations of beneficial organisms such as songbirds and pollinators than conventional farms.  One study found that native bee populations supported 50‐100 percent of the pollination needs for a watermelon crop on organic farms and none on conventional farms, which therefore required pollination from honey bees brought in for that purpose.

Mystery of Disappearing Honeybees ***: Without bees, say goodbye to almonds, peaches – even chocolate. Fully 1/3 of the food we eat depends on bees for pollination. So when the insects suddenly started dying off and abandoning their hives in 2006, scientists, beekeepers and farmers sounded the alarm. Researchers dubbed the phenomenon “Colony Collapse Disorder,” and went to work trying to find a cause. As scientists unravel the mystery, they are discovering that exposure to pesticides—perhaps acting in synergy with other stressors—is a prime suspect. Most insecticides are inherently toxic to bees, and a recent study found a cocktail of toxic pesticides in the wax and honey of commercial hives. A new class of insecticides called neonicotinoids has been specifically implicated.



*courtesy of The Organic Trade Association

**courtesy of the Organic Farming Research Foundation

***courtesy of Pesticide Action Network North America

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