Whose Organic Standards?

USDA Prepares an 'Unfriendly Takeover' of the Natural Foods Industry

Special to The Progressive Populist

The Oxford American dictionary describes the word organic as "of or formed from living things." Consumers generally define organic foods as those produced naturally, without the use of toxic chemicals, drugs, or factory farm techniques. But how the dictionary, organic farmers, or millions of American consumers define "organic" will soon become a moot point.

That is because the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) will soon be defining in legally binding terms exactly what "organic" means. And not in a pithy phrase, but rather in what is expected to be a 600-page document in the Federal Register--and given the history of the USDA, many are worried about the impact of these new federal regulations on the natural foods industry.

"This is the institutionalizing of the word 'organic' by the government, and we should pay close attention," says Michael Sligh, Director of the Sustainable Agriculture Program at the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI). Sligh is the former chairman of the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB), an official advisory committee established by Congress in 1990 through the Organic Food Production Act to make recommendations to the USDA on organic standards and labeling practices.

Despite precise recommendations from the NOSB to maintain strict organic standards--policies basically in harmony with those advocated by IFOAM, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, and the European Parliament--USDA officials have delayed as long as possible in announcing federal regulations on organics. But now final rules are expected to be published later this summer or fall, and will likely send shockwaves throughout the natural food community.

According to several inside sources in Washington who have seen the proposed rules, the USDA not only intends to disregard the NOSB's explicit ban on genetically engineered food and intensive confinement of farm animals, but will actually make it illegal for regional or non-governmental organic certification bodies to uphold organic standards stricter than U.S. government standards.

Of course if the USDA gets away with this in the United States, their eventual strategy will be to use the legal hammer of the GATT World Trade Organization (WTO) to force European and other nations to lower their organic standards as well.

"I know for a fact that one of the internal hold-ups is genetic engineering," says Katherine Di Matteo, head of the National Organics Trade Association, "Some people in USDA are unhappy."

The USDA is struggling with the connotations of the organic label which indicates that no toxic chemical pesticides or fertilizers were used to grow or process the food. The term "organic" is generally considered by the public to indicate healthier food. Activist organizations opposed to unsustainable agriculture practices or genetic engineering have increasingly advised consumers to change their food buying habits and to begin purchasing organic foods.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the USDA have been staunch defenders of genetically engineered foods and high-chemical input agriculture. Both agencies have actively fought against the labeling of genetically engineered foods despite scant scientific research done on their potential human and environmental hazards.

"Time and time again U.S. government officials have ignored citizens' concerns and interests. The USDA understands that the public will never accept chemically contaminated or genetically engineered foods if given any real choice in the marketplace," says Ronnie Cummins, National Director of the Pure Food Campaign. "But Monsanto and the agri-toxics crowd are determined to undermine consumer choice and to cram their products down peoples' throats if necessary.

"Our inside sources in Washington have warned us that the new 'organic standards' dictated by the USDA will be bad news. Bad news for the consumer, the natural foods industry, organic farmers, and those farmers thinking of going organic. And bad news as well for farm animals and the environment."

The USDA finds itself in a quandary. Central to defining the word organic is to admit that a host of agribusiness practices such as pesticide use, intensive confinement of livestock, hormone injection, and genetic engineering are somehow less healthy. Yet, the USDA, FDA, and EPA have strenuously argued for years that these practices are perfectly safe.

In the case of genetically engineered foods, the issue becomes particularly dicey because of the strong public support for labeling of these foods. A February 1997 poll conducted by biotech giant Novartis found that 93 percent of American consumers want to see mandatory labelling of genetically engineered foods. Seventy-three percent claim to "feel strongly" about this. Consumers in Europe and other countries have expressed similar views. Party as a result of this controversy, sales of products labeled as "organic" have increased dramatically.

Up until now, there has been little or no testing required on the potential human health hazards of gene-altered foods. In spite of this lack of regulation, several studies have shown that dangerous allergens and toxins can be spread through bioengineered foods, and that nutritional values can be degraded.

Other studies have shown that antibiotic resistance genes, commonly found in gene-altered food, can make animals and humans more susceptible to dangerous antibiotic resistant bacteria.

In addition many biotech crops are being engineered to resist specific herbicides, which basically means that even more toxic chemicals will be able to be sprayed on farm crops, ending up as residues on food products or pollultants in drinking water.

Besides these human health hazards, the increased use of toxic herbicides and the spread of these herbicide resistant genes to weeds and wild relatives of these plants pose a real threat to the environment. And finally the "toxic trespass" of genetically engineered crops onto adjacent farmlands threatens the economic livelihood of small farmers, particularly organic farmers.

Despite warnings from an increasing number of scientists, this year a wide variety of genetically engineered foods will be placed, unlabeled, on supermarket shelves. Literally thousands of products--including nearly all non-organic processed foods--will soon include at least some genetically engineered ingredients.

Two dozen biotech foods and crops have already been approved for commercialization in the U.S., with a small but expanding menu of biotech foods already approved in Europe, Canada, Japan, and other countries. Millions of acres of biotech crops will be harvested this fall in the U.S.

Because of these concerns, the NOSB passed a resolution in September 1996 which advised the USDA that "the class of genetically-engineered organisms and their derivatives be prohibited in organic production and handling systems."

