The recently released proposed rules for the National Organic Program are
like a sick joke played by a macabre Department of Agriculture on today's
organic growers and consumers.
When finalized, these rules will define organic food and agriculture in
this country. They were developed to comply with the Organic Foods
Production Act (OFPA), which Congress passed over seven years ago. The
OFPA is generally regarded by the organic community as a decent piece of
legislation. However, grassroots organic leaders have called the proposed
rules "too outrageous to be believable," "insidiously cynical at best and
fraudulently illegal, at worst," "a disaster" and "completely disingenuous
Organic agriculture is based on an evolving set of principles developed by
gardeners and farmers over the last 50 years from the best of traditional
agricultural practices. Its major premise is that healthy soil produces
healthy plants and animals. Organic growers build healthy soil by using
compost, crop rotations and green manures.
Recently, Americans have been buying 20 percent more organic food each
year, in part because many people are beginning to understand the
frightening realities of the mainstream food system. These include the
widespread use of toxic pesticides, harsh fertilizers, antibiotics,
hormones, genetic engineering, intensive animal factories, and giant
monocultures, just for starters. Recent problems with bacterial
contamination of food and rivers, calls for food irradiation, and
information about the desperate conditions of many farm workers only add to
the justifiable skepticism about current trends in the conventional food
Meanwhile, organic farmers and certification organizations have been
responding to the public's desire for more wholesome food. Connecticut's
certifying agency, NOFA, has tightened up its standards as more hazards in
the current food system are discovered. Pressure-treated wood was banned
on organic farms because it can leach heavy metals into the soil. Raw
manure has been regulated because of the danger of bacterial contamination.
Genetically-engineered seeds and organisms have been banned. Last year
NOFA's Massachusetts chapter successfully fought to have the state's Water
Resources Authority remove the word "organic" from its bags of composted
sewage sludge, which often contain heavy metals and other serious
However, the new Federal organic standards do allow pressure-treated wood,
raw manure, sewage sludge and genetically engineered plants and animals, as
well as allowing irradiation, synthetic chemical inputs on the farm and in
food processing, confinement animal factories, treated seeds, monocultures
and more. In short, many of the worst features of the current food system
will be allowed to be called "organic."
That's not all. The USDA wants to charge certifying organizations, like
NOFA, exorbitant fees for accreditation. These and direct fees for farmers
will greatly increase expenses for those who have been working for years to
minimize the social and environmental costs of agriculture. Despite
Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman's contention at his press conference
that the rules would be of special benefit to small farmers, these costs
promise to put many small farmers and certifiers out of business.
And it gets even worse! In giving control of the word "organic" to USDA,
the proposed rules trample on the First Amendment rights of farmers. They
prohibit the use of terms such as "produced without synthetic pesticides",
"produced without synthetic fertilizers", "pesticide-free farm", "no drugs
or growth hormones used", "ecologically-produced" and "humanely-raised."
Apparently, a National Organic Program needs to prohibit free speech in
order to maintain the fiction that food produced by its proposed rules is
"organic." It's really just another value-added option. Do you want your
"Happy Meal"(tm) regular or "organic?"
Even if all those problems can be fixed, the organic label will still say
nothing about the pay and the employment conditions of farm workers or
about the energy that was consumed and the pollution created to get that
food to your table. It will include no information about the large
multinational corporation which owns the folksy sounding organic trademark.
The USDA solicited public input through the National Organic Standards
Board, which held five years of hearings, and then ignored or distorted
many of its recommendations. The USDA is now taking public comments on the
proposed rules. Maybe if enough of us respond, the rules will be improved.
I'm not optimistic.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
(C) 1998, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491
Bill and Suzanne Duesing operate the Old Solar Farm (raising NOFA/CT
certified organic vegetables) and Solar Farm Education (working on urban
agriculture projects in southern Connecticut and producing "The Politics of
Food" and "Living on the Earth" radio programs). Their collection of essays
Living on the Earth: Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful Future
is available from Bill Duesing, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491 for $14
postpaid. These essays first appeared on WSHU, public radio from
Fairfield, CT. New essays are posted weekly at http://www.wshu.org/duesing
and those since November 1995 are available there.
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