Turning the USDA into Sustainability Central
An Interview with Kathleen Merrigan, USDA Deputy Secretary of Agriculture
On the last day of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting in Washington, D.C. this past spring, over 100 people from the organic community visited the corner office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The new deputy secretary of agriculture, Dr. Kathleen Merrigan, offered a special “extended office hours” event at the USDA—opening up her doors to everyone from farmers, processors and nonprofits to the entire NOSB. “I wanted everyone to feel at home and know that this was their USDA as well as every other farmer’s USDA,” she commented. “To me it was an important symbolic thing to do.”
Merrigan was actively involved in the organic industry long before moving into the corner office at the USDA, though. As the senior science and technology advisor to the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee from 1987 to 1992, she played a key role in authoring the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA). In 1995, she began serving as an environmental representative on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). And, in 1999, President Clinton appointed Merrigan as administrator of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), where she oversaw the development of the National Organic Program (NOP).
Given Merrigan's background of fostering the organic movement, the organic community was overjoyed when Obama made the announcement on April 14th that Merrigan was being appointed to the USDA deputy secretary position. Already, she has allocated $50 million in funding to help farmers transition to organic. Other initiatives include conducting a census to collect data to help organic farmers; developing a division within the USDA specific to organic with its own dedicated senior USDA staff; and, ultimately, integrating organic throughout the entire USDA. Merrigan took some time away from her new job in Washington to discuss how she plans on doing this.
OP: At the NOSB meeting, you said that you want to be the “spokesperson for organic” and serve as “sustainability central.” How do you see yourself playing this role? What challenges do you have maintaining support for organic agriculture amid a government that has traditionally supported conventional agriculture?
Merrigan: First of all, I want to say it’s been pretty easy for me so far because I have followed USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. He has already led the way on organic in a number of areas including recently developing the “People’s Garden,” an organic demonstration garden on the front lawn of the USDA.
When I arrived on the scene, I felt I had found a perfect partner. Vilsack is very engaged in issues surrounding organic, locally grown and healthy eating initiatives, so he sees a lot of what this community does as a natural fit to our mandate at the USDA. In terms of this being “sustainability central,” again, that was not Kathleen Merrigan saying “this office is going to be sustainability central for USDA,” it was the command given to me by Secretary Vilsack. I think we’re going to do a lot of exciting things.
Are there obstacles? I think a lot of the obstacles are no longer philosophical but they’re more institutional. For example, I’ve always said the cornerstone of organic agriculture is crop rotation. To fully understand the benefits of certain crop rotations you might need a 15-year research program that takes into account all the different crops within the rotation.
Well, that’s not how our research programs work at the USDA; they’re not funded around 15-year intervals. What do we do about that? What are the markets for these different crops that are enriching to the soil, but may not necessarily have the same kind of market value that other traditional crops have? What can farmers do to make their farms economically viable? There are a lot of things we still need to work on.
Overall though, I think organic needs to permeate throughout the entire USDA. For example, I was involved in setting up the Sustainable Agricultural Research and Educational (SARE) program that was put in the 1990 Farm Bill. For years, anything that had to do with sustainable agriculture was sent to SARE even though it was just a small cooperative research program. Today, sustainability mandates are pervasive throughout USDA. We need that same evolution here with organic; every one of USDA’s 27 agencies should be saying, “Where does organic agriculture fit into what we do?”
Right now too much of the focus is on the NOP, but they are a regulatory program—they should be working on standard setting and enforcement. Instead, everything to do with organic is being channeled to their office. If that workload was dispersed across the many areas of the USDA, the NOP would work better and the organic community would benefit.
OP: You’ve expressed intentions to develop a division in the USDA specific to organic and bring in senior executive employees to run NOP at a division level. Why is this key and what are your goals with this initiative?
Merrigan: Currently, the NOP is one small program in a division of the Agricultural Marketing Service. In my mind, it really should be a stand-alone division. We’re working on that, but if nothing else there certainly needs to be a full-time, senior USDA executive who could just focus on organic. Right now, the person running the NOP does a great job but she has many responsibilities including running the transportation and marketing services, as well as overseeing organic and local food.
Within the USDA, poultry has its own division, livestock and feed has a division and fish has a division—and each has its own senior executive service managers. We actually have already put an advertisement for a senior executive position for organic on the USDA website, which closes June 30th. I’m hoping that many people apply. I wanted this to be not just an internal search, but a full call for all qualified applicants.
Given the resources that the NOP has and its responsibilities, it really merits this change in status. The NOP is responsible for managing nearly $25 million; $23.5 million of that is cost- share money, $2.6 million is the operating budget.
