Here Come The Feds
To understand just how ridiculous the USDAs meddling in organics actually
is, you can wade through the massive tome of regulations, or, better yet,
just consider what Secretary Dan Glickman of the USDA had to say before
unveiling the new standards to an eager press corps: "I want to make it
clear that these (organic) rules are not about creating a category of
agriculture that is safer than any other."
It doesnt get any clearer than that.
As an agency that has had nothing but disdain for organic agriculture, the
motives behind the UDSAs new commitment to getting its fingers in the
organic pie and ensuring that its standards are as low as possible are
obvious: to pave the way for the pure commodification and centralization of
organics. As multinational agribusiness corporations increasingly seek an
entry into the booming organics market, they need plenty of regulatory
cover, particularly when they get around to "taking organics global."
Many in the mainstream have deluded themselves into believing that such
growth in the production and consumption of organic food products is
nothing but positive, regardless of whether the results of such growth mean
the same kind of industrialization and centralization that has been so
socially and ecologically unjust and destructive to rural cultures. Food &
Water finds nothing redeeming in the fact that H.J. Heinz now owns Earths
Best Baby Foods, M&M-Mars owns Seeds of Change, and Whole Foods is running
roughshod over a once thriving cooperative food movement.
If the question is whether or not H.J. Heinz. M&M-Mars, and Whole Foods
should use toxic pesticides, the answer is obviously "no", they should not.
And if we had a federal government and a democracy that truly reflected the
will of the people, policies outlawing the use of those poisons would be in
But we must go deeper than that. In the pursuit of sane and sustainable
food systems, we must take into account factors that go so far beyond the
simple list of what chemicals a farmer can and cannot use in all 50 states.
Rather, in addition to banning toxic pesticides, we must demand that our
food supply does not become another weapon used for the benefit of the
multinational corporations against the best interests of individuals,
communities, the land, and the environment. Issues of scale, economic
concentration, transportation, resource conservation, animal welfare,
farmer and farm-worker justice, and environmental stewardship, as well as a
much needed emphasis on local production and consumption, must be the
centerpieces of a real and politicized food movement.
Unfortunately, the sad truth is that organic agriculture and the emaciated
movement that surrounds it have been cleansed of many of their original
radical roots in favor of being mere businesses. The conservative produce
trade publication "The Packer" provided the best analysis of the new
"Is organics a movement or a business?" asked The Packers Larry Waterfield
in an editorial shortly after the organic standards announcement. "Well, it
used to be a movement towards environmentally friendly food production, now
its a business." And its the business side of organic agriculture that
seems delighted with the prospects of an organic Twinky or Pepsi-Cola;
whatever it takes for almighty growth, it contends. But its a fixation on
the growth imperative that is inherently destructive.
The industrialization of organics through national standards promotes
anonymous consumption, not knowing or even caring--who produced the food or
where it was produced. And its this kind of thinking that has hijack the
mainstream organic food industry. Just take a look at the shiny,
neon-supercenters in nearly every suburban neighborhood featuring "health
food" and the same old message that your happiness is only the next
As for where the food was grown, how the farmworkers were treated, the
enormous amounts of fossil fuels used to produce and transport food on that
scale, and any connection or support for the struggling local farmers, we
are seduced into not worrying about it. God forbid that the happy organic
shopping experience be interrupted by a bit of reality.
Chasing Their Tails (Again)
Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the USDAs organic standards were
the pathetic responses that permeated the activist community. Almost
without exception, groups went into a frenzy and issued one action alert
after another calling for the lowest of the lowest common denominator of
activism: call or write the the USDA and beg them to make it a little
better. Worse, many of the action alerts counseled people to be "polite,
and unemotional" when communicating with the USDA. Its apparently not
enough for them to be under the organic-hating boot of the USDA, but they
also want to be content and compliant about it too.
Most of the action alerts sent out by activist groups centered around the
USDAs potential inclusion of irradiation , sewage sludge, and
genetic-engineering in the standards. But to get lost in the undertow of
wrangling about irradiation, sludge, and genetic engineering is to fall for
these red-herring issues meant to distract us from the realization that the
entire concept of "national organic standards" is destructive. It puts us
in the demeaning position of begging for insignificant changes to something
we shouldnt be asking for in the first place.
