No Love from Congress

March 2nd, 2011 | Simcha Weinstein | Comments Off on No Love from Congress

Will the new Republican led House of Representatives show the environment and organic industry some love? Hardly. Here’s a glimpse at a couple of their new initiatives in their first six weeks of running the House.

– In 2007, when Democratic Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi became Speaker of the House, she implemented an initiative she called “Green the Capitol”. This program attempted to change the way members and their staffs think about energy and the environment in their daily work lives, emphasizing recycling and energy efficiency. According to the House chief administrative officer, the program has diverted more than 75,000 pounds of waste from landfills, cut more than 400,000 pounds of carbon emissions and saved more than 175,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity. The plan successfully reduced energy consumption by 23 percent and water consumption by 32 percent throughout Capitol buildings, according to an April 2010 report.

Of course there were complaints. After all, how can a Congressman eat their steak lunches with corn-based biodegradable utensils and not have the knife and fork be a little awkward. The bending and breaking – totally unacceptable. Clearly our representatives deserve better, after all, every American can certainly feel the pain of someone making $175,000 a year struggling to manage their steak lunch.

So, as the Republicans just put forth their new budget with spending cuts, guess what program was eliminated? Yep, no more funding for the Green the Capitol Program. As with most environmental programs, it’s easy to make a case that the spending is too much because it’s only the upfront cost that is ever examined and never the long term cost of the damage that destroying and/or cleaning up the environment will cost us over the long term. If that cost were factored in, it wouldn’t even be close in terms of which strategy costs the most money. Oh well, at least there is celebration in the halls of Congress – Styrofoam cups are back. Yippee.

– As part of the proposed spending cuts put forth by the Republicans there are cuts that include eliminating funding for the Department of Energy’s Energy Star program, as well as state grants for home weatherization projects, but of most concern to supporters of organic farming is the proposed elimination of the National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program, a program set up to reimburse farmers up to 75 percent of the costs required to pay for organic certification, with the maximum amount refunded being $750. The bill says that cutting funding to the program would save $22.2 million – a paltry amount compared to what Congress spends annually. The proposed cuts to the National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program are the only cuts to the agriculture funding in the bill, with the exception of $14 million in cuts to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Sugar program, designed to keep domestic sugar prices lower than those of sugar imports. As for the billions of dollars in farm subsidies that go out to the large agribusiness farmers, well, they managed to come out unscathed. Surprise. Let’s cut organic farming but let’s reward the largest and most profitable conventional farmers with money they don’t even need.

The USDA devotes a slim 1 percent of its budget to organic agriculture, and the cost-sharing program doles out an average of about $300 a year per farm. On the flip side, some of the nation’s largest non-organic, chemical-based farms received $2 million in 2009 alone for subsidies on commodity crops such as corn, cotton, soy and wheat, according to data compiled by the Environmental Working Group (in 2009, the federal government doled out a total of $7 billion in subsidies to farmers growing just corn). It’s good to see that we’re taking care of those in need.

It’s easy to be a little “tongue-in-cheek” when writing about this stuff (almost necessary for without a slight bit of humor, it becomes way too depressing), but it is important to take these moves seriously and it is important that we take action. Here’s what you can do:

• Call your congressmen. “If you’re a farmer, tell them what the program means to you, and if you’re a consumer, why organic is important to you”. This excellent advice from Liana Hoodes, director of the National Organic Coalition, a Washington nonprofit that represents farmers, ranchers, consumers, and anyone else who has an interest in organic agriculture.

• Stay informed. Groups like the National Organic Coalition, the Organic Farming Research Foundation and the Organic Trade Association will be voicing concerns on behalf of farmers and consumers as the next Farm Bill gets drafted, which will begin later this year.