The New Organics
What the USDA's seal of approval means to you

After a 10-year roller-coaster ride through Washington's rule-making process, the mandate of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 was fulfilled in late 2000 with a final ruling. For the first time in the United States, this action creates a single, national standard for certified organic foods.

While much of the organic food found in the marketplace has been certified, the standards have varied among a network of private and government certifiers; the new national standard eliminates these discrepancies and establishes the same requirements for all. Once the federal rule is instated and the "USDA Organic" label appears on foods in late 2002, consumers will have the benefit of knowing exactly what the standards are and that they are consistent from store to store and state to state.

"There are a lot of good things about having a federal rule [for organics]," says Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), based in Greenfield, Mass. "The primary benefit for everyone is that there's a consistent regulation applied throughout the United States. If you think an organic product is fraudulent, you can at least check on it. Organic isn't just a term to convince you to buy a product without any guarantee."

And that guarantee includes many of the principles of organic methods that consumers and the organic community have always held dear.

To receive national organic certification, foods must meet the following stipulations:

  • Genetically modified organisms (GMOs)—meaning gene transfer across species—are prohibited.
  • Irradiation and the use of processed sewage sludge as fertilizer are prohibited. Organic livestock must have access to pasture, organically grown feed and humane treatment; antibiotics and growth hormones are not permitted (sick animals are treated, but removed from the herd).
  • Synthetic pesticides and herbicides are not used. Organic farmers instead rely on a repertoire of practices—including cover crops, crop rotation, beneficial insects, companion planting, and use of compost—to create the healthy and fertile soil that results in hardy plants.

To earn certification, organic farmers and processors must keep ongoing detailed records and audit trails of methods used, and land must be free of applied chemicals for three years before its crops can be labeled organic.

The rule's 18-month implementation period is well under way, and consumers can expect to see the USDA's organic seal and new labeling scheme on organic products in October 2002 (see "Labeling Guidelines").

Until the implementation period is complete, conscientious consumers should shop as usual: Look for certified organic foods (many of today's private and state certification agencies will simply become accredited under the USDA law), and buy from reputable grocers who take seriously their role as gatekeepers in the chain of organic integrity. And when you can, visit farmer's markets or join a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm and buy directly from farmers who can tell you exactly what methods they use.

Why Organic?
In short, the organic label means reducing risks for the future of the environment and future generations. Under the new law, all foods bearing the organic label (except those from very small producers) must be certified to USDA standards, with oversight by the National Organic Program (NOP), a division of the Agricultural Marketing Service of the USDA.

For many of us, organically grown foods have always represented the very best choice. Organic farming methods restore and protect the environment, support biological diversity and healthy farms, and protect the health of farmworkers. And from a more immediate perspective, organic foods are appealing for their quality, freshness and flavor. While many proponents have always considered organics more wholesome, studies are just now being done on the nutrition content of organic foods vs. their conventionally grown counterparts. One preliminary study showed organics to have a significantly higher nutrient content—for example, 27 percent more vitamin C (see "Organics Prove More Nutritious").

The organic choice has always meant more. When we buy organically certified foods, we buy the assurance that the foods we're giving ourselves and our families are free of toxic pesticides. And, the purchase of organic foods sends a message: We deserve to know where our foods come from and how they are grown, and we have the right to know what's in them. That message is being heard.

From humble beginnings, the organic market has grown to reach heights that very few predicted in its early years. Today, organic foods (including both fresh and processed items) are estimated to be a $6-7 billion market in the United States, and about $21 billion globally, growing at double-digit rates.

From The Ground Up
Organic agriculture is, first and foremost, a choice in favor of clean soil, water and air. Many billions of pounds of pesticides have been released into the environment since these chemicals were first widely introduced for use in agriculture after World War II. Today, annual pesticide use remains at about 5-6 billion pounds per year, according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) research.