If we have our way with the 2010 budget proposal and get the increase we requested, it would end up being almost a $30 million program. That’s sufficient to justify a stand-alone program in my opinion and certainly enough for someone to justify spending 100 percent of their time managing the program.
OP: In May, you released $50 million in funding to encourage organic production. Although the timeframe was very short on this, did you have a good response from farmers and do you think that this kind of funding will be available again next year?
Merrigan: It was a such a joyful day when I was able to make that announcement! And, yes, we’ve had a good response. It was a very short turnaround because we are required to get the funds out this fiscal year. Between May 11th and June 1st, we had 518 applications from producers seeking funds to help them transition to organic and 594 applications from certified operations, a total of 1,112 applications nationwide. We think it’s an excellent response in just a few weeks, but because of the strong interest, the chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) directed the state conservation offices to consider extending the May 29th application deadline to allow for greater participation. Twenty-eight states chose to extend the sign-up, with some extensions as late as August 15th. Those interested can find out more at www.nrcs.usda.gov/program/equip/organic.
NRCS has been really great as they were shaping this program, and even had a national teleconference with organic producer groups and other organizations. We’ll continue to work closely with the organic community as this program evolves over the years.
OP: The USDA has recently developed a census specific to organic. How will this positively impact the industry?
Merrigan: The organic production survey is a direct response to the growing interest in organics among consumers, farmers, businesses and others. The most recent census of agriculture accounted for more than 20,000 U.S. farms engaging in organic production. This kind of data will be used to shape what we do here at the USDA and to inform congressional members who often ask us questions about organic production. It’s also an opportunity for organic producers to share their voices and ensure continued growth. There are so many important trends that could be deciphered from this census data. It’s really highly recommended reading.
OP: You also mentioned that “there is still a lot of standards work for NOSB to do,” and that organic is “entering an era of enforcement and equivalency.” Can you expand on this and what needs to happen to bring this next phase of organic into existence?
Merrigan: There will always be a lot of standards work to do. As we all know, one of the fundamental concepts of organic is continual improvement. The standards are always going to be changing. There are definitely some areas we left on the “to do” list when we did the final rule at the end of 2000—and a lot of those things are still yet to be done. Putting more flesh on the animal production standard would be one of them, as well as addressing hydroponics standards and aquaculture standards. But, if I had to say what’s on the horizon for the NOP in the big picture, it’s exactly what I said at the NOSB— equivalency and enforcement.
As far as equivalency, we’re fairly confident we’ll have a historical agreement with Canada soon that will be beneficial for our producers and consumers. Equivalency means that our producers won’t have to learn another set of standards and that means reducing the cost of certifications. It will help trade continue to move smoothly, and that benefits everyone.
Achieving this is the first step toward global harmonization. I’m sure that once the first equivalency agreement is signed and ratified, there’ll be many other countries clamoring to do the same. Then we start talking about what makes good organic standards at a whole different nosebleed-level. It’s going to take some time and resources but I think it’s important to do.
In terms of enforcement, the integrity of the organic label is fundamental to the growth of this industry. If consumers don’t have confidence in the label, industry growth will stall—it’s just that simple. It’s not a matter of expanding standards, but making sure the standards we have are enforced. I understand that it takes a while for standards to really sink in and for people to fully understand the rules of the game.
But, the honeymoon is over. It’s time to show the world that our standards have teeth; that we mean them and if people are not adhering to the standards, they’re going to be kicked out of the program. It will take staff work and it will take eyes out in the field because the USDA can’t be everywhere all the time. Part of our enforcement program has to be based on whistle blowing within the industry itself.
OP: What other challenges do you see for organic? Do you have suggestions about ways in which the industry will be able to meet these?
Merrigan: I’m going to tell you what I think the biggest challenge is—and I know I’m like a broken record on this, or a broken CD or iPhone—but the point is that the biggest challenge the organic community faces is internal. It is about not letting the “perfect” be the enemy of the “good”; not to self-destruct by pointing accusing fingers at each other.
There’s definitely a need for whistle blowing on enforcement issues, but I think this community sometimes explodes issues unnecessarily on the front pages of the newspapers, which leads to consumer confusion and erosion in belief for the organic label. People need to keep their eyes on the prize and think of this as a long-term haul and to just be really cautious before they throw bombs.
OP: How do you think the Obama administration is going to help support organic growth, and what opportunities do you see for organic now that there’s finally support from Washington?
Merrigan: President Obama and the First Lady are deeply interested in healthy food choices and are particularly concerned about the childhood obesity epidemic in this country.
More than ever, they are going to bring visibility to the issues of healthy eating. That presents those of us working at USDA with great opportunities, as well as great opportunities for those in the organic community.