CORNUCOPIA, Wis. -- President Obama and new USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack are being urged to take immediate action to repair the USDA's increasingly dysfunctional National Organic Program (NOP). Suspect imports of grains, nuts, and vegetables from China and other countries, questionable organic milk, beef, and eggs from giant factory farms, and the erosion of opportunity for family farmers are plaguing the organic sector.

Consumer demand for organic production has skyrocketed in recent years, propelling organics into an over $20 billion dollar a year business. This has encouraged some large corporations, factory farms, and foreign producers to move into the U.S. organic business--but without upholding federal organic production standards.

On Feb. 12, The Cornucopia Institute, a national organic watchdog representing family farmers, sent a briefing paper to President Obama and Secretary Vilsack specifically asking that they take "a very strong and proactive posture in turning around management at the National Organic Program."

"The stewardship of the organic program at the USDA has been an absolute abomination," said Mark A. Kastel, Cornucopia's senior farm policy analyst. "It was not just management by neglect -- it was an intentional monkeywrenching of the department's organic industry oversight."

A first sign that the new administration at the USDA is taking concerns of organic and sustainable farming interests to heart, occurred Feb. 23 when Secretary Vilsack announced the appointment of Dr. Kathleen Merrigan, a Tufts University assistant professor, as USDA Deputy Secretary.

"I cannot think of a more qualified public policy expert to take on this important role at what Abraham Lincoln called the 'people's department,'" Kastel affirmed.

In the last several years, audits prepared by the American National Standards Institute and the Inspector General's office blasted the NOP for failing to ensure that independent organic certification agencies are competent and properly performing their jobs. A Peer Review Panel--fundamental to ensuring competent certification--has never been established.

Technical Advisory Panels remain underfunded or unused. Furthermore, dozens of policy resolutions adopted by the National Organic Standards Board, the expert citizen advisory panel to the NOP, have never been reviewed or implemented.

During the Bush administration political appointees at the USDA significantly softened penalties for organic lawbreakers, overruling stiff enforcement actions recommended by career civil servants for factory farms found willfully violating federal organic standards. Other complaints detailing abuses on factory farms were quashed or went uninvestigated.

"If organic food production and eating had not caught on so well, we wouldn't see these scofflaws doing their thing," observed Merrill Clark, a certified organic livestock farmer from Michigan and former member of the National Organic Standards Board. Clark added, "It's time to change the culture at the USDA."

The Cornucopia Institute has launched a "Change@USDA" campaign, helping organic community stakeholders unite for rehabilitation of the NOP. The farm group will hand-deliver letters to both Mr. Obama and Secretary Vilsack from farmers and consumers supporting a management shakeup at the National Organic Program.

SOURCE: The Cornucopia Institute via PR Newswire.