Many of these chemicals are toxic and highly persistent, remaining in the soil, water and air for decades after their use. For example, DDT—a highly poisonous insecticide whose damaging effects were chronicled by Rachel Carson in her landmark book, Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1962)—was outlawed for use in this country nearly 30 years ago, yet it's still found in the environment. As these chemical pesticides are spread through wind, water and movement up the food chain, there is virtually no place left on the planet that is truly pesticide-free. And every season, pesticides spread further throughout the environment.

Substantial evidence shows that even legal pesticide residues in foods may be of concern in children's diets. During the 1990s, study after study confirmed that children may be at higher risk from exposure to chemicals, including pesticides, than adults. In addition, children's diets lend themselves to higher proportions of fruits, vegetables and water per pound of body weight—foods likely to have the highest levels of residues.

On The Horizon
While national organic standards are an important step in the evolution of a thriving organic marketplace, they don't guarantee all of the philosophical under-pinnings of the organic label. Some aspects of food production that many consider essential to a sustainable agriculture movement are outside the scope of the USDA's rule. Conscientious consumers may want to support additional values that go beyond the organic label as defined by the USDA:

  • Supporting small farms and local agriculture. "In France the word is terroir, food with a sense of place or terrain," says Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, Calif. "Food must be diversified and relevant to its place and its market. Some things do travel well, but in other cases, when possible, for any number of reasons, you want to keep the local craft vibrant and economically viable."

    DiMatteo agrees: "If that value is important to you, try going to the farmer's market, getting involved with community-supported agriculture and asking your retailer to buy direct from local growers."

  • Supporting organic farming research and education. A recent Gallup survey of more than 1,200 large-scale farmers and ranchers found that while 60 percent of those surveyed were aware of sustainable farming practices, only 23 percent are using them. A full 36 percent said that they just didn't know how.

    "The knowledge base of organic farming largely exists under trial and error rather than academic understanding and the free exchange of ideas," says Scowcroft. Why does it matter to you, the consumer? "Research helps us be better farmers, which might not only result in better prices for consumers but might also result in cleaner watersheds, more diverse wildlife and increased rural vitality," he explains.

  • Labeling and accountability for genetically modified foods. Foods that are considered genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are widespread in the United States—up to two-thirds of conventional foods may contain them. Environmentalists and health specialists are concerned that these products have not been adequately tested or studied for long-term effects, including allergic responses and uncontrolled environmental problems.

    While the national organic standards prohibit GMOs, the rule cannot address the impact genetically modified crops may have on organic growers. Experts are concerned that, due to natural cross-pollination by wind and insects, GMOs are threatening the integrity of all botanicals as designed by nature. "The fact is that these genes will flow into organic crops unless they are far enough away from each other," says Jane Rissler, Ph.D., a senior staff scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in Washington, and co-author with Margaret Mellon of The Ecological Risks of Engineered Crops (MIT Press, 1996).

    In addition, some GMO crops are engineered with the natural insecticide bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Rissler and other experts are concerned that overuse of Bt in this way may speed insect resistance and weaken Bt as a sustainable farming tool. "With widespread use of Bt crops, insects will develop resistance. Organic growers could lose a very valuable [natural] pesticide," Rissler says.

  • Keeping children's health a priority. As we've seen, children are especially at risk from pesticide residues in food and in the environment. The Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) of 1996 mandates that all pesticides registered by the EPA be re-evaluated in terms of their risk to children. But the wheels have turned slowly, and activist groups such as the Washington-based Environmental Working Group have expressed concern about the government's commitment to following through with FQPA.

An Exciting Future
Despite these concerns, horizons are bright for the organic industry. Even the most conventional food producers have had to sit up and take note of organics' success. Our world, and our children, may have a chance at a better future because of the choices we make in the marketplace today.

"Buying organic is buying environmental protection," DiMatteo says. "It's supporting a reduction in environmental pollution and degradation, and supporting an agricultural system that's trying to change the way things have been done in the past fifty years." And that's just the beginning.