A Threat to All Farmers

Special to The Progressive Populist

The USDA's proposed redefinition of organic agriculture, released for public comment on December 16, is much more than a misunderstanding of organic philosophy on the part of Washington bureaucrats. Taken in the context of the ongoing global restructuring of agriculture, this proposed rule would well serve its intended purposes: to head off one of the last real options many independent family farmers have to stay in farming; to make it more difficult for consumers to identify and choose traditional organics or question the dominant food system; and to smooth the way for a global consolidation of land and food production.

That the proposed rule does not adhere to many of the basic tenets of the organic philosophy is now well known, thanks to a vehement response by the organic community. More than 60 examples of serious deficiencies were identified in the first few weeks of comments, including the permitted use of bio-engineered organisms, therapeutic antibiotics, confinement livestock facilities and sewage sludge fertilizer.

Not content to simply implement a toothless national organic standard, the rule-makers intend to drive a stake into the heart of private organic certification. The rule, incredibly, prohibits the private certification of agricultural products to any higher standard, including the standards currently in use throughout the nation. In other words, if the USDA proposal stands, a private certifier would be prohibited from using any label other than the minimal "Meets USDA Organic Standards." Prevented from seeing the certifying labels they now trust, the consumers' ability to choose foods grown to current organic food production standards at the grocery store would, for all practical purposes, be eliminated.

But so what? Why should the majority of farmers, who have not adopted the organic philosophy, make common cause with their organic neighbors to defeat this proposed rule? Why should consumers who are looking for ways to stretch their food dollar object to the elimination of this choice at the grocery store?

It is true that many of the family farmers who have survived the restructuring of U.S. agriculture to this point resent the organic movement. But they should not confuse this argument among neighbors with their basic economic interests. In the larger battle over the structure of the nation's food production system, independent family farmers of all stripes have little in common with the better-organized and cash-rich food conglomerates who argue non-stop for the efficiency, necessity, and inevitability of their own interests.

For many years, farmers and ranchers have been locked into a system where they control neither their input costs nor the prices they receive for their crops or livestock. The existing organic market offers every farmer, if they choose to look, evidence that their current relative powerlessness is not inevitable. Direct links to the consumer can be made and managed cooperatively, with good results for both farmer and consumer. But if the USDA succeeds in undermining the social contract and humane treatment aspects of organic certification, consumer willingness to choose a premium priced "organic" item will decline, "organic" agriculture will industrialize, and the farm-gate premiums small farmers can now command for their organic products will disappear, taking with them another ray of hope for a more equitable food production system.

Even accounting for the overwhelming influence of food industry interests, it is difficult to make any sense of the proposed rule without also considering the impact of the U.S. government's long-standing promotion of the international free-trade agenda. Put simply, the proposed rule is a disaster for the organic tradition in large part because any acceptable rule would have been and will be in direct conflict with the U.S. position on free-trade.

U.S. trade representatives for each of the last several administrations have argued strenuously against any restrictions on imports based on process and production techniques, an idea which is now enshrined in the charter of the World Trade Organization and in the North American Free Trade Agreement. Multi-national conglomerates who would like to sell the same canned soup to everyone on the planet without restriction find this arrangement very convenient, but old-fashioned notions like national sovereignty over the terms of trade take a beating.

American citizens are getting a taste of this free-trade medicine, as many of our long-established environmental and food safety laws come under challenge. The Delaney Amendment, which banned the addition of carcinogens to food products, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which attempted to ensure that imported tuna were caught in a dolphin safe manner, are two examples of laws which consumers fought hard to pass, only to have them nullified by an international tribunal.

The USDA is well aware, too, that the European Community has adopted organic standards in accord with those of the international organic movement. The international food science body, Codex Alimentarius, is also working on an organic standard, but is waiting to see what the U.S. does. The proposed rule is a warning shot from the Clinton Administration, putting the international community on notice that the U.S. intends to continue to press its ideological commitment to global free-trade. Ironically the first casualty in this battle would most likely be the American organic grain and soybean producers who, denied a certification standard other than that offered by the USDA, would lose their markets in Europe and Japan.

The democratic rights of small farmers and consumers alike are abused when powerful special interests are allowed to hijack the rules-making process, as apparently happened in this case. In ignoring the will of Congress, the recommendations of the National Organic Standards Board, the wisdom of the existing certification systems, and their own regulatory process, the USDA has provided the organic community with an object lesson in power politics. Asked to create a unified national standard to ensure consumer confidence in a growing market based on the voluntary cooperation between farmers and consumers the USDA responded with what amounts to an hostile takeover bid.

Fortunately, the rule so flagrantly violates our national sense of fair play and good government, that a public outcry in April may well force its withdrawal. You can help make this happen. Call your Representative in Congress (202) 225-3121, and contact the USDA on the web at to add your comments to the record.

Jim Hare is a writer and editor of the monthly Hay River Review in Prairie Farm, Wisconsin. He is also a farmer with a small herd of grass-fed beef cattle.

Opposition May Be on the Wrong Track

Special to The Progressive Populist

In a society so saturated by corporate culture, it is difficult to imagine what it might look like if 'We The People' started reclaiming our Constitutionally-mandated authority over all of our institutions, be they corporate or government. The best current example that comes to mind is the way people are responding to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) outrageous attempt to redefine organic foods so as to make them indistinguishable from corporate foods.

It's important for all of us who care about our society and the planet to be as effective as we possibly can, so let's take a look at how the campaign is shaping up.

