The Coastal Post - February, 1998

Federal Agriculture Is Gutting Organic Farming

By Jeannette Marie Pontacq

Do you know what organic agriculture means? Having read the Department of Agriculture's recently-published National Organic Program proposal, I can verify that USDA doesn't have a clue. USDA has been working for over five years on defining what would and would not be included in national standards for the growing organic foods industry. They've spent lots of taxpayer money and spoken to lots of experts in the field. The resulting document they have produced is so far from presently-accepted organic standards that one has to wonder what planet USDA staffers have been on for the last five years-certainly not this one.

But putting this egregious proposal down to incompetence would be naive, because in writing the new rules for organic agriculture, USDA consistently overrode the recommendations of the expert panel they had appointed. What they have actually done is to degrade deliberately the meaning of organic to lessen its value to consumers. Why? For years, Agribusiness has been lobbying the USDA to define "organic" only as a standard of identity, not a mark of superior safety or nutrition. After all, agribusiness has watched with unease over the years as organic agriculture came of age and became a 3.5 billion-dollar player, with a 20% growth per year.

The reality is that agribusiness is losing sales to organic agriculture just enough to make it want to step on those pesky upstart organic growers. And the USDA has historically been a friend to agribusiness. To put this in perspective, we need to remember that the last head of the Department of Agriculture was indicted for taking bribes from Tyson Foods. The EPA has acted with the USDA on this document in parts-the same EPA which has turned a blind eye to illegal disposal of toxic substances by big business within conventional fertilizers sold to unwary farmers. When the EPA was caught, they responded by saying that they believed in recycling.

The USDA and its cohorts are part of agribusiness, so their bureaucracies obviously see no discrepancy in using agribusiness thought in determining how to define and regulate organic agriculture, thus the 271-page National Organic Program now proposed.

The ability of you and I to feel secure in buying organic foods is in jeopardy! Sewer sludge, irradiation and bio-engineering are now considered appropriate for organic ag. To define them as organic stretches common sense. But the public needs to look beyond these high-profile debacles. Within the proposal, line by line, are hundreds more negations of organic standards and principles. For example, the buffer zone between organic and non-organic fields is gone, which means that chemical drift can now be a reality. Chemically treated seeds have been approved, as have chemically grown plant starts. Synthetic ingredients are now ok for fertilizers. Antibiotics and some hormones are to be approved for livestock production. Factory farm confinement for livestock is considered organically benign. Non-organic mammalian livestock can be used as organic slaughter stock. Strychnine is now ok, as is the coating of fruits and produce. It appears that ground sheep brains are ok for organic cattle feed, although surely illegal. These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. The document is riddled with many such affronts to organic principles.

Lawyers for the State of California have informally judged this document to be so vague as to be unenforceable on almost any level. The regulations have so many distinctions, categories, sub-categories and permittings by exceptions to prohibitions and forbiddings by negatives to authorizations that they are practically impossible to understand clearly. If lawyers find it hard going, how will farmers manage?

That is the point. Organic farmers will not manage. The proposal as it is destroys organic agriculture as it is now understood. If this proposal goes into effect in anything near its present form, the public will not be able to count on foods really being organically grown without personally knowing the grower. The winner will be agribusiness. Organic agriculture will be in disarray, with public faith in the product gone. It will need to be reinvented by the small, organic growers. I can almost hear Wayne Andreas, head of agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland, chortling in the background.

What to do? If you care about the food you put in your body, if you want a choice in what you eat, there is something you need to do-and right now. A hue and cry needs to be directed at both the USDA and the California Department of Food and Agriculture. California needs to hear from outraged citizens because it has the right to respond to the USDA on behalf of all Californians. Frankly, California will not have the political will to face off with the USDA over this document unless lots and lots of people show that they are behind them. So each one of us needs to make comments in writing to both the USDA and to the CDFA.

Contact:

Ray Green, California Organic Program, 1220 N. Street, Room A-447, Sacramento, CA 95814 (916) 654-0666, E-mail: [email protected]

Contact:

Eileen Stommes, Deputy Administrator, USDA-AMS-TM-NOP, Room 7007-South, AgSO275, POB 96456

Washington, DC 20090-6456, Fax (202) 690-4632, Website www.ams.usda.gov/nop

Refer to Docket #TMD-94-00-2, National Organic Program Proposed Rules, 16 Dec 97. You can obtain a copy of the proposal on the web, either through the USDA site or through the General Printing Office at www.access.gpo.go. Or call GPO at (202) 512-1803 for a hard copy for $8.

If enough people speak up and put their opinions in writing, we may be able to drive a stake through the heart of this beast. Do this now. It's up to you.

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