A Safe and Sustainable Food System

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, April 24, 1998

Consumer Reports magazine found that there are at least two good reasons for consumers to buy organic food: One is for personal benefit, and the other contributes to our collective well-being. The results of this study were published in a January, 1998 article entitled "Greener Greens? The Truth about Organic Food."

Consumer Reports researchers tested thousands of pounds of produce for pesticide residues and for taste. Their report concluded that, "Organic food guarantees you a diet as low in pesticide residues as possible," and that, "on a public scale, organic agricultural practices are much less harmful to the environment than conventional chemical agriculture." They found that "organic foods had consistently minimal or nonexistent pesticide residue;" that "organic fruits and vegetables [were] as attractive and tasty as their conventional counterparts," and that "buying organic food promotes farming practices that really are more sustainable and better for the environment, [that is,] less likely to degrade soil, impair ecosystems, foul drinking water, or poison farmworkers."

Almost 20 years ago, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) researched organic farming. Its report found that organic methods worked well on large and small farms, and that they successfully addressed many of the serious environmental problems caused by agriculture. (Since then, unfortunately, the USDA has spent much less than one percent of its research budget on focused organic research.)

So, there is good evidence that organic food is safer for those who grow food, for those who eat food, and for the environment.

However, when Secretary of Agriculture, Dan Glickman. unveiled his agency's proposed rules for organic food last December, he said, "I want to make it clear that these rules are not about creating a category of agriculture that is safer than any other."

It is no wonder that these rules have caused so much heartbreak and disgust among organic farmers and consumers. After all, it is USDA's continued insistence that toxic pesticides, enormous concentrations of animals, routine antibiotic-use, dependence on cheap energy, genetic engineering and concentrated corporate control are safe that has encouraged people to turn to organic food. In order to protect and enrich corporate agribusiness, the USDA still insists that its system is safe. To say that avoiding pesticides is safer would be akin to admitting that pesticide-use is less safe.

Now, the USDA even believes that conventional agricultural practices, including sewage sludge-use, irradiation, genetic engineering and large-scale animal confinement are safe enough to be called organic. All that's necessary is to use the appropriate terminology and follow all the complicated rules. This is not too surprising because, as noted in London's Guardian newspaper, the USDA acts as if it were the Washington subsidiary of global agribusiness.

However, for a wide variety of personal, social and environmental reasons, more and more people do want to eat food which is safer for the eater, for the grower and for the Earth - food that is safer for communities and better for our future. It is obvious that no standards promoted by the USDA could really accomplish this. Despite some good employees and intentions, the USDA is too mired in the long-distance, corporate-controlled, global food system to support a form of agriculture that challenges corporate domination.

The principles and practices of certified organic agriculture are critical to any sustainable future. However, by themselves, they won't produce a food system that is safe for the Earth and its inhabitants. We need to build upon the local, participatory agriculture which is evolving in gardens, small farms, and cities all over the planet. This is vital in order to gain and maintain the knowledge, skills and genetic resources essential to feeding ourselves without causing irreparable damage to social and eco-systems. It is also the only way we can have any control over our food system.

Next Thursday marks the end of the comment period for USDA's proposed rule for organic agriculture. Express your concerns and make comments. For more information, call 1-800-357-2211 or go to


Be sure to include the docket number and cite specific sections when you respond.

Of course, your involvement in growing food, in buying directly from farmers and in learning to eat locally is a powerful strategy for creating social change and a safe, sustainable food system.

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.