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Victory for Organic Consumers & Farmers:
The USDA Surrenders

Ronnie Cummins
Little Marais, Minnesota

It's nice to win a victory once in a while. After being battered in Seattle, bruised by the mass consumer rejection of proposed organic rules in 1998, and unnerved by the growing controversy over genetically engineered foods, the Clinton and Gore administration find themselves on the defensive. Feeling the heat from consumers, the USDA has apparently decided to call off its food fight -- at least temporarily -- with the nation's 10 million organic consumers, 6,000 retailers, and 10,000 organic farmers. On Wednesday, March 8, the USDA formally surrendered to the organic community by releasing a completely revised proposal for national organic food standards and labels. The new 663-page < > proposal incorporates nearly all of the recommendations made by the National Organic Standards Board and organic activists, including a prohibition on genetic engineering, sewage sludge, irradiation, and a variety of other industrial-style agriculture practices.

A massive, unprecedented consumer backlash in 1998 over the USDA's first proposed regulations shook up the USDA and forced them to back off on plans to degrade organic standards and allow biotech and corporate agribusiness to take over the rapidly growing organic food market. US organic food sales this year will likely reach $8 billion -- a sizable bite of the $350 billion total annual sales of the nation's supermarkets. At current growth rates organic production will constitute 10% of American agriculture by the year 2010.

Besides backing off on the "Big Three" (genetic engineering, sewage sludge, and irradiation) the USDA bureaucrats bowed to grassroots pressure and basically agreed that any product bearing the label "USDA Certified Organic" will have to be produced without toxic pesticides or toxic "inert ingredients"; that antibiotics, growth hormones, and rendered animal protein can not be administered or fed to animals; that factory farm-style intensive confinement of farm animals will not be allowed; and that no synthetics or chemicals will be allowed in organic production without the approval of the National Organic Standards Board. In addition the USDA basically agreed to leave the preexisting system of private and state organic certifiers intact; to allow accredited state and private organic certifiers to uphold higher standards than the USDA; and for licensed organic certifiers to be able to display their logos or seals on the front label panel of organic products. Finally the USDA backed off on their previous proposal to outlaw "eco-labels" which might imply that a product was organic.

The most obvious problems

Despite major improvements in the current proposed USDA organic standards over what was put forth in 1998, there are a number of problems and shortcomings in the lengthy March 8 document. Among the most obvious problems are the following:

  • So-called "natural foods" with less than 50% organic ingredients will be allowed to list their organic ingredients on their information panel--usually on the back of the package--even though the non-organic ingredients of these products may be genetically engineered, irradiated, derived from sewage sludge, or produced with pesticides, growth hormones, or antibiotics.
  • Manure from factory farms will be allowed to be used as a fertilizer on organic farms.
  • Although the proposed regulations on organic animal husbandry require "access to outdoors," no clear definition of what constitutes "pasture" are offered, nor does the USDA delineate exact space or spacing requirements for humane housing and outdoor access for poultry, pigs, cattle, and other animals.
  • Although the USDA claim they don't intend to impose economic hardships on organic certifiers and farmers, the added costs of USDA oversight will fall heavily on small certifiers and farmers. The USDA should provide accreditation services to organic certifiers free of change as well as subsidize the costs of any farmer who wishes to become certified as organic. Beyond this the USDA should allocate funds to pay farmers a premium price for their products during their "transition to organic" phase as an added incentive for the majority of farmers to begin making the transition to sustainable and organic farming practices.
  • Although genetic contamination of organic crops by "genetic drift" from farms growing genetically engineered crops is one of the most serious environmental threats to organic agriculture, no residue limits for genetic contamination are delineated in the USDA's proposed federal regulations. The USDA must hold biotechnology patent holders and seed companies accountable and financially liable for the environmental and economic damage inflicted on organic farmers and producers caused by genetic drift.

Proposed RulesVersus Final Rules: Consumer Vigilance & Comments Required

Although organic consumers and farmers should be proud of the fact that our collective grassroots efforts have forced the government to adhere to high standards in these proposed rules, we need to keep in mind that the March proposed rules are not final regulations. After a 90-day official comment period -- which ends June 12 -- the USDA could bow once again to pressure from corporate agribusiness and the biotechnology industry and issue a set of weaker final rules, filled with legal loopholes and exemptions. For this reason it is important once again for us to flood the USDA with thousands of comments -- which can be sent either by email (go to the USDA website listed above); by fax (703-365-0760); or regular mail (Keith Jones, National Organic Program, USDA-AMS-TMP-NOP, Room 2945-So., Ag Stop 0275, PO Box 96456, Washington, D.C. 20090-6456). When sending comments by fax or regular mail identify your comments as referring to docket number TMD-00-02-PR. Please demand that the USDA deal with the five problems we've noted above, but stress first and foremost that the USDA should not weaken the provisions outlined in the March proposed rules in any manner whatsoever.

Industrial Agriculture Takes Over the World: Must Organic Remain a Niche Market?

The main problem with "USDA Certified Organic," as outlined in the proposed rules, is not so much what the government says, but rather what they deliberately ignore or fail to say. There's not a word in the new organic standards about the evermore obvious dangers of industrial agriculture and genetic engineering. Not a word about the 80 million cases of food poisoning every year in the U.S. resulting directly from the filth, disease, and chemical contamination inherent in factory farming and industrialized food processing. Not a word about rampant pesticide contamination and hormone-disrupting chemicals in our food supply. Not a word about tons of antibiotic drugs on factory farms being routinely fed to animals to make them grow faster, which end up as residues in non-organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products -- giving rise to dangerous drug-resistant strains of salmonella and campylobacter.

