*NATIONAL ORGANIC STANDARDS: THE BATTLE WE CAN'T AFFORD
TO LOSE ____________________________________________________________________
U.S. ORGANIC STANDARDS: HOW TO WIN THE BATTLE
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Over the past 60 days the U.S. Department of Agriculture's proposed rules to degrade organic food standards and outlaw eco-labels have come under increasing attack from consumers, farmers, producers, and natural food retailers. According to Washington sources, USDA bureaucrats have been "surprised and shocked" by the nationwide and now global backlash. In a strategic move to try to contain the crisis the USDA announced on Feb. 10 the resignation of Michael Hankin, Acting Program Manager of the National Organic Program, and his replacement by Keith Jones, an official considered more sympathetic to natural food industry interests. In a nationally syndicated story several days earlier, the Associated Press reported on the flood of protest letters received by the USDA, and highlighted a statement by George Siemon, leader of the nation's largest organic farmers co-op, Organic Valley, based in LaFarge, Wisconsin:
"We as organic farmers and our customers will not sit idly back and have (the rules) force-fed to us by corporate agribusiness lobbyists and bureaucrats in Washington. The farmers of our co-op will not lower our standards."
On Feb. 12, the USDA held the first of four so-called public hearings on the proposed rules in Austin, Texas. Held in an obscure location with very little advance publicity, the hearing nonetheless drew 150 pro-organic protestors, including members of Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, who rallied outside the building and then moved into the meeting room to offer criticisms one-by-one to a panel of rather reticent USDA officials, accompanied by members of the National Organic Standards Board. Apparently the biotech and agribusiness corporations are so confident that the USDA's final rules, expected to be issued later this year, will reflect their interests, that they didn't even bother to send a single representative to the meeting.
Following the meeting Eileen Stommes, Deputy Administrator of the USDA, the official in charge of receiving public comments on the issue, confirmed the Clinton administration's "smokescreen strategy" for implementing their final rules on organic standards. This strategy basically involves utilizing three of the most controversial issues (genetic engineering, sewage sludge, and food irradiation)--which the USDA will temporarily postpone putting into the first set of final rules--as a lightening rod and diversion to distract and divide the opposition. This "big three" diversion is intended to coopt grassroots anger, create the false impression the USDA is willing to compromise, allow opportunist activist organizations to "claim victory," and to lull the natural food industry and consumers into swallowing the scores of "poison pills" embedded in the rest of the proposed rules. As the Austin, Texas meeting ended, Stommes was overheard telling a rather incredulous member of the NOSB that "If we just postpone or get rid of these three big issues, everything else will be O.K., right?" Further public hearings and protests are scheduled for Ames, Iowa (Feb. 18); Seattle, Washington (Feb. 26); and New Brunswick, New Jersey (March 5).
International criticism of the USDA has also begun to develop. In a Jan. 5 press release, Linda Bullard, Vice-President of IFOAM, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, representing 570 member organizations in more than 100 countries, denounced the U.S. government's rules. The rules, according to Bullard, "if allowed to stand will drive a wedge through the heart of the U.S. organic movement and effectively destroy the hard-won consumer confidence in organics... In criminalizing the use of private organic seals based on adherence to higher organic standards than its own, the USDA has lost sight of its proper role. It is indeed ironic that the United States, the home of free enterprise, is the only country in the world which proposes to restrict the enterprise of private certification bodies in this way. IFOAM is convinced that a dynamic development of organics rests on maintaining this right, in conjunction with a provision for delegation of accreditation to private programs which fulfill international accreditation norms..."
National Organic Standards Board member and organic farmer Fred Kirschenmann recently pointed out in Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly (#583 Jan. 29, 1998) that there is, however, at least one sector in America that loves the new proposed organic standards:
"Who would benefit from this rule? It would be a boon for the conventional agribusiness food system which has, for years, sought to eliminate any differentiation in the marketplace that threatens their market share. This rule would simultaneously erase most of the major distinctions between organic and conventional food, make it illegal to use any other eco-labels, and prevent private certifiers from certifying to any standard other than the one proposed by the USDA. One could hardly imagine a single piece of regulation that could bring more joy and comfort to the agribusiness food industry."