First, what is the institution we are being asked to target? It's the USDA, of course. In all of the articles I have surveyed, they are the big nasty. Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Pure Food Campaign, puts it like this: "Time and time again, U.S government officials have ignored citizens' concerns and interests. ... 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 the last 30 years." Ben Lilliston, author of the article on this subject in a recent Arcata Coop newsletter, stated, "The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and the USDA have been staunch defenders of genetically engineered foods and high-chemical input agriculture." I could list many other examples. The clear message is: The Government is the enemy. There's only one problem with this analysis: It's wrong.

We need to dig deeper and ask ourselves: Why would the USDA even contemplate including toxic food-growing and production practices under the label of organic? Why would the USDA and FDA staunchly defend farming practices that destroy soil fertility? Why is our government acting so irrationally? Is the public lobbying for an unsafe food supply? Of course not! Perhaps there are more powerful players which have a greater influence over these government agencies. You bet there are: giant food growing and processing corporations, as well as giant agricultural chemical corporations, with names like Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Monsanto, Merck, Upjohn, and many others.

In 1998, we take for granted corporations' rights to participate as fully in every aspect of society as do human beings. We may not like it, but we assume these rights have always existed, and are as natural as the air we breathe. And we're wrong. It used to be against the law in this country for corporations to participate in the political process at any level of government (lobbying, election financing, etc.). It used to be illegal for corporations to buy stock in other corporations. If corporations did harm or acted beyond the authority vested in them by the state legislature, they could be dissolved by having their charters revoked. Boards of Directors and shareholders could be held personally (i.e. criminally) liable for all harms caused.

Citizens understood that they had a civic responsibility to avoid creating entities that could harm the body politic, interfere with the mechanisms of self-governance, and assault their sovereignty. Contrast this awareness with 1998 when corporations have almost entirely taken control of most levels of American government, and yet citizen activist organizations continue to urge us merely to write to our elected representatives (or in this case, to the USDA and our representatives) and to demand that the USDA "respect consumers' right-to-choose and maintain strict organic standards by explicitly prohibiting the unacceptable practices" listed above. As if they are even listening! What institutions are shaping the greater political/cultural environment in this country? Giant corporations!

Our minds have become so colonized by these corporate entities that we end up focusing all of our outrage and activism at the symptoms of the problem. A few current examples include: the USDA proposing ridiculous new organics standards opposed by all organic food buyers, the California Dept. of Forestry continuing to allow Maxxam corporation to clear-cut the redwood forests of Headwaters, California Governor Wilson recently vetoing a package of health care protection bills with widespread public support, etc. (Each of us could name many other examples!) And we end up utterly ignoring the actual cause of the problem: corporations have seized Constitutional rights from the people and now run the show.

How has it come to pass that giant corporations gained the right to influence and even write legislation, to elect candidates, to teach our children what foods are good for them, to poison the ground water and sterilize rich agricultural soil, to control the public airwaves and write the news? What if we stop conceding giant corporations' claims to legal and cultural authority over our lives and the planet?

What would it look like if the Pure Food Campaign and all the rest of us started to reframe the organic food legislation issue, and we all began to act on our new understanding that the only long-term solution to protecting a safe food supply is to once again prohibit ANY corporate participation in the (our!) political process? First, we citizens would have to stop identifying ourselves merely as "consumers" and start acting like we are in charge again. No longer would we be having to struggle against one challenge to our food supply at a time, one clear-cut at a time, one mass layoff at a time. Our work would require real and sustained effort, and have widespread and long-term relevance.

We have enormous rethinking and organizing tasks ahead. Are you ready?

To find out more about how citizens once controlled and defined corporations, and how we can reclaim our authority, contact:

Democracy Unlimited, POB 27, Arcata, CA 95518; 707-822-2242; email

Paul Cienfuegos, founding director of Democracy Unlimited, has been active in a variety of social change movements since the late 1970's. He has founded and directed organizations, edited an independent newspaper, and worked for Ancient Forest Protection, Native Sovereignty, Nuclear Disarmament and Ecological Restoration.

Ronnie Cummins and Ben Lilliston respond:

We couldn't agree more with Mr. Cienfuegos that large corporations are the real enemy -- and our government has become their willing handmaiden. The tricky part is what to do about it. Mr. Cienfuegos contributes little in this area other than to say we need to "prohibit any corporate participation in (our!) political process". We are left to imagine how this might be done. Many of us who have been organizing mass grassroots campaigns and taking on corporations for years strongly support efforts to challenge corporate charters, and to sharply curtail or eliminate their rights to act as citizens instead of artificial entities. But we should all be honest in citing historical precedent -- the U.S. isn't even close to the same country it was 30 years ago, let alone 100 years ago during the Populist rebellion. To begin to take on the corporations requires mass public outreach and campaigning -- not just radical analysis and rhetoric.

We strongly encourage Mr. Cienfuegos and others who support corporate charter revocations to develop a modern-day organizing strategy to take on the "corporations." But in the meantime, we are not prepared to simply concede our government and our rights to the corporations -- in this case letting them run roughshod over our right to produce and buy organic food. We are going to mobilize several million natural food consumers, bombard the USDA with comments on the proposed regulations (they have already received nearly 30,000 comments), and we're going to light a fire under our elected representatives. In addition, the Save Organic Standards Campaign is starting to work with organic producers and activists to develop an alternative organic labelling system that will by-pass the USDA. It seems to us that it is difficult to argue with a mass campaign encouraging more citizen involvement in our democracy -- using the excuse that saving organic standards isn't revolutionary enough.

Comments to the USDA should be sent by May 1 to: USDA-National Organic Standards Docket # TMD-94-00-2, USDA, AMS, Room 4007-S, AgStop 0275, P.O. Box 96456 Washington, D.C. 20090-6456. To send comments by fax: 202-690-4632 (include Docket Number); email instructions at the USDA website ( For specific issues to cite and updated information see the Progressive Populist website (

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