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Defying Markets to Promote Organics

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eye on the news

Defying Markets to Promote Organics

In the midst of historic inflation, the Department of Agriculture is pumping millions in taxpayer subsidies to support the overpriced, overhyped organic food industry. September 12, 2022
Economy, finance, and budgets
Politics and law

Advocates of President Biden’s 2021 American Rescue Plan touted the $1.9 trillion-dollar stimulus bill as a vehicle for various goals—to fund a national vaccination program, stop Covid-19, and reopen schools. Who could be against any of that?

Those who questioned the price tag back then would like to direct you to the White House’s American Rescue Plan webpage, which now celebrates the bill as “one of the most progressive pieces of legislation in history.” The reality is that the Covid recovery bill is being revealed for what it was always intended to be: a slush fund for Biden administration pet projects, giveaways to narrow special interests, and ideological wish lists. The scope of the bait and switch legislation is becoming more evident as the Biden administration continues to dole out those taxpayer dollars.

Last month, for example, the Department of Agriculture announced a new $300 million program, much of it funded from the American Rescue Plan. Was it a program to help growers implement modern agricultural technologies to increase crop yields and bring down the cost of domestically grown food? Or maybe even produce new vaccines in genetically engineered plants? Far from it. In fact, the USDA’s new program—the New Organic Transition Initiative—will achieve exactly the opposite. The plan is to prop up organic farming, and the market for it, by misleading consumers about organic’s benefits.

Market forces have led to a slowdown in the growth of the organic food market. According to the USDA’s announcement of the new initiative, “the number of non-certified organic farms actively transitioning to organic production dropped by nearly 71 percent since 2008.” In response, Biden’s USDA will use Covid stimulus dollars to buck natural market trends—in the midst of record inflation, no less—to “build new and better markets and streams of income for farmers and producers.” Delicately acknowledging the higher cost of organic foods, the USDA says that organic foods “hold a unique position in the marketplace and thus take home a greater share of the food dollar.” Translation: They’re far more expensive. If you doubt this, simply leave your wallet at home and visit your neighborhood Whole Foods Market.

This might be a good time for a reminder of what then–Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman said when USDA announced organic food standards in 2000: “Let me be clear about one thing, the organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.”

We’ve previously written that the organic label is a cynical marketing tool “because so many unsuspecting consumers are ripped off by the higher prices of organic products, without palpable benefit.” That’s why, far from setting standards for organic agricultural practices—or, in fact, being involved in any way—the feds should fully extricate themselves from defining “organic.” That definition would be best adjudicated by the marketplace, at the expense of those willing to pay the premium.

But now, the USDA isn’t just certifying organic foods, it’s preparing to prop up the entire industry, from farm to table, in spite of clear messages from the marketplace that organic’s heyday is waning. The USDA promises (threatens?) that the initiative will, among other things, deliver technical assistance, “[i]ncluding farmer to farmer mentoring” and “direct support” in order to persuade conventional farmers to join their organic cult.

The federal largesse will also “support market development projects in targeted markets.” For those not steeped in Washington Speak, this means that the bureaucrats could, for example, commission a study intended to find that lower-income, inner-city residents “lack access” to organic produce. (Higher-priced, often-lower-quality organic produce, that is.) Then, the USDA would remedy this “inequity” through a costly, federally funded targeted marketing campaign by means of advertisements at bus stops in some of America’s most troubled zip codes. (Bureaucrats are not adept at solving real problems, but they’re inventive when it comes to squandering money on pet projects.)

Even by the standard of myriad poorly conceived and profligate federal programs, this one is absurd. More and more Americans are struggling to pay for groceries, and it’s an ongoing challenge to encourage consumers to eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Now, the federal agency charged with promoting U.S. agriculture and Americans’ nutrition is foolishly trying to convert more of the country’s farming to practices that produce lower yields and higher CO2 emissions—and products no healthier or safer than those from conventional agriculture.

Propping up the organic food industry would increase the cost of U.S.-grown food over the long-term, while doing nothing to help consumers struggling with high food prices brought on in part, ironically enough, by Biden’s boondoggle bill. This wrongheaded plan should remind legislators who control the purse strings and perform oversight over federal departments, and anyone who votes for them, about the danger of giving blank checks to any administration, regardless of its ideology.

Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

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