A monthly journal of regenerative agriculture
T R A N S I T I O N S
by Steve Sprinkel
Van Buren County, Iowa
DNA Disaster for Monsanto
It has not been a pleasant season for Monsanto, the chief US proponent of
genetically modified agriculture. Europe has gone from "go slow" to nearly
full stop on agricultural biotechnology, and the trade hassles are immense. So
problematic, that some believe that the embargoes and consumer rejection have
an unspoken-of affect on depressed grain prices.
In December, Health Canada ruled against the St. Louis, MO., corporation’s
request that recombinant bovine somatotropin ( rBST- Prosilac) be given the
green light in Canadian dairy production. This decision came after Canadian
researchers revealed that Monsanto had tried to fix the deal with false data
and the kind heavy-handed political tactics they enjoy in US regulatory
systems. Important negative field research "disappeared" from a review
facility. Meanwhile, in Europe, Africa, Japan, seemingly everywhere but in
North America, the health risks and the glaring questions about the unknown
consequences of a genetically manipulated biosphere continue to be
acknowledged and acted on.
However briefly, cautionary commentary did reach some editorial pages
recently. National columnist Molly Ivins wrote in January that "the U.S.
Department of Agriculture is stuck with a dual role as both regulator of
biotechnology and its ardent booster. As we learned with the old Atomic Energy
Commission, which had the same conflicting roles over nuclear power, the
result is complete bureaucratic impotence." Ms. Ivins focused on the so-
called " Terminator Technology", co-owned by the USDA, and soon-to-be Monsanto
subsidiary Delta Pine and Land- if the Security Exchange Commission does not
determine that a monopoly is being built in the seed business these days.
But Monsanto claims that it will respond back with an appeal in Canada. And
you can bet they will. Sixty billion dollars is riding on how this drama plays
out, and that is only what Monsanto has at stake. Worldwide, the future of
multinational corporations with an equity of close to a quarter trillion
dollars is at risk in a volatile, accelerated, and immature market place. With
the Canadian precedent now fixed, European consumers can expect their own
ministries to continue the ban, and not just on rBST, but on US beef cattle
which may have received hormones as well.
One might ask: " What does this have to do with organic agriculture?"
All things have become one big thing ever since this dangerously flawed
technology was commercially released, and until this genie is put back in the
bottle, it will be topic A in this portion of ACRES.
One example of the GMO-versus-Organic battle will soon come to a head when
Greenpeace files a civil suit in Washington in February against the US
Environmental Protection Agency, asking for a court injunction against further
release of GMO crops utilizing Bacillus Thuriengensis. Over twenty organic
farming organizations and dozens of individual farmers are co-litigants. As we
first reported in the fall of 1997, the organic community is asking EPA to
halt the field production of these Bt crops ( corn, cotton, cucurbits, and
others) because this naturally occurring pesticide is one of the most
environmentally safe materials used by organic farmers, as well as many
Don Fitz, a St. Louis advocate for biological sanity, is the editor of
Synthesis/Regeneration. Mr. Fitz recently had a great letter, attacking the
bogus GMO regulatory/political scheme, published in the St. Louis Post
Dispatch. Synthesis/Regeneration Volume 18 is a splendid textbook for anyone
interested in learning the who-why-what and what if? of genetic engineering.
Contact the publication at <email@example.com> on the internet or by mail
c/o WD Press, PO Box 24115, St. Louis MO 63130 or phone314-727-8554
Inertia Equals Sabotage?
Confluence Nature Farm is sited at the joining of the Salmon and Klamath
Rivers in northern California. Out There. They prefer to communicate and sell
seed via the US Post, but are not so far removed that they can’t remain up to
speed on circumstances of national importance. The recently ended comment
period on the National Organic Program’s Issue Papers caused George Stevens of
Confluence, seed grower and open pollinated prophet of an ectopian
agriculture, to say this about the USDA National Organic Program in his winter
"We heartily support the struggle for self determination of consumers and
certifiers…in the face of institutional inertia - bordering on sabotage...."
No matter if you are at the end of the road in the middle of a state forest or
wander inside the DC Beltway, "sabotage" is the kind of word one may use these
days without seeming overly harsh. Most of us involved in private enterprise
would agree that we would have been fired by now if we had not produced the
required product after 8 years.
