(July 30) The swath of organic agriculture is growing wider, and that is having implications for public policy and produce politics.

The July meeting of the Fruit & Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee was one example of the higher profile organic agriculture is taking. Only a footnote in four previous meetings of the committee, organic agriculture was the focus of two speakers.

What’s more, the gathering also attracted input from an organic industry leader.

Vanessa Bogenholm, owner of VB Farms, Watsonville, Calif., and chairwoman of the California Certified Organic Farmers, Santa Cruz, urged the panel to take action to recommend improved protections for organic agriculture from contamination from genetically modified crops.

“It is great to be able to bring an issue to a group like this as a sounding board,” she said.

She also applauded the presence on the committee of Todd Linsky, director of organic sales for Grimmway Farms/Cal-Organic Vegetable Co., Bakersfield, Calif.

At the meeting, Linsky noted that organic is a $10.8 billion business — and 42% of that market is fruits and vegetables.

Linsky discussed ways the 2-year old USDA’s National Organic Program could interact better with the National Organic Standards Board, an organic industry advisory body.

Though Linsky did not ask the committee to forward any recommendations to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, he raised several issues for future consideration, including the need for stronger safeguards on genetically modified crops.

EXEMPTIONS

One speaker, Margaret Irby, chief of the Research and Promotion Branch of fruit and vegetable programs with the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, reviewed a controversial rule, which was proposed April 26, that would allow growers with 100% organic production to be exempted from paying assessments on federal marketing orders or federal promotion plans.

Irby noted that the 2002 farm bill asked the USDA to issue regulations that would exempt producers and marketers who do not produce any nonorganic products from paying assessment under a commodity promotion law.

In the fruit and vegetable arena, national research and promotion programs exist for blueberries, hass avocados, mushrooms, potatoes and watermelons.

COMMENT

In a comment period that was extended from May 26 to June 25, the USDA received 157 electronic comments about the proposed rule. Many asked for clarification of the rule, with some asking for the broadest possible interpretation.

Linsky’s comment suggested that the USDA conduct a poll of the organic industry about the possibility of a federal marketing order for organic promotions.

Comments about that proposed rule can be found at www.ams.usda.gov/2002farmbill/organicexempt/.

Arthur Neal, marketing specialist with the National Organic Program of the AMS, told the committee that the there is frustration in the organic industry over the speed of government action on approving materials.

“Right now the National Organic Standards Board has made recommendations on 24 different materials that have not been federalized,” he said.