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USDA Transitional Certification Program Makes It Easier for Farmers to Go Organic

Image Credit: Organic Center

According to the USDA, demand for organic foods and products have grown significantly every year since the 1990s. But despite increasing popularity, organic acreage hasn’t been able to keep up. Only one percent of US farmland is currently dedicated to organic farming, and those looking to make the transition to organic face real barriers. A new US Department of Agriculture program hopes to change all that, promising to make the switchover to organic easier for farmers by allowing them to sell their products as certified transitional at a premium price and help encourage more organic production.

Using standards developed by the Organic Trade Association (OTA), the National Certified Transitional Program will provide oversight to approved Accredited Organic Certifying Agents offering transitional certification to producers.

While brands such as Kashi have taken their own initiative to incentivize farmers to transition to organic, the USDA announcement marks an important step in the expansion of certified organic acreage in the United States. The new OTA designed the certified transitional program to create a consistent mechanism for certifying agencies to document operations’ adherence to organic regulations on land in transition to organic status.

“The transitional certification program developed by OTA reflects perspectives from across the supply chain, and will provide an on-ramp to producers while safeguarding organic as the gold standard of food label claims,” said Nate Lewis, Farm Policy Director for OTA.

“USDA is excited to work with the Organic Trade Association on the National Certified Transitional Program, providing producers with a consistent transitional standard to market their products,” said USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service Administrator Elanor Starmer. “This program will help those transitioning to organic agriculture, encourage domestic production of organic products, and ultimately support the continued growth of organic agriculture in the United States.”

As it stands, farmers must undergo a rigorous and potentially challenging transition period of 36 months before they can gain organic certification and market their products as certified organic. The new USDA program will harmonize existing transitional certification programs currently operated by Accredited Certifying Agents and provide a mechanism for additional certifiers to offer this service to new clients. The program is recognized by the USDA Quality Systems Assessment Program, housed within the Agricultural Marketing Service branch. USDA will accredit organic certification agencies that comply with the National Certified Transitional Program criteria, enabling those agencies to conduct certification of producers operating in accordance with the OTA-developed standards.

Certification has the potential to help farmers overcome barriers such as decreased yields during the long transition, which discourages many producers from pursuing organic farming, as well as qualify them for federal grants previously out of reach.

USDA oversight to certifying agents offering transitional certification to producers will consist of certifier audits and a uniform transitional production standard for both crop and livestock producers. Farmers will need to prove their land has been free of prohibited substances (synthetic pesticides and fertilizers) for a minimum of 12 months and must follow all other organic production standards to achieve transitional certification, including crop rotation, the fostering and conserving of biodiversity, and the avoidance of the use of genetic engineered inputs. Once eligible for organic certification, land can only enter into the transitional certification program one more time. This provision, unique to the OTA standards, will ensure that transitional certification acts as an effective on-ramp to organic production rather than a mechanism to create an “organic-light” marketing term.

The new program does not include certification of products labeled as “transitional” in the marketplace and is limited only to producers working towards their own organic certification. OTA anticipates working with certifiers, food manufacturers, and retailers to develop appropriate market-driven guidelines for proper use of the term “transitional” on consumer packaged goods.

USDA will accept applications for the first round from Accredited Certifying Agents through February 2017 to gain oversight for the transitional program, and on-site reviews of these certifying agents will occur at their next organic accreditation audit. Further applications will be accepted on an ongoing basis.

This program dovetails with USDA’s announcement in December that it would expand the reach of the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program to include transitional certification fees. USDA’s recent initiatives will bring more opportunity to farmers and handlers across the country, and they represent additional elements of solid federal support for the growth of the organic sector.


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