But the Ice Jam is Breaking Up
Many of us could not help but be thrilled when the USDA Secretary of
Agriculture gave his approval for an interim organic meat labeling capability.
The good ship Organic will have to dodge the havoc that may result because
organic certification standards for meat and poultry are not uniform. I think
one way to resolve the dissimilarities is to kick the whole issue out to
retailers and the public and let them decide whether or not organic meat means
no antibiotics, no parasiticides, and that an organic system of production
clearly disallows the industrial, confinement system.
Carl McKinley, my local butcher at Sun Harvest Farms in Austin, Texas thinks
that this is what it should mean. Mr. McKinley’s common sense was refreshing.
" What do you mean when you say organic meat? A label will mean nothing-unless
I can tell my customers exactly how it was raised. And what they want to know
is "are antibiotics and hormones used?"
When I told Mr. McKinley that some organic standards allow for 20%
conventional feed in organic livestock production, he said " You’ve got to be
To consumers, when you have said "organic" you have said it all. Their
expectations are that a product labeled and sold as organic has been produced
in the absence of synthetics. Consumers want to be able to trust just one word
rather than revert to reading negative claims ( grown without, contains no). "
Organic" was one of the first true specialty " branding" identities in
commerce. Organic went beyond New and Improved and became synonymous with
Consumers expect that the word "organic" will supply them with sufficient
information to make a choice, without having to resort to nuance and
qualification and the study of arcane science. The label on a can of
conventional food is not big enough to print all the substances that may have
been utilized in its manufacture. The FDA and USDA do not demand that the host
of processing aids, manufacturing and hygiene materials, preservatives and
additives that may have been used are so named on a conventional label.
Government calls it " Generally Recognized As Safe" ( GRAS), but common sense
leads an increasing number of consumers to generally recognize nothing as safe
unless the integrity of the product is so well understood that one single word
indicates that it is.
The organic community is scrambling to respond to the opportunity finally
given by USDA. Farmers who have livestock which were not certified when
Secretary Glickman made his announcement on the 14th of January will have to
wait for their certifier to work out some administrative details. Organic
inspectors have not been routinely evaluating organic meat and poultry
production, so that sector will have to get up to speed. Organic Valley, the
marketing label representing farmers in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin, and
chief advocate for the interim label, is already distributing certified
Another long-standing proponent of organic meat label, Mel Coleman, still
believes that the use of synthetic parasiticides should be allowed. Mr.
Coleman was interviewed for an article in the January issue of Organic Food
Business News. According to Mr. Coleman, if these internal pesticides are not
allowed, 75% of beef cattle would have their livers destroyed, and most of the
more valuable parts of the animal would not be marketable.
" It would be virtually impossible for a rancher who produces organic beef to
make a profit",
according to the Colorado rancher. This assertion is subjective and not well
supported by other producers, who have used non-synthetic substances or
devised preventative methods to eliminate parasites. Besides, profitability
should never be listed as a compelling criteria used when determining a
standard of organic production. Many sectors in the organic community continue
to request variances or exceptions to production standards based on "need".
Most organic consumers and rank and file organic farmers say in response: "
If you think you need it, then use it. But just don’t call it "organically
In a press release from Pacific Grove, California, ( where NOP director Keith
Jones spoke at the Ecological Farming Conference), the USDA went on record
saying that the new National Organic Program proposed rule will prohibit
genetic engineering, irradiation and antibiotics in organic production. A
complete prohibition on antibiotics? A qualified prohibition with withdrawal
periods? It seemed like a prohibition was inferred. Not many folks picked up
on the significance of including antibiotics in that list. If it is true, I
believe that it is good evidence that the next proposed rule will more
carefully follow the Organic Foods Production Act, and may even improve upon
it rather than dilute it.
Mr. Jones wants to hear from members of the organic community on four broad
questions which can be addressed by individuals personally:
What is the public/private relationship; what is the organic community
bottomline on standards; what are the underlying organic principals to use in
making the decisions on the unsolved issues related to the second proposed
rule; describe organic food and farming in your own words.
