THE DETAILS: "Overall, the cuts to conservation are pretty massive," says Greg Fogel, policy associate for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. Conservation programs, which were cut by $39 million, provide funding to farmers who protect environmentally sensitive areas by doing things like planting crops to prevent erosion or restore wildlife habitats or initiating farming practices that protect groundwater for rural residents.
A few other programs intended to support farmers who want to convert their farms to organics were cut as well. The Organic Transitions Research Program received the 20 percent cuts that were outlined in the very first House budget proposal that aimed to slash $60 billion overall from the budget. The Environmental Quality Incentive Program, which supports farmers who want to convert to organic, was cut $350 million, the largest single cut to the program ever. Also hit: direct and guaranteed conservation loans, which are popular among beginning and minority farmers, and among the tools farmers find helpful in converting from traditional to more sustainable farming methods. "Once again, conservation and rural development and beginning, minority farmers—these are the constituencies that were targeted. More traditional farm supports didn't get cut at all," Fogel says.
WHAT IT MEANS: These budget cuts seem to be sending mixed messages about what the Obama administration believes is the best way to feed—and employ—America. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack "is a big proponent of funding the resurgence of rural America," Fogel says, adding that the secretary has set a goal of creating 100,000 new farmers, all the while cutting funding to programs that help get their new farms up and running. Vilsack even addressed a crowd of organic food advocates recently stating that his agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), "is creating financial assistance for organics because we recognize organic as part of the strategy to rebuild rural America." That, however, came after a spate of approvals of genetically engineered (GE) crops earlier this year, including GE alfalfa, the mere existence of which could threaten the entire future of organic livestock production.
And as first lady Michelle Obama replants her organic White House garden for a third year, sustainable food activist Marion Nestle, PhD, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health, and author of Food Politics (University of California Press, 2007), has suggested that Obama is trying to appease Monsanto, the primary producer of GE crops, in an effort to appear more business-friendly.
All this contradictory back talk sets up a tough hurdle for organic farmers in the upcoming 2012 Farm Bill negotiations. The Farm Bill, which comes up for renewal every five years, is where budget decisions related to agriculture are made. "Anything done now is going to be used as a bar for moving forward in those discussions," Fogel says.
What's an organic food proponent to do while the politicians say one thing and do another? Try this:
• Petition your politicians. The House of Representatives' "Organic Caucus" has re-formed after a long period of inactivity, and so far, includes both Republican and Democratic lawmakers. The Organic Farming Research Foundation was one of groups behind the first such caucus, formed in 2003, and says on its website that it will provide pertinent information to members and their staffs about organic farming methods, what the term "organic" means, the USDA's organic programs, and major issues facing the organic industry. Representatives can then use that information to promote organic agriculture in their districts. The organization has instructions on its website for calling your representative and getting him or her to join the caucus.
• Demand organic! And keep doing it if you already buy nothing but organic food. It's the most effective way to show support for the food and farming systems you'd like to see funded by the government.