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Overview of the Organic Issue
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Table of Contents
1) Organic Standards Threatened
2) Campaign to Keep "Organic" Organic
3) The Biggest Threats in the USDA's Proposed Rule
4) What is Organic?
1) Organic Standards Threatened
For decades, organic farmers and manufacturers have been providing quality organic products to American consumers. In the process they have developed a system of practices and certification to insure the integrity of organic food. On December 16, 1997 the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed rules to standardize organic food production nationally. Unfortunately, these proposed rules ignore the wisdom inherent in the current system. In fact, these standards, if enacted, will threaten the very credibility and future of the organic industry.
The organic industry has been working with the USDA for eight years to establish new federal standards to define "organic" on a national level. These rules implement the Organic Food Production Act, a landmark piece of legislation which was created to help promote and manage organic agriculture and processed foods.
At stake in finalizing the new "organic" standards is one of the largest and fastest growing sustainable industries in the country. The U.S. organic food industry has grown from $78 million in 1980 to an estimated $4.2 billion this year, and is expanding by nearly 20 percent each year.
The nervous shiver down the spine of the organic industry comes from the USDA's lack of specific prohibitions for genetically engineered foods, irradiated foods, intensive confinement of farm animals, rendered animal parts in feed, and the use of toxic sewage sludge spread over farmlands and pastures, plus a number of other bad provisions.
By allowing these controversial practices, the new USDA rules would be counter to the practices of organic farmers in the U.S. and Europe. Currently the labeling of organic products is dictated by varying but relatively strict standards used by 17 states and 33 private certifying agencies. These agencies generally don't allow genetic engineering, irradiation, intensive confinement, rendered animal protein, or toxic sewage sludge within their definitions of organic food. The new USDA rules would deny states and localities from setting tougher organic standards, without first being approved by the USDA -- a doubtful proposition according to industry experts.
"We fervently believe that the current draft of the regulations 'lowers the standard' for organic and is unacceptable as written," claims Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association. "As we see it, the USDA's proposed rule blurs the lines between conventional and organic agriculture."
In fact, the USDA's rules are a direct affront to the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) -- composed of industry representatives, farmers, environmentalists and food processors. The NOSB, established by the Organic Foods Production Act, made recommendations to the USDA that includes explicit bans of genetically engineered foods, irradiation, farming with sewage sludge, and intensive confinement factory-farm type animal husbandry practices.
The proposed rules will undergo a 135-day comment period, giving the waste disposal, biotech, and nuclear industries an opportunity to lobby hard to expand the market for their products. Organic food consumers will have an equal opportunity to voice their opinions during the comment period, and given the initial outrage over the proposed standards, they are likely to generate large numbers of comments.
The USDA is caught in a familiar predicament given the agency's dual role. On the one hand it is set up ostensibly to protect consumers by ensuring a safe food supply and guarantee the economic livelihood of America's farmers, the majority of whom continue to operate small and medium-sized farms. On the other hand, the USDA also works to promote the industrialization and globalization of American agriculture--which means working closely with large agribusiness, chemical, and biotechnology corporations.
The strength of the organic food market can be seen in the growing number of organic sections appearing in major supermarket chains. A quarter of all shoppers buy "natural" or organic foods in supermarkets at least once a week, according to the Food Marketing Institute. In a national poll last year, 54 percent of American consumers told industry pollsters that their preference was for organic production.
In addition to the weak rules on controversial practices, the proposed standards solidify the power of the USDA for future decisions on organics. The OFPA intended for any additions to the organic rules, such as the inclusion of new synthetic or genetically engineered crops, to go through the NOSB. But the new rules seem to open the door for the USDA to make the final decision on new additions.
On the surface this seems to be a debate over semantics. What is organic agriculture? But dig deeper and you will find the livelihood of 12,000 or so organic farmers nationwide, thousands of natural food businesses and employees, and the right for several million U.S. consumers to buy products that reflects organic farming and production methods.
2) Campaign to Keep "Organic" Organic
Fortunately, the news isn't all bad. Already, consumer groups, the organic industry, environmental organizations, and citizens have created a spirited opposition to the standards. In fact, the agency has already received over 27,000 comments on the proposed rules, most of which were highly critical.
Susan Haeger, executive director of Citizens for Health, a consumer group fighting the proposed standards, forecasts that "over the next few months the USDA, President Clinton, and the U.S. Congress are going to be deluged by responses from a public vehemently opposed to the standards."
Such confidence reflects Haeger's faith in the "Campaign to Keep 'Organic' Organic," a public education and advocacy movement launched in March by Citizens for Health, the Organic Trade Association, and the Chicago-based environmental group Sustain. It is a multi-faceted endeavor connecting natural food stores, environmentalists, organic farmers and manufacturers, food coops, and consumers of organic food.
The goal of the campaign is to deluge the USDA, President Clinton, and Congress with overwhelming consumer response. "We want to persuade the USDA to rewrite the proposed rules to reflect the recommendations of the National Organic Standards Board," says Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association.
The effort integrates a sophisticated public education campaign with flyers, form letters and educational tools, a national consumer response line (800-357-2211) national advertising, and a cutting edge world wide web presence (www.saveorganic.org).