Genetically engineered foods are "not historic to organic, do not have a long track record, and do not seem to be vital," says Sligh, explaining the NOSB's opposition.

The USDA understands that it is politically impossible for them to dictate that all genetically engineered crops can be labelled organic. Instead, the proposed federal regulations will allow individual genetically engineered products to be judged on a "case-by-case" basis.

Under this reasonable-sounding, yet ultimately insidious process, the NOSB would evaluate individual genetically engineered products and either approve or deny them. Those approved would be passed on the USDA, which would make the final decision. Important to note, is that the USDA supposedly cannot add anything to the "synthetic" list of approved inputs without NOSB approval.

This is why Michael Hansen, of the Consumers Union, says that perhaps "The worst case scenario is not that bad."

According to Hansen, the members of the current NOSB have indicated that they will be extremely strict in case-by-case decisions in regard to synthetic chemical inputs. In the short term this may provide a saving grace for organic food, but the membership of the NOSB can change quickly.

All current and future NOSB members are appointed by and subject to the authority of USDA officials. Present USDA Secretary Dan Glickman is an outspoken supporter of genetic engineering, GATT, and factory farming. Thus Glickman or his successor in the USDA will have the power, if need be, to stack the NOSB with members who support the agribusiness and biotech agenda.

The fear by many is that the new USDA rules will subtlely but decisively degrade, through a dense and ambiguous 600-page-plus document, the label "organic." This will open the door for large-scale agribusiness to highjack the consumer respectability that comes with the organic label.

Transnational food corporations will then be able to fill supermarket shelves with products labeled "organic"--except that these pseudo-natural foods will not really be organic. The result could be devastating to the natural food industry.

Di Matteo says she believes the organic industry will mobilize quickly if the USDA rules run strongly counter to the NOSB's recommendation.

"But it will be hard for the organic industry if the USDA offers a compromise position," admits Di Matteo, who fears that such a compromise could cause a split within the organics community.

These are boom years for the U.S. organic industry. Since 1990, sales of organic food have jumped 20 percent a year, reaching $3.3 billion in 1996, and are projected to grow to $6.5 billion by the year 2000. Total organic cropland has more than doubled since 1991. Sales of organic dairy products are increasing by more than 100% annually.

Currently, "certified organic" indicates that the farming methods employed were verified by one of the approximately 40 private or state certification programs nationwide. Genetically engineered foods cannot be currently labeled as "organic."

Many certifiers are concerned that the proposed USDA federal regulations will make it illegal for them to uphold stricter standards than what the USDA allows. Currently, organic standards vary among certification boards. California and Oregon have tough standards, while several states such as Illinois, have vague or nonexistent standards.

The call for national organic standards was largely pushed forward for international trade purposes. But if the USDA decides to allow even some genetically engineered crops on a case-by-case basis, such as those which supposedly reduce pesticide use, it could cause serious repercussions internationally, where there is increasing opposition to genetically engineered food.

"It would have a huge impact and be viewed by utter dismay by the rest of the world," says Ken Cummins, of the International Accreditation Services, part of the International Federation of Organic Movements.

The Codex Alimentarius is designated by the World Trade Organization as the officially recognized rule-making body for international trade issues related to food. The Codex has been holding a series of ongoing meetings to define the term "organic" internationally.

Thus far, the majority of national representatives participating in the Codex meetings have resisted the inclusion of genetically engineered foods under the organic label, although the U.S. government delegation and the biotech industry have at times lobbied for weaker international standards.

Besides the biotech foods controversy, the USDA proposed federal regulations will attempt to allow meat, eggs, dairy, and other animal products to be labeled "organic," even if the animals have been kept in intensive confinement. This runs directly counter to NOSB recommendations as well as the guidelines of organic certification bodies across the world.

Humane farming advocates are outraged at the possibility that intensive confinement feedlots, factory-style dairies, or giant corporate hog and chicken installations would be allowed under the new federal regulations to label their products as organic.

"It has historically been a signature of organics to respond to the natural behavior of animals," says Sligh.

"We must organize and fight against an "unfriendly takeover' of the organic food movement by Monsanto and the giant food cartels," says Ronnie Cummins. "We must not allow the destruction of organic standards by Washington bureaucrats and Corporate America."

"If the Clinton Administration and the USDA try to tell us later this year that genetically engineered foods and factory farm animal products can be labelled organic, and try to prohibit state and regional organic standards from being stricter than USDA standards, we must go on the offensive," Cummins says.

"Every food co-op, natural food store, buying club, and organic farm must turn itself into a center for activism--educating and mobilizing its members, workers, and customers to write letters, send faxes and emails, and to make telephone calls to elected public officials.

"Unless the USDA and politicians feel the heat, they seem hell-bent on destroying the alternative food system which we have so laboriously built up over last 30 years. So the time to begin organizing a nationwide grassroots communications and action network is now."

Ben Lilliston is editorial director of Sustain: The Environmental Education Group in Chicago. Ronnie Cummins is national director of the Pure Food Campaign. For updates on food issues and the battle to preserve organic standards, see the Pure Food Campaign's website at: http://www.geocities.com/athens/1527. To organize a Live Wire communications and Organic Food Action Alert network in your community, contact the Pure Food Campaign, 860 Hwy. 61 East, Little Marais MN 55614, phone 218- 226-4155 or email alliance@mr.net

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 1997 The Progressive Populist