A Stealthy Plan

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, January 23, 1998

The recently proposed rules for organic agriculture are perverse and diabolical. They set an abysmally low standard for organic food. They also portend frightening limits on free speech, a doublespeak reminiscent of George Orwell's 1984 and even greater public ignorance about how food is grown and processed. They seem to be part of a stealthy plan to fully integrate sewage sludge, genetic engineering, large- scale animal confinement and irradiation into our food system by preventing growers from ever saying that they don't use any of these technologies.

All of this is just perfect, of course, for the corporations which are pursuing higher profits through dangerous, new agricultural technologies, and for the trade associations and government agencies which support them.

In a recent Washington Post article, Dr. Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists, provides an intriguing example. A chicken, which spent its entire life closed in a building with 100,000 other chickens, eating genetically-engineered corn and soybeans that were grown on land fertilized with sewage sludge, could be called an "organic" chicken under the proposed National Organic Program rules. It could even be irradiated after processing and still be labeled "organic."

It is shocking that these rules propose allowing so many questionable practices to be called "organic." The rules' effects are even more serious, however. In order to prevent competition to its ersatz "Certified Organic" label, USDA's proposed rules would prohibit anyone except its certified farmers from using descriptive terms such as "produced without synthetic chemicals", "produced without synthetic pesticides", "pesticide-free farm", "no drugs or growth hormones used", "ecologically-produced," "humanely-raised" or any other phrases that imply, directly or indirectly, that a product is organically produced.

Most organic growers and consumers would like those terms to accurately describe organic food and farming. However they may not describe the produce of the only farmers who are allowed to use those terms. This is where the doublespeak comes in. Although only USDA "certified organic" farmers could make those claims, the new proposed rules do allow the use of synthetic chemicals, pesticides and drugs, as well as unecological and inhumane production methods by those same farmers. In other words the only people who could use those phrases implying traditional organic methods, do not have to farm that way.

North Dakota organic farmer and National Organic Standards Board member Dr. Fred Kirschenmann has written, "The rule also proposes regulations that would prohibit private organic certification companies from certifying or labeling products that differentiate 'any farming or handling requirements other than those provided for' in the government's regulations... This means that if the government insists on allowing sewage sludge, irradiation, genetically engineered organisms, [synthetic chemicals] and other materials and technologies that the National Organic Standards Board specifically rejected for use in organic production, then no one can certify any product that is free of these practices. Such regulations not only take power and preference away from consumers, and limit the market opportunities of producers, they restrict commercial free speech and leave chemically-sensitive and allergic people without any reliable choices in the marketplace that can potentially protect them from harm."

This would be a real triumph for the biotechnology industry (which believes that its products are compatible with any system of organic growing), for the food processors (who believe that organic is merely a standard of identity, not a mark of superior safety or nutrition), for the EPA (which promotes the use of sewage sludge) and for the FDA (which promotes food irradiation and non-organic animal practices).

If this isn't what you want for your food, organic or not, then even if you've never written to your legislators before, now's the time to tell USDA and your representatives in Washington that the proposed rules are unacceptable.

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.