Have Some Flounder In Your Organic Tomatoes?
No Thanks, I Think I’ll Pass

Cashing in on the organic market

By Signe Waller


A running debate among organic farmers over the years focused on the development of a national standard and regulations for organically produced agricultural products. The 1990 Farm Bill included The Organic Foods Production Act and required the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to come up with such a standard, and with procedures for certifying that the farms and handling operations bringing "organically produced" wares to market are in compliance with it.

Many farmers were concerned that uniform government standards would amount to a set of regulations favorable to agribusiness and hostile to small-scale organic agriculture. Best leave matters to individual farmers and communities, where trust and first-hand acquaintance will sort out the cheats. Elected officials mostly appear to be out of touch with the fears, dreams, and sentiments of ordinary, non-multibillionaire folks in all our glorious diversity. Is this the government you want writing your standards for organic food? Good point.

At Earthcraft Farm, we refrained from lining up with the yeas or nays in advance, because if the government could and would do a creditable job of setting organic standards, it was exactly the sort of intervention we wanted. We wanted them to establish the highest standards and enforce those high standards in a way that enables organic farmers like ourselves to make a living. So we saw a possible role for Washington. Agribusiness saw a role for Washington, too.

Left to its own devices thus far, the organic movement has established very high standards. We have worked hard to change the reputation of "organically grown" from "those funny-looking, shriveled-up freaks of nature" to "that fresh, tasty, wholesome and beautiful natural bounty." Pocketbooks have followed taste buds and health admonitions. Total retail sales of organic commodities went from $78 million in 1980 to $1 billion in 1990 to $3.5 billion in 1996. The National Organic Program on the verge of implementation, claims USDA Secretary Dan Glickman, will stimulate even greater future growth in the organic industry. Do I hear a Capone-like whisper in the back rooms of agribusiness—"Okay, boys, move in."

The 1990 law provided for a USDA-appointed National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to make recommendations. The strict organic standards policies the NOSB proposed to the USDA were essentially in harmony with those advocated by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements.

"Organic hijacking" is the way commentator Ben Lilliston, affiliated with Sustain: The Environmental Education Group and The Pure Food Campaign, describes the USDA’s response to those recommendations. Among the most egregious USDA proposals are ones that would allow genetically engineered and irradiated foods to carry the organic label. Other alarming features concern guidelines on the use of raw manure and toxic sludge. The proposed federal regulations would allow meat, eggs, dairy, and other animal products to be labeled "organic" even if the animals were kept in intensive confinement. Adding insult to injury is a proposal whose implications would be to prevent any certifiers from upholding stricter standards than the USDA’s.

When the proposed rules were announced on December 15, 1997, the USDA invited public comment within a 90-day period, specifically on the subjects of genetically engineered organisms, irradiation of organic foods, and the use of raw manure in growing organic foods.

Genetic engineering is the use of techniques that alter the molecular or cell biology of an organism by means not possible under natural conditions or processes. It includes recombinant DNA, cell fusion, micro- and macro-encapsulation, gene deletion and doubling, introducing a foreign gene, and altering the positions of genes. (It does not include such techniques as breeding and hybridization.) The NOSB recommended genetically engineered organisms and their derivatives be categorically prohibited in organic production. There has not been any long-term safety testing of genetically engineered foods on human beings. So far, the only sure non-genetically engineered food source available to consumers not wishing to become human guinea pigs is the organic market: currently, genetically engineered foods cannot be labeled "organic."

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the USDA have been staunch supporters of genetically engineered food and have fought against labeling to identify such foods. This year, a wide variety of genetically engineered foods will be put, unlabeled, on supermarket shelves. It is impossible for the USDA to know that the radical new technology of genetic engineering is harmless. Cornell-trained molecular biologist John Fagan, who returned $1.5 million in NIH grants rather than risk harmful genetic engineering applications from his research, heads a coalition of scientists, organic food producers, and consumer activists opposed to genetically engineered food in the organic market. "Many scientists believe that the genetic manipulation of the food supply could set off a chain reaction throughout the entire ecosystem, upsetting the delicate balance in nature for generations to come," Fagan said. "Unlike chemical or nuclear contamination, genetic pollution cannot be cleaned up or contained. The effects of genetic mistakes are irretrievable and irreversible."

Similarly, the effects on human health of irradiating food are not known by the FDA, the USDA, or anyone else. Irradiating food is a technological quick-fix answer to pathogens in meat and other foods—health hazards due largely to the concentration and monopolization of the food industry. Is zapping food with radioactivity, breaking down its molecular structure and causing the formation of new chemical substances, living in reverent harmony with nature? As Mark Retzloff of Horizon Organic Dairy, commented, "irradiation was not even on our radar screen. It’s hard to imagine a food that has been irradiated to be considered organic."

