USDA prepares for an "unfriendly takeover" of the natural foods industry
by Ben Lilliston
he Oxford American dictionary de- scribes the word organic as "of or formed from living things." Consumers generally define organic foods as those produced naturally, without the use of toxic chemicals, drugs, or factory farm techniques.
But how the dictionary, organic farmers, or millions of American consumers define "organic" will soon become a moot point. That is because the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) will soon be defining in legally binding terms exactly what "organic" means. And not in a pithy phrase, but rather in what is expected to be a 600 page document in the Federal Register and given the history of the USDA, many are worried about the impact of these new federal regulations on the natural foods industry.
"This is the institutionalizing of the word 'organic' by the government, and we should pay close attention," says Michael Sligh, Director of the Sustainable Agriculture Program at the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI). Sligh is the former chairman of the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB), an official advisory committee established by Congress in 1990 through the Organic Food Production Act to make recommendations to the USDA on organic standards and labeling practices.
Despite precise recommendations from the NOSB to maintain strict organic standards policies basically in harmony with those advocated by IFOAM, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, and the European Parliament USDA officials have delayed as long as possible in announcing federal regulations on organics.
But now final rules are expected to be published later this year and will likely send shock waves throughout the natural food community. According to several inside sources in Washington who have seen the proposed rules, the USDA not only intends to disregard the NOSB's explicit ban on genetically engineered food and intensive confinement of farm animals, but will actually make it illegal for regional or non-governmental organic certification bodies to uphold organic standards stricter than U.S. government standards. And if the USDA gets away with this in the United States, their eventual strategy will be to use the legal hammer of the GATT World Trade Organization (WTO) to force European and other nations to lower their organic standards as well.
The USDA is struggling with the connotations of the organic label that indicate that no toxic chemical pesticides or fertilizers were used to grow or process the food. The term "organic" is generally considered by the public to indicate healthier food. Activist organizations opposed to unsustainable agriculture practices or genetic engineering have increasingly advised consumers to begin purchasing organic foods.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the USDA have been staunch defenders of genetically engineered foods and high-chemical input agriculture. Both agencies have actively fought against the labeling of genetically engineered foods despite scant scientific research done on their potential human and environmental hazards.
"Time and time again U.S. government officials have ignored citizens' concerns and interests. The USDA understands that the public will never accept chemically contaminated or genetically engineered foods if given any real choice in the marketplace," says Ronnie Cummins, National Director of the Pure Food Campaign. "Our inside sources in Washington have warned us that the new 'organic standards' dictated by the USDA will be bad news. Bad news for the consumer, the natural foods industry, organic farmers, and those farmers thinking of going organic, as well for farm animals and the environment.
The USDA finds itself in a quandary. Central to defining the word organic is to admit that a host of agribusiness practices such as pesticide use, intensive confinement of livestock, hormone injection, and genetic engineering are somehow less healthy. Yet, the USDA, FDA, and EPA have strenuously argued for years that these practices are safe.
In the case of genetically engineered foods, the issue becomes particularly dicey because of the strong public support for labeling of these foods. A February 1997 poll conducted by biotech giant Novartis found that 93 percent of American consumers want to see mandatory labelling of genetically engineered foods. Seventy-three percent claim to "feel strongly" about this. Partly as a result of this controversy, sales of products labeled as "organic" have increased dramatically.
Up until now, there has been little or no testing required on the potential human health hazards of gene-altered foods. In spite of this lack of regulation, several studies have shown that dangerous allergens and toxins can be spread through bioengineered foods. Other studies have shown that antibiotic resistance genes, commonly found in gene-altered food, can make animals and humans more susceptible to dangerous antibiotic resistant bacteria. Besides these human health concerns, the spread of herbicide resistant genes to weeds and wild plants pose a real threat. And finally, the trespass of genetically engineered crops onto adjacent farmlands threatens the economic livelihood of small farmers, particularly organic farmers.