In the USDA proposal there's not a word about billions of pounds of pesticides and nitrate fertilizers contaminating more and more of the nation's municipal water supplies. Not a word about the nation's food and water-related cancer epidemic (48% of all males and 38% of all females in the U.S. can now look forward to getting cancer), or the even deadlier toll resulting from heart disease and obesity -- directly related to Americans' overconsumption of junk food, meat, and animal products. Not a word about the growing international call, endorsed by the British Medical Association among others, for a global moratorium on genetically engineered foods and crops. Instead the US Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman once more repeated the Big Lie of Biotechnology and Corporate Agribusiness on March 7:

"Organic does not mean it is superior, safer, or more healthy than conventional food. All foods in this country must meet the same high standards of safety regardless of their classification."

On the sustainability front, there's not a word in the proposed organic regulations on reducing "food miles." Not a word on how the average over-processed, over-packaged, chemically and genetically-contaminated food product in the US has traveled 1500 miles (burning up incredible amounts of non-renewable energy and releasing climate disrupting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere) before arriving at your supermarket. There's no mention of the fact that recent statistics indicate that the single greatest cause of global warming and climate destabilization may be industrial (i.e non-organic, non-sustainable, non-locally produced) agriculture. Likewise there's not a word in the new National Organic Program about the urgent necessity of preserving biodiversity, in terms of food crops, animal breeds, and wild species.

The US and Global Farm Crisis: Organic Niche Markets Are Not Enough

Finally the proposed organic rules have little or nothing to say about the life or death economic crisis currently confronting American farmers and rural communities. Likewise the USDA is silent on the frightening implications of the further industrialization and globalization of agriculture for the world's two billion small farmers and rural villagers. The bottom line is that no one today is making any money in agriculture except for the transnational corporate giants who control farm commodity prices, agricultural input prices, seeds, patents, and retail food sales. In other words Wal-Mart, McDonald's, Monsanto, Dupont, Cargill, Coca-Cola, Tyson, Con-Agra, Kraft, and Archer Daniels Midland are making billions while family farmers in the U.S. and all over the world are going bankrupt. In America today, 94% of the average farm family's income comes from wages earned off the farm. Even as far back as 1990 the USDA admitted that 70% of the nation's two million farmers were not earning enough income to support a family. In the state of Minnesota, for example, it is estimated that 8% of all farmers will be driven into bankruptcy or forced to give up farming in the next 12 months.

The implicit assumption in USDA agricultural policy is that the 10% or so of American small farmers who eventually switch over to organic production over the next decade will probably survive, and even, in some cases, prosper. The remaining 90% of U.S. farmers will either be forced to sell their land or consolidate their operations into giant biotech and chemical intensive factory farms, leaving them the option of becoming tractor drivers or tenant farmers. The implications for public health, biodiversity, and a sustainable climate and environment of having organic and sustainable agriculture remain nothing more than a small "niche market" alongside a monstrous North American network of biotech and industrial ag factory farms is not reassuring. Applied on a global scale this chemical and genetically engineered driven model of agriculture will be literally catastrophic.

Food Agenda 2000: Transforming American Agriculture

The growing U.S. and global citizens movement against genetic engineering and corporate globalization can draw inspiration from the fact that America's organic community woke up, got organized, and forced the USDA to maintain strict organic standards, at least for the moment. This is an important and historic victory for citizen action, comparable in significance perhaps to the U.S. anti-nuclear movement stopping the building of new nuclear plants in the late-1970s. Our common victory in this Save Organic Standards campaign underlines the effectiveness of mass-based public education and mobilization in this new era of computer-based information and global internet communications. But of course this unprecedented rebellion of granola eaters, organic farmers, environmentalists, animal protection advocates, and health conscious soccer moms is just the beginning.

The challenge over the next months and years will be to see if organic consumers, environmental organizations, farm activists, churches, and public interest groups can build upon this tactical victory and begin making headway in the bigger battle -- driving genetically engineered crops off the market all over the world, beginning to phase-out the most dangerous practices of industrial agriculture, and jump-starting the conversion of the majority of the world's agriculture to organic methods as soon as possible. To do this means we'll have to organize a mass base of support in every local area and state, form national networks and coalitions, and then link up with our counterparts all over the world. We and our allies, from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to the Consumers Union and the National Family Farm Coalition, have already started to do this, but we've still got a long road ahead. If we're going to see 30% of more of American agriculture go organic before the end of the decade we're going to have to build up a powerful nationwide network of organic consumers. If we're going to drive Frankenfoods off the market, and clean up the mess of chemical-intensive agriculture we'll need a lot of political clout.

Published in In Motion Magazine April 22, 2000.

Ronnie Cummins.
Originally published by Ronnie Cummins in the February 2000 issue of the Internet publication BioDemocracy News. Republished with permission.

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The Campaign for Food Safety is a public interest organization dedicated to building a healthy, safe, and sustainable system of food production and consumption. We are a global clearinghouse for information and grassroots technical assistance.To subscribe to the monthly electronic newsletter, BioDemocracy News, send an email message to: < > with the simple message: subscribe pure-food-action.

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