Also permitted by USDA, against NOSB recommendations, is the intensive confinement of animals. This is a blow to humane farming advocates. Many have turned to organic products because their ethical standards require them to respect the natural behavior of animals. If USDA has its way, intensive confinement feedlots, factory-style dairies, and huge corporate hog and chicken installations would be allowed to label their products as organic.

The USDA says, "...there is inadequate data to make the determinations necessary regarding the safety of the crop after application of raw manure." At Earthcraft Farm, we are opposed to the use of raw manure on land that is being prepared to grow food. Raw manure should be thoroughly composted to be safe: then it is a marvelous organic fertilizer. Neither will we use sludge as a fertilizer. There is, perhaps, a noble sentiment favoring the use of sludge (which consists largely of human waste)—the desire to close the ecological circle of waste and consumption by recycling. In reality, however, sludge is everything you ever washed down your kitchen sink in the suspicion or knowledge that it was poisonous. Sludge contains industrial waste products, like heavy metals, and it is full of various toxic materials. As Ronnie Cummins of the Pure Food Campaign says, "the thought that organic farm fields could be soaked year after year with toxic substances (industrial sludge) is outrageous."

Criticism and consternation greeted the USDA’s proposed organic standards, even among growers and merchandisers who were glad to see the government finally endorsing organic as a production method. One large organic grower warned of the need to continue struggling for a national organic standard with high integrity. "At Pavich," said Tom Pavich of Pavich Family Farms, "there is no gray area about our stance on irradiation, the use of sewage sludge, the use of antibiotics in livestock production and genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). We are absolutely opposed to these practices in organic agriculture and processing, and believe strongly that they should be left out of the final draft of the national organic regulations."

What kinds of pressures on the Department of Agriculture drove them to take the recommendations of the NOSB and turn those standards on their head? A clue is provided by Mark A. Kastel, a policy analyst for the Cooperative/Organic Valley Family of Farms. "The law enables factory farming and allows corporations to cash in on the good name we have established for organic," says Kastel. He points out that the USDA’s rules are so compatible with the existing industrial and management practices of large companies they would be able to call their products "organic" with very few changes aside from feeding their livestock organic feed. "Corporate agribusiness would love to take the word ‘organic’ because of its high value," he summarizes. This high value is apparent from organic dairy product sales that are increasing by more than 100 percent annually and from the projection that, by 2000, organic food sales will grow to $6.5 billion.

The USDA’s National Organic Program is a rank attempt to capture the organic market and co-opt the entire movement: the accumulated value that inheres in past organic activity would be delivered over to agribusiness and the biotech industry. Of course, the success of this plan depends on duping people so that a food product tortured with foreign genes and nuclear bombardment is seen as "organic."

A thread connects the most offensive of the USDA’s regulations—it is a thread of subservience to the currently dominant and environmentally unsustainable agricultural system, which is a division of corporate industry. Organic farmers provide an alternative. On any level playing field, the alternative would win and agribusiness knows it. The food and biotech industries want to keep animals in intensive confinement in factory farms to make huge profits. Confinement operations need a place to get rid of the massive amounts of raw manure they produce. Agribusiness wants to spread it over fields immediately without taking the time, or incurring the expense, to compost it and thus make it into a non-toxic, well-balanced fertilizer. The new organi-agri-businesspeople, by not dissipating the nitrogen content of raw manure through composting, would be able to grow, grow, grow, and sell, sell, sell, at a more furious pace and make more money. Their product—food genetically engineered to look fresh longer and be shipped further—would have the USDA seal of approval saying it is organic.

This would be an immensely profitable arrangement for agribusiness and the biotech industry. Hence, they want to establish genetic engineering and the use of raw manure on food crop fields as part of an organic regime. Similarly, the use of toxic sludge elicits no qualms in profiteers looking for cheap methods of fertilization. Finally, the contaminated products of these careless, loveless procedures could be irradiated and still bear the proud label "organic." The only thing wanting in this nightmare scenario is to check the opposition by making it illegal to uphold a higher organic standard: Fear not, USDA regulations address that detail. If ever there was a time for protest, this is it.

Government policies in the 1970s and 1980s facilitated turning over thousands of family farms to corporate agribusiness, using debt and forfeiture as the takeover instrument. Analgously, the New Organic Program would promote the demise of small organic farms and extend agribusiness control over the food supply, gratis government policy.

Signe Waller is a farmer and freelance writer in Carroll County, Indiana. To protest or comment, contact the USDA: National Organic Program, PO Box 96456, Washington, DC 20090.