Organic Standards?

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, January 9, 1998

The recently released proposed rules for the National Organic Program are like a sick joke played by a macabre Department of Agriculture on today's organic growers and consumers.

When finalized, these rules will define organic food and agriculture in this country. They were developed to comply with the Organic Foods Production Act ( OFPA), which Congress passed over seven years ago. The OFPA is generally regarded by the organic community as a decent piece of legislation. However, grassroots organic leaders have called the proposed rules "too outrageous to be believable," "insidiously cynical at best and fraudulently illegal, at worst," "a disaster," and "completely disingenuous and manipulative."

Organic agriculture is based on an evolving set of principles developed by gardeners, and farmers over the last 50 years from the best of traditional agricultural practices. Its major premise is that healthy soil produces healthy plants and animals. Organic growers build healthy soil by using compost, crop rotations and green manures.

Recently, Americans have been buying 20% more organic food each year, in part because many people are beginning to understand the frightening realities of the mainstream food system. These include the widespread use of toxic pesticides, harsh fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, genetic engineering, intensive animal factories, and giant monocultures, just for starters. Recent problems with bacterial contamination of food and rivers, calls for food irradiation, and information about the desperate conditions of many farm workers only add to the justifiable skepticism about current trends in the conventional food system.

Meanwhile, organic farmers and certification organizations have been responding to the public's desire for more wholesome food. Connecticut's certifying agency, NOFA, has tightened up its standards as more hazards in the current food system are discovered. Pressure-treated wood was banned on organic farms because it can leach heavy metals into the soil. Raw manure has been regulated because of the danger of bacterial contamination. Genetically-engineered seeds and organisms have been banned. Last year, NOFA's Massachusetts chapter successfully fought to have the state's Water Resources Authority remove the word "organic" from its bags of composted sewage sludge, which often contain heavy metals and other serious contaminants.

However, the new Federal organic standards do allow pressure-treated wood, raw manure, sewage sludge and genetically engineered plants and animals, as well as allowing irradiation, synthetic chemical inputs on the farm and in food processing, confinement animal factories, treated seeds, monocultures and more. In short, many of the worst features of the current food system will be allowed to be called "organic."

That's not all. The USDA wants to charge certifying organizations, like NOFA, exorbitant fees for accreditation. These and direct fees for farmers will greatly increase expenses for those who have been working for years to minimize the social and environmental costs of agriculture. Despite Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman's contention at his press conference that the rules would be of special benefit to small farmers, these costs promise to put many small farmers and certifiers out of business.

And it gets even worse! In giving control of the word "organic" to USDA, the proposed rules trample on the First Amendment rights of farmers. They prohibit the use of terms such as "produced without synthetic pesticides," "produced without synthetic fertilizers," "pesticide-free farm," "no drugs or growth hormones used," "ecologically-produced," and "humanely-raised." Apparently, a National Organic Program needs to prohibit free speech in order to maintain the fiction that food produced by its proposed rules is "organic." It's really just another value-added option. Do you want your "Happy Meal"TM regular or "organic?"

Even if all those problems can be fixed, the organic label will still say nothing about the pay and the employment conditions of farm workers or about the energy that was consumed and the pollution created to get that food to your table. It will include no information about the large multinational corporation which owns the folksy sounding organic trademark.

The USDA solicited public input through the National Organic Standards Board, which held five years of hearings, and then ignored or distorted many of its recommendations. The USDA is now taking public comments on the proposed rules. Maybe if enough of us respond, the rules will be improved. I'm not optimistic.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1998 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.