The Department of Agriculture has announced it is delaying for six months the effective date of the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices final rule and reopening it to comments, reigniting a debate over what it should include, and the essence of what it means to be organic.
Is it about science, or is it about ideology?
The rule amends the organic livestock and poultry production requirements by adding new provisions for avian living conditions and livestock handling and transport for slaughter. It also expands and clarifies existing requirements for livestock care and production practices and mammalian living conditions.
According to proponents, the rule seeks to align organic livestock, poultry and egg production practices with consumer “expectations.” That seems a bit subjective as a standard. What do consumers expect? And aren’t those expectations subject to change without much notice?
Though never stated, a secondary purpose of the rule seems to be to limit the size of organic livestock and poultry operations by increasing the amount of outdoor space required. The more outdoor space required, the less any given farm can produce.
A happy byproduct of the rule would be to limit supply and maintain the premium for organic products.
The target, we suspect, are the large so-called “factory farms” producing under the current organic standards. Those farms produce commercial quantities at an economy of scale smaller operations are unable to match.
For purists, those farms — even if they follow the letter of the law — are anathema to their idea of organic production.
While we respect the sentiment, we’ve always believed the rules should be both secular and scale neutral. The proposed rule is at least half that. The rule is bad for bigger farms, good for smaller producers who benefit from a relative scarcity of the product in question.
The USDA takes a more optimistic view: “The new detailed standards for the non-ruminant (poultry and swine) sectors will support the continued growth of organic poultry, eggs, and pork in particular.”
We’re not so sure the rule will do anything to increase the amount of product available to consumers. It will ensure that the economies of scale will be limited, and the definition of “large” will be altered.
The Organic Trade Association, which represents 350 producers, supports the rule. We agree with it when it says there’s nothing new that will be learned in the extended comment period. There are no new arguments to be made.
“Any additional comment period,” it says, “will only serve to demonstrate that the organic industry and consumer want the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule to become effective, in its entirety.”
If that’s the case, the rule as written will be adopted. Giving USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue a little time to digest what has already been said won’t hurt.