By RONNIE CUMMINS
It's nice to win a victory once in a while. After being battered in Seattle, bruised by the mass consumer rejection of proposed organic rules in 1998, and unnerved by the growing controversy over genetically engineered foods, the Clinton and Gore administration find themselves on the defensive. Feeling the heat from consumers, the USDA has apparently decided to call off its food fight -- at least temporarily --with the nation's 10 million organic consumers, 6,000 retailers, and 10,000 organic farmers. On March 8 the USDA formally surrendered to the organic community by releasing a completely revised proposal for national organic food standards and labels. The new 663-page proposal (available online at www.ams.usda.gov/nop) incorporates nearly all of the recommendations made by the National Organic Standards Board and organic activists, including a prohibition on genetic engineering, sewage sludge, irradiation, and a variety of other industrial-style agriculture practices.
A massive, unprecedented consumer backlash in 1998 over the USDA's first proposed regulations shook up the USDA and forced them to back off on plans to degrade organic standards and allow biotech and corporate agribusiness to take over the rapidly growing organic food market. US organic food sales this year will likely reach $8 billion--a sizable bite of the $350 billion total annual sales of the nation's supermarkets. At current growth rates organic production will constitute 10 percent of American agriculture by the year 2010.
Besides backing off on the "Big Three" (genetic engineering, sewage sludge, and irradiation) the USDA bureaucrats bowed to grassroots pressure and basically agreed that any product bearing the label "USDA Certified Organic" will have to be produced without toxic pesticides or toxic "inert ingredients"; that antibiotics, growth hormones, and rendered animal protein can not be administered or fed to animals; that factory farm-style intensive confinement of farm animals will not be allowed; and that no synthetics or chemicals will be allowed in organic production without the approval of the National Organic Standards Board. In addition the USDA basically agreed to leave the preexisting system of private and state organic certifiers intact; to allow accredited state and private organic certifiers to uphold higher standards than the USDA; and for licensed organic certifiers to be able to display their logos or seals on the front label panel of organic products. Finally the USDA backed off on their previous proposal to outlaw "eco-labels" which might imply that a product was organic.
Despite major improvements in the current proposed USDA organic standards over what was put forth in 1998, there are a number of problems and shortcomings in the lengthy March 8 document. Among the most obvious problems are the following:
(ogonek) So-called "natural foods" with less than 50 percent organic ingredients will be allowed to list their organic ingredients on their information panel -- usually on the back of the package -- even though the non-organic ingredients of these products may be genetically engineered, irradiated, derived from sewage sludge, or produced with pesticides, growth hormones, or antibiotics.
(ogonek) Manure from factory farms will be allowed to be used as a fertilizer on organic farms.
(ogonek) Although the proposed regulations on organic animal husbandry require "access to outdoors," no clear definition of what constitutes "pasture" are offered, nor does the USDA delineate exact space or spacing requirements for humane housing and outdoor access for poultry, pigs, cattle, and other animals.
(ogonek) Although the USDA claim they don't intend to impose economic hardships on organic certifiers and farmers, the added costs of USDA oversight will fall heavily on small certifiers and farmers. The USDA should provide accreditation services to organic certifiers free of charge as well as subsidize the costs of any farmer who wishes to become certified as organic. Beyond this the USDA should allocate funds to pay farmers a premium price for their products during their "transition to organic" phase as an added incentive for the majority of farmers to begin making the transition to sustainable and organic farming practices.
(ogonek) Although genetic contamination of organic crops by "genetic drift" from farms growing genetically engineered crops is one of the most serious environmental threats to organic agriculture, no residue limits for genetic contamination are delineated in the USDA's proposed federal regulations. The USDA must hold biotechnology patent holders and seed companies accountable and financially liable for the environmental and economic damage inflicted on organic farmers and producers caused by genetic drift.
Although organic consumers and farmers should be proud of the fact that our collective grassroots efforts have forced the government to adhere to high standards in these proposed rules, we need to keep in mind that the March proposed rules are not final regulations. After a 90-day official comment period -- which ends June 12 -- the USDA could bow once again to pressure from corporate agribusiness and the biotechnology industry and issue a set of weaker final rules, filled with legal loopholes and exemptions. For this reason it is important once again for us to flood the USDA with thousands of comments -- which can be sent either by email (go to the USDA website listed above); by fax (703-365-0760); or regular mail (Keith Jones, National Organic Program, USDA-AMS-TMP-NOP, Room 2945-So., Ag Stop 0275, PO Box 96456, Washington, D.C. 20090-6456). When sending comments by fax or regular mail identify your comments as referring to docket number TMD-00-02-PR. Please demand that the USDA deal with the five problems we've noted above, but stress first and foremost that the USDA should not weaken the provisions outlined in the March proposed rules in any manner whatsoever.
Ronnie Cummins is director of the BioDemocracy Campaign/Organic Consumers Association, 6114 Hwy 61, Little Marais, Mn. 55614; phone 218-226-4164; www.purefood.org