Despite warnings from an increasing number of scientists, this year a wide variety of genetically engineered foods will be placed, unlabeled, on supermarket shelves. Literally thousands of products including nearly all non-organic processed foods will soon include at least some genetically engineered ingredients. Two dozen biotech foods and crops have already been approved for commercialization in the United States, with a small but expanding menu of biotech foods already approved in Europe, Canada, Japan, and other countries. Millions of acres of biotech crops will be harvested this fall in the United States.
Because of these concerns, the NOSB passed a resolution in September 1996 which advised the USDA that "the class of genetically-engineered organisms and their derivatives be prohibited in organic production and handling systems."
The fear by many is that the new USDA rules will subtly but decisively degrade, through a dense and ambiguous 600 page plus document, the label "organic." This will open the door for large-scale agribusiness to high-jack the consumer respectability that comes with the organic label. The result could be devastating to the natural food industry.
These are boom years for the U.S. organic industry. Since 1990, sales of organic food have jumped 20 percent a year, reaching $3.3 billion in 1996, and are projected to grow to $6.5 billion by the year 2000. Total organic cropland has more than doubled since 1991. Sales of organic dairy products are increasing by more than 100 percent annually.
Currently, "certified organic" indicates that the farming methods employed were verified by one of the approximately 40 private or state certification programs nationwide. Genetically engineered foods cannot be currently labeled as "organic."
Many certifiers are concerned that the proposed USDA federal regulations will make it illegal for them to uphold stricter standards than what the USDA allows. Currently, organic standards vary among certification boards. California and Oregon have tough standards, while several states such as Illinois, have vague or nonexistent standards.
The call for national organic standards was largely pushed forward for international trade purposes. The Codex Alimentarius is a group designated by the World Trade Organization as the officially-recognized rule-making body for international trade issues related to food. The Codex has been holding a series of ongoing meetings to define the term "organic" internationally. Thus far, the majority of national representatives participating in the Codex meetings have resisted the inclusion of genetically engineered foods under the organic label, although the U.S. government delegation and the biotech industry have at times lobbied for weaker international standards.
Besides the biotech foods controversy, the USDA proposed federal regulations will attempt to allow meat, eggs, dairy, and other animal products to be labeled "organic," even if the animals have been kept in intensive confinement. This runs directly counter to NOSB recommendations as well as the guidelines of organic certification bodies throughout the world. Humane farming advocates are outraged at the possibility that intensive confinement feedlots, factory-style dairies, or giant corporate hog and chicken installations would be allowed under the new federal regulations to label their products as organic.
"It has historically been a signature of organics to respond to the natural behavior of animals," says Sligh. "We must organize and fight against an `unfriendly takeover' of the organic food movement by the giant food cartels," says Ronnie Cummins.
"If the Clinton Administration and the USDA try to tell us later this year that genetically engineered foods and factory farm animal products can be labelled organic, and try to prohibit state and regional organic standards from being stricter than USDA standards, we must go on the offensive," Cummins says. "Every food co-op, natural food store, buying club, and organic farm must turn itself into a center for activism, educating and mobilizing its members, workers and customers to write letters, send faxes and email and to make telephone calls to elected public officials. Unless the USDA and politicians feel the heat, they seem hell-bent on destroying the alternative food system which we have so laboriously built up over last 30 years. So the time to begin organizing a nationwide grassroots communications and action network is now."
Ben is affiliated with: Sustain: The Environmental Education Group (Chicago, Illinois) and The Pure Food Campaign (PFC), a nonprofit, public interest organization dedicated to building a healthy, safe, and sustainable system of food production and consumption in the US and the world. The PFC's primary strategy is to help build a national and international consumer/farmer/labor/progressive retailer boycott of genetically engineered and chemically contaminated foods and crops. PFC is an ongoing project of the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation on Economic Trends, 1660 L St. NW #216 Washington, D.C. 20036. For updates on food issues and the battle to preserve organic standards, see the Pure Food Campaign's website at: http://www.geocities.com/athens/1527
Send your comments to: USDA National Organic Program, PO Box 96456, Washington, DC 20090, 202-720-3252.