By Donella Meadows
–February 26, 1998–
Back in 1990 when Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act, organic growers celebrated. Now, as the law is about to take effect, they’re livid.
“You’re trying to steal my words,” one of them yelled at USDA officials last week at a Northeast Organic Farmers Association meeting in Vermont. “For years people like you laughed in my face, you thought everything I was doing was ridiculous. Now you’re trying to tell ME what’s organic.”
“I don’t know whether to sink it or fix it,” said another. “It would be better not to have any law than to have this one.”
But a law is needed. The word “organic” on a label implies nature-friendly agriculture and poison-free food. Therefore it’s tempting to slap it onto any old carrots or apples and sell them at a premium. To protect consumers and honest growers from such fraud, there has to be some legal definition, some process, some muscle to guarantee that “organic” means healthy and pure.
For years the USDA considered organic farmers a bunch of kooks and couldn’t care less about their problems. So the farmers organized their own certification processes, first locally, then by state. They spent hours hammering out definitions. It’s obvious that you can’t label your produce organic if you spray it with a synthetic pesticide or fertilize it with chemicals, but what if you grow it under plastic mulch? Or deplete your groundwater? Or use seeds that haven’t been organically grown?
Little by little they defined standards, set up inspections, established markets and created a new kind of agriculture whose success astonished everyone. Organic sales totaled $78 million in 1980 and $3.5 billion in 1996. The business has increased 20 percent per year for the past six years. By the turn of the century a million acres of U.S. farmland will be growing organic crops.
There now are eleven state certification systems and 33 private ones. They are all slightly different, which creates a nest of problems. What if a Vermont certified grower wants to sell in New York? What if a restaurant wants to combine ingredients certified by three different systems and label the result organic? How do all these certification programs get recognized in the booming European organic market? Who decides if imported Israeli tomatoes labeled organic really are?
Hence the need for national standards.
The new law started out swimmingly with the appointment of a National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) made up of organic farmers and marketers, ecologists, and consumer groups. They compared existing certification rules and came up with proposed national rules that were fairly consistent with all of them.
Then the proposed rules were passed to the Office of Management and Budget, as is required of all regulations to be sure they are cost effective and not excessively burdensome. The organic regs came back from OMB with major changes, including what enraged organic farmers call “the dirty three.” 1. Genetically engineered plants and animals are not banned, as long as they are raised without offending chemicals. 2. Municipal sewage sludge is not disallowed as a fertilizer. 3. Foods raised organically and then preserved by irradiation can be called organic.
There are other problems. Hydroponic growing, in nutrient-rich water without soil, is allowed. (The first rule of organic culture is “don’t feed the plant, feed the soil.”) So is animal raising in tight confinement, with as much as 20 percent non-organic feed — and more in emergencies. Refeeding of animal parts to animals (believed to be responsible for the transmission of mad cow disease) is not forbidden.
There are dark thoughts in the organic community about how the gene-splicing multinational corporations must have conspired with the campaign-contribution-dependent Washington politicians to ruin their beautiful word “organic.” Whatever did happen, their idea that food can be raised in ways that respect nature, their years of struggle and devotion, their hard-earned livelihoods are at stake. “We did it because we believed in it, not because there was money in it,” one of them told me. Now there is money in it, and nonbelievers want in.
I asked the growers what will happen if the standards go through as written? “Massive civil disobedience,” said one. “We’ll invent a new word for healthy food and healthy soil and healthy farming and start all over again,” said another.
The situation may not be that dire. The good news is that the rules are up for public comment, and the USDA is reeling from the letters that are pouring in. Within USDA are sympathizers who are more than ready to use those letters to make a case for tightening the standards. This is one time when communicating with your government can really make a difference.
Even better news is that organic agriculture has come so far. There is a real chance for organic practices to assume a major role, greatly reducing the national load of pesticides and fertilizers, air and water pollution. National standards can help that happen — strict national standards.
Wherever there is value, there are counterfeiters. It’s the job of government not to help the counterfeiters, but to protect the real currency. We shouldn’t have to remind the government of that, but sometimes we do.
(You can find the National Organic Program Proposed Rule 7 CFR Part 205 at your library in the Federal Register for December 16, 1997, or you can order a copy by calling 202-512-1800. It can be found on the Web at www.ams.usda.gov/nop. You can send comments to Eileen Stommes, Deputy Administrator, USDA-AMS-TM-NOP, Room 4007-So., Ag Stop 0275, P.O. Box 96456, Washington DC 20090-6456 — or fax them to 202-690-4632. Send copies to your congressional representatives too.)
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1998