Environmentalists Fight Against the USDA National Standard for Organic Food

article image
PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
The USDA's attempt to regulate this fast-growing sector of American agriculture suggests that the agency can no longer ignore consumer demand nor the growing community of organic farmers, many of whom are small-scale producers.

Consumers and environmentalists are against the new USDA national standard for organic food.

What’s in a name? Or, in this case, a label? According to the U.S. Department of
Agriculture (USDA) newest standards if you buy
foods that say “organic,” chances are that they not only
contain modified or irradiated ingredients, but that some
of those ingredients may have been produced using hormones,
antibiotics, and synthetic or sludge fertilizers. Seeking
to consolidate the current patchwork of “organic” and
“natural” labels on foods, the new USDA national standard for organic food will regulate the production and processing of organic
foods and ingredients.

Presently, products marketed as “organic” are certified by
numerous state and private agencies, thereby creating
domestic consumer confusion and complicating the export of
products. But under the USDA’s new proposal, which
Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman called “the most
comprehensive and strongest organic standard in the world,”
all crops, livestock and processed foods that want to
include “organic” on their labels will have to be produced
under uniform guidelines governing the methods, substances
and handling that go into their production. Three
controversial processes in particular — the use of
genetically modified ingredients, the use of radiation to
decontaminate, and the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer —
are specifically prohibited under the new labeling
criteria.

The USDA’s attempt to regulate this fast-growing sector of
American agriculture suggests that the agency can no longer
ignore consumer demand (estimated retail sales of organic
foods in 1999 were nearly $6 billion) nor the growing
community of organic farmers, many of whom are small-scale
producers. In the past, many USDA policies were criticized
for discriminating against both consumers and small
farmers. In a recent press release, however, the USDA
confidently claims that its new standard is “exactly what
American consumers and organic farmers want,” and the
department announced additional measures to promote organic
agriculture, including a trial, risk-management insurance
program to aid the organic farming community.

But will stringent federal regulations encourage
small-scale organic farming? Katherine DiMatteo, the
Organic Trade Association’s executive director, thinks the
rules could hinder rather than help. “Some of the
requirements may prove to be a challenge to the industry
particularly for Smaller operations,” she said in a public
statement. “For instance, will the supply of approved
materials be sufficient to allow production of the organic
products consumers clamor for?”

The genetically modified foods controversy, (“Brave New
Food”, MOTHER, April/May 2000), is a touchy subject where
science, social values and commerce clash, causing both
consumer suspicion and trade blockades. As a precursor to
more recent protests, organic producers, concerned
consumers and environmentalists rallied against the USDA’s
1997 proposal, arguing that its standards not only
threatened the good name of “organic,” but also allowed big
agribusinesses to compete in the burgeoning organic market
by blurring the lines between non-organic and organic
production methods. Now, nearly three years later, those
protests are being accounted for in the USDA’s new
standards. And while the implications of these regulations
for organic farmers remain to be seen — the proposal could
go into effect as early as the end of this year — the
victory for consumers is clear: “Organic,” under any other
label other than “USDA Certified,” simply wouldn’t be
organic.

–Erin Torneo

Need Help? Call 1-800-234-3368