Although all food producers are subject to food safety rules, organic farmers face unique challenges in trying to also work out incongruities between National Organic Program standards and third-party food safety requirements. For instance, organic farmers must support biodiversity, yet some food safety organizations pressure them to limit habitat and wildlife on or near their farms despite a lack of evidence connecting food safety and biodiversity. To date, little data has been collected on synthesizing current conditions and specific research needs challenging the organic community on the juxtapositioning of organic practices and some food safety requirements.
To address these concerns, USDA’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Institute (OREI) has awarded a $50,000 planning grant for the University of Rhode Island in collaboration with The Organic Center and a diverse team of researchers, organizations, and farmers.
The planning grant will help fill the current data gap by conducting a needs assessment using a national survey and convening a multi-stakeholder summit to pinpoint the most challenging incongruities between food safety and NOP policies. These activities will determine which producers are most impacted, which food safety requirements are most difficult to synchronize with NOP standards, and which research opportunities can best address these conflicts. In the effort, The Organic Center and University of Rhode Island will collaborate with organic farmers, certifiers and researchers to develop a full OREI research proposal for 2023 submission.
The long-term goal of the project is to provide organic growers and industry members with cost-effective and organic-compliant tools to mitigate food safety risk and retain third-party certification.
“While organic food does not have as many contamination events as conventional crops, it is more difficult for organic farmers to meet the demands of third-party food safety certifications, because those third-party standards don’t incorporate sustainability goals such as maintaining biodiversity. Our goal is to identify these tensions, and develop a research program to address them,” says Dr. Jessica Shade, Director of Science Programs at The Organic Center.
“Today’s farming systems must meet a wide array of demands for safety, health, and sustainability—and that’s on top of the need to simply stay in business. Organic farmers already know and grapple with this truth—they’ve been at the forefront of innovations to reduce the environmental and health impacts of industrial agriculture for decades. I’m excited that USDA is investing in this research to help our regulatory systems better recognize and support the organic sector’s need to harmonize consumer safety and sustainability goals,” says Dr. Patrick Baur, lead Project Investigator from the University of Rhode Island, Johanna Mirenda, Farm Policy Director for the Organic Trade Association, is participating in the project’s Advisory Board. In her role at the Organic Trade Association, she develops policy strategy through producer engagement, and is primary staff for the trade association’s Farmers Advisory Council. She is an expert in organic regulations, and was the technical director for the Organic Materials Review Institute and policy director for Pennsylvanian Certified Organic prior to her current role.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Vanderzyl, Director of Technical Services at Organic Trade Association member Duncan Family Farms, is a co-investigator on the project.
“This project will address a critical area of need within the organic sector, and will be the first step in providing organic growers and industry members with organic-appropriate tools and strategies to mitigate food safety risk while retaining third-party certification viability,” says Vanderzyl.
OREI helps support wide ranging research projects that specifically address the most critical issues impacting organic growers. The 2018 Farm Bill approved increasing funding for OREI to $50 million per year by 2023, thus establishing permanent funding for the program. For the current 2021 funding round, this amount increased from $20 million to $25 million. In 2022, the amount will increase to $30 million. In 2023, the program funding amount will be capped at annual distribution of $50 million.
The Organic Center’s mission is to convene credible, evidence-based science on the health and environmental impacts of organic food and farming and to communicate the findings to the public. The Center is an independent non-profit 501(c)(3) research and education organization operating under the administrative auspices of the Organic Trade Association.