Organic Standards (fwd)
vic at daena.eepo.com.au
Fri Mar 6 08:39:58 EST 1998
To: Recipients of CHRM-GENERAL <chrm-general at igc.apc.org>
Thought this might be of interest to many of you. Her writings
have always been of interest and very insightful.
All the best,
From jsix at lamar.colostate.edu Fri Feb 27 19:43:27 1998 From:
Donella.H.Meadows at Dartmouth.EDU (Donella H. Meadows) (by way of
Janna Six) Subject: column 2/26/98
The Global Citizen February 26, 1998
Donella H. Meadows P.O. Box 58 Plainfield NH 03781 603-675-2230
(home -- answering machine) 603-646-2838 (work -- secretary)
603-646-1682 or 603-675-6305 (FAX)
ORGANIC FARMERS FIGHT NATIONAL ORGANIC STANDARDS
Back in 1990 when Congress passed the Organic Foods Production
Act, organic growers celebrated. Now, as the law is about to take
effect, they're livid.
"You're trying to steal my words," one of them yelled at USDA
officials last week at a Northeast Organic Farmers Association
meeting in Vermont. "For years people like you laughed in my
face, you thought everything I was doing was ridiculous. Now
you're trying to tell ME what's organic."
"I don't know whether to sink it or fix it," said another. "It
would be better not to have any law than to have this one."
But a law is needed. The word "organic" on a label implies
nature-friendly agriculture and poison-free food. Therefore it's
tempting to slap it onto any old carrots or apples and sell them
at a premium. To protect consumers and honest growers from such
fraud, there has to be some legal definition, some process, some
muscle to guarantee that "organic" means healthy and pure.
For years the USDA considered organic farmers a bunch of kooks and
couldn't care less about their problems. So the farmers organized
their own certification processes, first locally, then by state.
They spent hours hammering out definitions. It's obvious that you
can't label your produce organic if you spray it with a synthetic
pesticide or fertilize it with chemicals, but what if you grow it
under plastic mulch? Or deplete your groundwater? Or use seeds
that haven't been organically grown?
Little by little they defined standards, set up inspections,
established markets and created a new kind of agriculture whose
success astonished everyone. Organic sales totaled $78 million in
1980 and $3.5 billion in 1996.
The business has increased 20 percent per year for the past six
years. By the turn of the century a million acres of U.S.
farmland will be growing organic crops.
There now are eleven state certification systems and 33 private
ones. They are all slightly different, which creates a nest of
problems. What if a Vermont certified grower wants to sell in New
York? What if a restaurant wants to combine ingredients certified
by three different systems and label the result organic? How do
all these certification programs get recognized in the booming
European organic market? Who decides if imported Israeli tomatoes
labeled organic really are?
Hence the need for national standards.
The new law started out swimmingly with the appointment of a
National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) made up of organic farmers
and marketers, ecologists, and consumer groups. Their job was to
compare existing certification rules and come up with ideas for
national rules that would be as consistent as possible with all of
The USDA staff translated the NOSB recommendations into draft
rules, which were passed to the Office of Management and Budget,
as is required of all regulations to be sure they are cost
effective and not excessively burdensome.
The organic regs came back from OMB with major changes, including
what enraged organic farmers call "the dirty three."
1. Genetically engineered plants and animals are not banned, as
long as they are raised without offending chemicals.
2. Municipal sewage sludge is not disallowed as a fertilizer.
3. Foods raised organically and then preserved by irradiation can
be called organic.
There are other problems. Hydroponic growing in nutrient-rich
water without soil is not disallowed. (The first rule of organic
culture is "don't feed the plant, feed the soil.") Nor is animal
raising in tight confinement with as much as 20 percent
non-organic feed -- and more in emergencies. Refeeding of animal
parts to animals (believed to be responsible for the transmission
of mad cow disease) is not forbidden.
There are dark thoughts in the organic community about how the
gene-splicing multinational corporations must have conspired with
the campaign-contribution-dependent Washington politicians to ruin
their beautiful word "organic." Whatever did happen, they fear
that their vision of food raised in ways that respect nature,
their years of struggle and devotion, their hard-earned
livelihoods are at stake. "We did it because we believed in it,
not because there was money in it," one of them told me. Now
there is money in it, and nonbelievers want in.
I asked the growers what will happen if the standards go through
as written? "Massive civil disobedience," said one. "We'll invent
a new word for healthy food and healthy soil and healthy farming
and start all over again," said another.
The situation may not be that dire. The good news is that the
rules are up for public comment, and the USDA is reeling from the
letters that are pouring in. Within USDA are sympathizers who are
more than ready to use those letters to make a case for tightening
the standards. This is one time when communicating with your
government can really make a difference.
Even better news is that organic agriculture has come so far.
There is a real chance for organic practices to assume a major
role, greatly reducing the national load of pesticides and
fertilizers, air and water pollution. National standards can help
that happen -- strict national standards.
Wherever there is value, there are counterfeiters. It's the job
of government not to help the counterfeiters, but to protect the
real currency. We shouldn't have to remind the government of
that, but sometimes we do.
(You can find the National Organic Program Proposed Rule 7 CFR
Part 205 at your library in the Federal Register for December 16,
1997, or you can order a copy by calling 202-512-1800. It can be
found on the Web at www.ams.usda.gov/nop. You can send comments
to Eileen Stommes, Deputy Administrator, USDA-AMS-TM-NOP, Room
4007-So., Ag Stop 0275, P.O. Box 96456, Washington DC 20090-6456
-- or fax them to 202-690-4632. Send copies to your
congressional representatives too.)
(Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental
studies at Dartmouth College.)
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