Fields of Dreams
by Laurel Kallenbach
Will the USDA's new organic rules prove a blessing ... or open a Pandora's box?
The next few months could herald a new era for people who care about the purity of their food and the environment. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is poised to finalize and approve strong national organic standards that will help grocery shoppers all across the country determine the extent to which their food is pesticide free. Yet, while supporters of the organic movement are celebrating, a few are already wondering what problems will come of the standards. By passing these strict rules, has the USDA opened a Pandora's box? In addition to releasing wonderful possibilities and ushering in what will surely be a Golden Age of organics, some unpleasant problems may also be unleashed.
Americans from Miami to Anchorage can depend on standardized definitions of organic food once the USDA's proposed national organic standards are approved — hopefully by the end of this year. Starting 18 months after the new regulations pass, organic labels will clearly state what percentage organic ingredients a product contains (see "Look for the Organic Label," right). In addition, the USDA will prevent foods from being labeled as organic if they contain ingredients that have been genetically engineered, irradiated or produced using sewage sludge. "These standards will provide a clear set of labeling that gives consumers the ability to make choices about the products they buy," says Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association.
Thanks to thousands of concerned consumers, we have this latest version of national organic standards, which have been in the formative stages for a decade. The 1997 version of the USDA-proposed standards would have allowed genetically modified organisms (GMOs), irradiated and sewage sludge-treated foods to be labeled organic, but public outcry stopped the agency in its tracks. More than 275,000 people wrote in, complaining about the proposal. "We turned the USDA around on its head," says Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation.
"Consumers get a good, protective labeling and production standard from this proposed rule," says DiMatteo. "Passage of the regulations will create a more secure marketplace for organics in general." She anticipates that over a period of years, as demand for and production of organic food escalates, grocery prices will go down. "As more products become available and we establish better distribution systems and transportation, retailers won't have to ask higher prices for organics because they have limited supply," she says.
Opening Pandora's Box
While those in the organic community generally agree these new organic guidelines are good news for the consumer, some sticking points remain, primarily surrounding issues of contamination of organic crops caused by drifting pesticides, herbicides and GMOs. The public was allowed a period of comment that ended in June, and now all that's left to do is await what will hopefully be refined organic regulations. Though it could be months until these are announced, here's a review of some of the thornier issues that may face organic farmers and producers if the standards pass as currently written.
One of the biggest gaps in the mostly positive national organic rules is the lack of direction in cases of contaminated organic crops. "We need better guidelines about what happens if organic producers lose income or crops due to circumstances beyond their control, such as unwanted drift from pesticides, herbicides or genetically engineered crops," says DiMatteo. When pollen from a genetically engineered plant is deposited on an organic crop via wind or insects, she explains, that gene may be incorporated into the product, possibly rendering it unfit to be labeled organic.
"How do you test the wind for pollen? How do you test insects carrying pollen?" asks Scowcroft. "If there's drift that ruins an organic crop, organic farmers shouldn't be penalized. They may have to destroy their crop, but the government should compensate them. In cases of genetic drift, the owners of the patented gene should be liable for keeping their product out of our marketplace. We don't want that burden to be on the backs of family farmers. It's not their responsibility to deal with technology run amok on environmentally clean farms," he says.
The integrity of humanely produced meat, dairy products and eggs is also at stake. When labeled organic, these products are supposed to come from free-ranging animals, but a loophole in the proposed standards could allow products from intensively confined farm animals to be labeled organic. "If you don't define 'pasture' or 'humane spacing' then you can end up with animals who have only a theoretical access to the outdoors," says Ronnie Cummins, the national director of the Organic Consumers Association. "The way it's written now, factory farms could get by calling themselves organic."
A dearth of organic research and resources is another issue raised. "We know so little about the organic market, crop rotation, nonchemical weed control or how to develop an organic farm business plan," Scowcroft says. "We need appropriations to get organic farmers their fair share of research and marketing dollars."
Cummins agrees, pointing to monetary discrimination against organic farmers. "Last year the USDA gave $25 billion to conventional agribusiness, but it's proposing putting only $5 million or $6 million into organic businesses. That's absurd." He feels government has pigeonholed the organic industry as a small niche market that won't threaten business as usual. "My dream is that organic will become the dominant form of agriculture," he says. He hopes for the day when organic food is served in schools and hospitals. "When you send your kids off to school to eat lunch, they're getting the lowest grade, most contaminated food there is," he says. "The Berkeley, Calif., school district is the only one in the nation to include organic food in its school-lunch program."
In addition, Cummins and the Organic Consumers Association have been leading a campaign advocating the USDA to maintain the integrity of the proposed organic rules, to allow nongovernmental organic certifiers to state on their label that the product exceeds USDA organic standards, and to forbid foods with less than 50 percent organic ingredients to use the word "organic" anywhere on the package.
The Plight of the Organic Farmer
Though national standards will likely increase public awareness of organics and demand for organically grown produce, meat and dairy products, organic farmers still have a tough row to hoe. It's a positive sign that giant agriculture businesses are buying organic companies and starting their own organic divisions, resulting in increased organic acreage nationwide. Yet, small farmers need help to transition from conventional to organic agriculture. "If the government was serious about helping farmers go organic, certification fees would be free," says Cummins. "Most organic farmers gross less than $30,000 a year, so a bunch of fees is a hardship. We think that organic certification — since it benefits all of society — should be free, and organic farmers should be subsidized."
Now is the time to stand by small organic farmers. "Every day, your dollars support the type and size of agricultural production you believe in," DiMatteo says. We must do our part by buying locally grown organic food, shopping at farmer's markets and farm stands, asking retailers to carry more local organic products year-round, buying seasonally and getting to know local farmers. "If a product is organic, it helps the environment and contributes to better health for people and animals, too," she says.
Public confidence in the new organic standards must not lead to complacency. "Consumers shouldn't relax, because the problem isn't completely solved," says Scowcroft. He suggests continuing to support organic foods and farmers in this country, even after the USDA organic label appears on your can of pinto beans or package of pasta. "Push yourself to buy more organically grown foods," he says. "Even with national certification, the organic production system is still fragile. And, if issues like genetic or chemical drift concern you, put pen to paper and write your legislators and the Secretary of Agriculture, demanding more resources for organic agriculture."
Despite some of the problems still facing organics in this country, Scowcroft applauds national organic standards and remains optimistic about the future. "Agriculture is at an incredible crossroads right now," he says. "We have every opportunity to make America a fully organic nation 20 years from now."
Laurel Kallenbach is a health and travel writer from Boulder, Colo.
Photography by: Frank Siteman, Ellen Hanson and Laurie Smith