In an interview with the St. Louis Post Dispatch on Jan. 15, A spokeswoman for Monsanto, Lisa Drake, made it clear that Monsanto expects the Clinton administration to allow genetically engineered crops, such as their Bt-spliced potatoes and cotton, to be allowed, at least eventually, under the organic label. Monsanto's major concern is that there be no overt prohibition on genetically engineered inputs in the first set of final rules. According to Drake "We think biotechnology fits quite well (under the organic label)." Giant industry trade associations--whose members are heavy financial contributors to the Clinton-Gore administration--such as the Biotechnology Industry Organization, the Grocery Manufacturers of America, and the National Food Processors Association, have also lobbied heavily for implementation of the controversial USDA proposals.
But besides the gene engineers and corporate agribusiness, it is generally agreed that these standards are totally unacceptable, that the hundreds of pages of proposed regulations issued on Dec. 16, 1997 are fatally flawed, cannot be fixed, and need to be withdrawn (See Food Bytes #6 Jan. 20, 1998). Everyone also seems to agree that the battle over these rules is a crucial battle, the outcome of which will decide, not only if the word "organic" will totally lose its meaning and integrity in the United States, but, in the larger global picture, will determine to a significant extent if any alternatives to the globalized industrialization of agriculture will be allowed to legally exist, period.
If the Clinton administration succeeds in outlawing real organic standards and forcing mis-labeled agribusiness style "organic" food down the throats of American consumers, a global "race to the bottom" will surely follow. With literally no practical marketplace alternative to genetically engineered, chemically contaminated, and factory farmed food, consumers will almost inevitably become fatalistic and immobilized--with grave consequences for public health, biodiversity, small farmers, and economic sustainability.
SOS: A Warning from the Save Organic Standards Movement
As reported in Food Bytes #6 (Jan. 20, 1998) most public interest non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the U.S. have supposedly already gone on record as supporting a complete withdrawal of the USDA's proposed rules. On Jan. 15-16 the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture (NCSA), composed of 38 leading NGOs concerned about the rules, met in a closed-door session in Washington where consensus was reached that the rules needed to be completely withdrawn; that if necessary the battle needed to be extended to Congress to kill the rules--if the USDA refused to withdraw them; and that, as a final fall-back plan, an alternative non-governmental system of certification and labeling needed to be developed as soon as possible.
Unfortunately Food Bytes has learned this week that some NCSA groups and a number of influential "inside the Beltway" players are apparently starting to back-off from the demand for complete withdrawal. These "backsliders" are arguing that the USDA has changed their attitude, as evidenced by more conciliatory rhetoric coming from USDA Secretary Glickman and the appointment of the new National Organic Program Manager, Keith Jones. The "backsliders" argue further that the final rules will not incorporate the "big three" (biotech, sludge, and irradiation) and will generally be rules that we "can live with." Finally they argue that, if worse comes to worst, and the USDA issues unacceptable final regulations, liberal Democrats, such as Senator Patrick Leahy from Vermont, will ride in on a white horse and make everything O.K.
Without naming the names of these "backsliders" for the moment, Food Bytes and the Save Organic Standards movement urges every consumer, organic farmer, and retailer in the country to be vigilant. Make certain that no "backroom" deals or "inside the Beltway" compromises are made in your name. The USDA rules must be withdrawn, or else killed, period. Every NGO, natural food business, certification organization, and organic farmers group in the country needs to hear from the grassroots. Each of these groups, if they haven't altready done so, needs to state their position on withdrawal in clear and unequivocal terms. And of course it is equally important for IFOAM and other international NGOs such as Greenpeace to clearly state their position on withdrawal as well.