"This campaign represents the widespread consumer concern with this issue," says Jim Slama, president of Sustain. "Organic is very important to millions of Americans and we expect that many of them will take action to help create an organic standard consistent with practices used by organic farmers for more than fifty years.
The deadline for comments to the USDA is April 30. Letters, phone calls, and personal meetings with politicians can be implemented through the end of May.
"We're asking anybody who is concerned with the integrity of organic food to get involved," says Haeger. "It can be as simple as writing or e mailing some letters or as complex as organizing friends, relatives, and co-workers to take action."
(Adapted with permission of Conscious Choice magazine.)
3) The Biggest Threats to Organic Integrity in the USDA's Proposed Rule
1. Missing the "Big Picture" by eliminating key concepts. The definition of organic as written in the proposed, national organic standards lacks the holistic approach central to organic practices. The proposed rules take a reductionist approach to organic food production that eliminates key concepts such as the health of the agro-ecosystem and biodiversity on the farm.
2. Ignoring the recommendations of the National Organic Standards Board. The USDA undermines the NOSB's authority in this draft of the proposed regulations. The USDA has ignored the clearly mandated authority the NOSB was given in the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 to recommend the National List of Materials for organic practices.
3. Possible inclusion of genetically-engineered organisms (GEOs) in organic systems. The use of geos is an unproven technology that the organic system does not need in order to grow high quality and nutritious food. There is not enough scientific data documenting the long-term impact geos will have on the environment or human health.
4. Possible inclusion of food irradiation in post-harvest organic production. Food irradiation (ionizing radiation) is a synthetic process that has never been allowed in organic production. The long-term effects of irradiation are still unknown, and irradiation is not a panacea to food safety concerns.
5. Possible inclusion of biosolids (sewage sludge) in organic farm practices. Sewage sludge from municipalities' waste may contain heavy metals and toxins and, therefore, is not appropriate for use on land where food is to be grown for human consumption. The use of sludge has never been allowed in organic food production and is completely unnecessary.
6. Weak livestock section. The livestock section is weak as currently written, and gives too much leeway in the amount of non-organic livestock feed, types of living conditions and use of antibiotics and other animal drugs allowed in organic production. The organic industry expects the regulations to include the use of only 100 percent organic feed, and consumers expect absolutely no antibiotics in organic meat and dairy production.
7. Unnecessary loopholes. Loopholes were created when the USDA eliminated the carefully worded restrictions on the use of materials common to the current organic standards, replacing them with new terms such as "active" and "non-active" synthetics and ingredients. There is no historic or legal reason to create new terms. These loopholes will allow synthetic materials and ingredients in organic production that have never been allowed before.
8. Weakened de-certification authority. Under the proposed rules, the authority to decertify growers, processors and manufacturers has been placed solely in the hands of the Secretary of Agriculture. As a result, there would be no efficient de-certification process and therefore products not meeting organic requirements may remain on market shelves longer. Enforcement of certification standards, currently placed in the hands of private certifiers, may be weakened through what will inevitably be a lengthy bureaucratic process.
9. Ignoring historical land usage practices. Under the proposed rule, previous usage of agricultural land will not be taken into consideration for certification. Although the Organic Foods Production act has set the criteria that farms should be free from the use of prohibited substances for three years to be certified, in some cases there is soil contamination so excessive the land may not be appropriate for organic production. Under this scenario, it would be possible for previously contaminated lands, such as Superfund sites to become certified organic. Current organic standards consider the history of the land prior to granting certification. The USDA proposed concept of "unavoidable contamination level" of each farm is not acceptable to the organic industry.
10. Regressive Fee Structure. The proposed rule creates a regressive, flat fee structure that will make participation in the National Organic Program by small certifiers, farmers, and handlers economically burdensome. A sliding scale fee structure would be more equitable.
4) What is Organic?
Organic refers to the way agricultural products, including foods and fibers such as cotton, are grown and processed. The word organic on the label stands for a dedication to an agriculture which strives for a balance with nature, using methods and materials which are of low impact to the environment.
The quality of organic products is best defined by the commitment to maintain and replenish soil fertility. The highest quality foods are grown on healthy land.
Organic foods are minimally processed to maintain the integrity of the food without artificial ingredients, preservatives, or irradiation.
Organic production systems:Organic farmers:
Replenish and maintain soil fertility;
Eliminate the use of toxic and persistent chemical pesticides and fertilizers:
Build a biologically diverse agriculture.
Alternate the crops grown in each field, rather than growing the same crop year after year.
Plant cover crops such as clover to add nutrients to the soil and prevent weeds;
Release beneficial insects to prey on pests, helping to eliminate the need for chemical insecticides that can remain in soil for years;
Add composted manure and plant wastes to help the soil retain moisture and nutrients.
Organic certifiers currently require organic producers to meet strict standards which include:
Land on which organic food or fibers are grown must be free of prohibited substance for three years prior to certification.
Farmers and processors must keep detailed records of methods and materials used in growing or processing organic products.
All methods and materials are annually inspected by a third party certifier approved by the national department of agriculture.
All farmers and handlers are required to maintain written Organic Plans detailing their management practices.
-- Anonymous, May 08, 2000