They can be sent by mail to: Keith Jones, Director, National Organic Program,
Room 2510,South Building, Washington, DC 20250
Proposed Appointment Criteria for the NOSB
Ten days before the February National Organic Standards Board meeting in the
national capitol, Michael Sligh, Co-Chair of Organic Committee of the National
Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture authored a comprehensive set of criteria
for future appointees to the NOSB. Key aspects of those criteria are the
mandatory selection small farmers with less than $50,000 in gross income,
demonstrable expertise in organic certification and the capability to review
materials and substances recommended for inclusion or exclusion on the
National List. None of the terms of the current board members expires until
next year, so ample time remains to have new appointees chosen based on the
kinds of requirements enumerated by Mr. Sligh, who is also a former
chairperson of the NOSB.
The full text of that proposal, as well as many other important informational
documents and press releases are found on the world wide web at
http://www.iquest.net/ofma ( the Organic Farmers Marketing Association). Cissy
Bowman, the web-creator for that site, keeps it up to date and up to the
minute with valuable information for organic farmers and consumers.
Compliance with International Standards Organization methodology may overtake,
and perhaps overwhelm organic certifiers and producers in the very near
future, according to USDA officials and industry observers. We may have
dallied too long over uniform national standards in the US, and even
internationally, while this broader uniformity mandate has been churning
along, rarely mentioned in the popular media. International accreditation of
compliance is an increasingly important, mandatory feature of international
trade. It is not just a matter of what the standards are, but how
certification and compliance are achieved, a certification of the accreditor
of the standards of the certifier of the producer, if you will.
Of course many won’t. Big Brother or Big Bother? Direct marketers can afford
to look the other way on this one generally, but grain producers in
particular, livestock producers eventually, and any organization involved in
making organic products available that may be distributed internationally will
have to look at their system of compliance through the lens of ISO.
Is Slicing Cutting or Just Dicing?
An NOSB request for comment seems to infer that some members of the organic
retail sector want to shred some areas of the OFPA. Talking about what we have
already talked about ( ad infinitum) is how I characterize it. At issue is
whether or not a retail handler is "processing" a raw product when the
retailer cuts a watermelon into pieces or bulk items are placed in dispensers
for consumers to fill their containers from. The authorizing legislation
defines processing that way, and therefore a retailer is a processor and
should be certified. Case seemingly closed. Some retailers are concerned that
certification will be expensive, and that they "need" relief from this portion
of national standards for certification. Briefly put, please refer to an
earlier paragraph about "profitability".
FDA Dilutes Its Pamphlet on Pesticides
Under pressure from the food industry, the Environmental Protection Agency has
modified a new brochure about pesticides, putting less emphasis on their
health risks and barely mentioning organic foods as an alternative to foods
grown using toxic chemicals, according to journalist John Cushman. The
pamphlet, which is to be widely distributed at government expense, was one of
the features called for in the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996.
"Fundamentally, EPA took what could have been a really good brochure and
turned it into a propaganda piece for the food industry, which has always
denied that there is a problem with pesticides on food," said Jeannine Kenney,
a policy analyst at the Washington, DC office of Consumers Union.
Herbal Remedies ( $ ) for Organic Farms
Barbara Letchworth, a production specialist at Frontier Herb Cooperative in
south central Iowa spoke recently at two farmer conferences. In Austin, Texas,
at a marketing conference organized by the Texas Organic Growers Association (
under a grant from the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
program ), she described the pros and cons of herb production in good detail,
including post-harvest handling requirements and current and future trends in
production and marketing. She also provided some insight on Frontier’s efforts
to establish populations of endangered plant species, like goldenseal, which
wild-harvesters have decimated in some regions. What should you consider
producing for this expanding sector? If you are in the south, saw palmetto,
kava kava and gotu kola.
At the Indianapolis Horticultural Congress, Ms. Letchworth was also a featured
presenter. Jim Simon, a Purdue extensionist, built a another great education
program for farmers interested in diversifying their production away from
grains and livestock, with talks on specialty vegetables, herbs, and IPM
production programs. When I first walked into the registration area at Indy
Hort, some of the display areas gave me the impression that I had stepped
into at something more like the Asilomar conference ( organized by the
Committee for Sustainable Agriculture in California). What’s this? Mulch
instead of herbicides? Herbs? Asian vegetables?
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