Food & Waters initial reaction to the news that irradiation may be
included in the National Organic Standards was a not too facetious
statement that "they deserve each other". In the peculiar reasoning of the
USDA, it makes sense that irradiation would be included in any attempt to
industrialize organics. Putting organic agriculture on the well-greased
path of unchecked growth and corporate concentration inevitably means the
organic industry will get bigger, and as a result, dirtier and less
accountable. But with nuclear waste powered irradiation units waiting at
the end of the line for organically produced commodities--Presto!--the
problem of dirty organics will be "solved". Sadly, that is Glickmans and
the USDAs great "vision" for the future of organics.
It doesnt even help to contact the USDA and tell them to "get out" of
organics; they dont understand that language. The USDA is a bureaucracy
that maintains its existence through such programs. At a gathering of
organic farmers in Vermont last February, USDA officials heard hundreds of
comments demanding that the USDA "get out" of organics. One of the USDAs
officials on hand, Grace Gershuny, the author of the first draft of the
standards, arrogantly responded in a newspaper article that "there were
practically no helpful comments on anything' since 'most of the comments
focused on we dont want it, get rid of it and are not substantive about
what should be".
Creating The New Movement
The USDA is here to stay with organics and it appears from our perspective
that were faced with two distinct possibilities: beg and whine for the
standards to be a little bit better, or get on with the necessary work of
building real food security.
It seems obvious that when the ideals of a movement become the fodder for
federal bureaucracies, its time to move on. When the so-called food
revolution, formerly known as organic agriculture, becomes just another
opportunity for economic expansion, devoid of any of its political roots,
it ceases to be a revolution. Just as the word "natural" has been so
disturbingly devalued and rendered meaningless , "organic" is on the same
To adequately attack the industrialization of organic agriculture and begin
to re-envision the "next food movement" we need to first abandon the notion
that anything of substance can be accomplished through overly simplified
actions. Calls to our legislators, letters to our federal agencies, and
meetings with our representatives might make some of us feel warm and fuzzy
about democracys theories, but in the long run, it merely gives
credibility to the corruption.
Simple actions inevitably lead to false solutions, as evidenced by the
decades of foot dragging and deceitful acts of congress to address the
problems of unnecessarily applying toxic pesticides to our food supply.
Sure, the industrial-congressional partnership can point to laws with names
like "The Food Quality Protection Act" but what have they actually done
besides distracting us all and giving corporate barons plenty of time to
take their money and run.
We need to challenge basic assumptions of a purely market-based food
system. that is incapable of comprehending all of its destructive
tendencies. A cheap organic carrot shipped in from South America may make a
Vermonter feel pretty good about his or her own health, but what about the
related issues regarding scale, transportation, and resource conservation?
And if were at all serious about "saving the family farm" shouldnt we
start by rooting our diets in the foods produced locally?
Ultimately, combating an industrial food supply--organic or not--is about
challenging the anonymity of consumption, the destructive notion that
suggests that we dont have to care where anything came from or who
produced it as long as its cheap and available. The more that we strive to
shorten the distance between ourselves and our food supply, the less
anonymous it becomes and the more direct accountability there is between
producer and consumer.
The ultimate certifier for the manner in which food products are produced
should not be a monolithic federal government, but rather a mutually
trusting and celebrated relationship between the producer and the consumer,
the community, or, at the very least, local or regional certifiers, with
an understanding of localized social, ecological, and economic needs. In
other words, what we should be striving for is assurance of familiarity.
No, these are not "simple" actions you can take. Producing your own food,
getting "to know:" your farmer, visiting farmers markets, being actively
involved in meaningful co-ops, or being diligent in shunning a monopolized
food supply is certainly not easy. But its necessary if our goal is to not
only fundamentally change a very destructive food system, but the
underlying culture that makes it all possible.
Be assured: you wont find Food & Water playing in the regulatory quicksand
of attempting to modify the USDAs National Organic Standards. Because its
now time to shed such incrementalism and begin to create a destiny the
public can get excited about. And it all has to start with the realization
that what we thought was an organic "movement" is now dead; it has sadly
been co-opted by market forces, federal bureaucracy, and a culture
hell-bent on false convenience.