With public disgust and anger over the scores of irregularities, illegalities, and downright totalitarianism contained in the USDA's standards, the strategic political question becomes: How can consumers and the global organic food movement force the USDA to completely withdraw these rules? How can public pressure be mobilized to force Agriculture Secretary Glickman and the White House to resubmit new rules which reflect traditional organic practices and values--rules which strictly adhere to the recommendations of the National Organics Standards Board and the internationally recognized standards of IFOAM? The obvious answer to this question is for concerned people all over the world to continue doing what they're already doing--to literally bury the Clinton administration in a mountain of protest letters, emails, and faxes during the official comment period which ends April 30.
But what if, in spite of receiving an anticipated record-breaking 50,000-100,000 official public comment letters, the USDA still refuses to withdraw the rules?
The Clinton administration and the USDA's public relations operatives are masters at manipulating public opinion and the media. We should anticipate that the USDA will very likely postpone the implementation of some of the most outrageous of its proposals so as to divide and conquer its consumer and natural food industry critics. It will likely put off for the moment completely giving the green light to genetically engineered foods (while nonetheless leaving the door open to the gene engineers by giving the O.K. to gene-altered enzymes such as chymosin, a cheese rennet, and Bt insecticide sprays produced through genetic manipulation); toxic sludge, and food irradiation. But the final rules issued by the USDA in 1998 will undoubtedly allow all the other things that agribusiness needs to stage a hostile takeover of the natural food industry: intensive confinement of farm animals; factory farm-style production methods; toxic inerts in pesticides; use of antibiotics; use of non-organic feed; use of rendered animal protein (animal cannibalism); use of an expanded list of synthetic ingredients; elimination of small certifiers, farmers, and processors, and so on.
This type of compromise will pose a major threat to the resolve of our growing pro-organic coalition. What if some of the less reputable private certification groups, members of the Organic Trade Association, or giant companies like Whole Foods, Heinz (Nature's Best baby foods), and Cascadian Farm fall into the USDA's trap? What if some of the more naive and trusting in our ranks proclaim that minor USDA modifications are sufficient, that the USDA has begun to operate in good faith. What if others panic or lose hope and argue that we don't have any other practical choice other than to accept a set of compromised rules? What if even the National Organic Standards Board fails to achieve unanimous consensus at its upcoming meeting in mid-March at the Natural Products Expo in California to call for a total withdrawal of the proposed rules?
No matter what other minor compromises the Clinton administration are willing to make, we can be certain that the USDA's forthcoming final rules--unless they are withdrawn or killed--will contain the sugar-coated "poison pills" that agribusiness requires and fully expects the American natural food industry to swallow. Poison pill number one, the final rules will make it a crime for private organic certifiers to uphold standards stricter than the USDA's. Poison pill number two, the final rules will be worded so as to weaken and ultimately take away the statutory power of the NOSB to decide what is synthetic and what is natural, what's allowed and what's prohibited under the organic label. Although these two pills alone will constitute a fatal dose, additional poison pills will allow genetically engineered inputs to be decided on a "case-by-case" basis, will allow intensive animal confinement, factory farming, non-organic feed, antibiotics, animal cannibalism, additional synthetic and toxic chemicals, etc. Within 18 months from today we can expect to see bogus, relatively inexpensive, organic food bearing the USDA label flooding the nation's supermarkets. Small and medium-sized farmers, processors, and retailers who refuse to lower their standards will face unfair economic competition. Many if not most can gradually be expected to be driven out of business by the new green giants of Organic Inc.
Visit the Pure Food Campaign's web site and its links for the full litany of horrors contained in the USDA's proposed rules: http://www.purefood.org
HOW TO WIN THE ORGANIC BATTLE: A THREE TRACK STRATEGY
But enough of this negative thinking. Campaigners must keep in mind that 99% of natural food consumers want strict organic standards such as those recommended by the NOSB and IFOAM. In addition nearly all the small and medium-sized farmers, processors, and retailers are on our side. In addition the entire global organic movement are our allies. We can win this battle and defeat the USDA if we move beyond naivete and illusions, if we formulate a clear, bold grassroots plan of action and stick to it. The following represents the current "battle plan" of the SOS (Save Organic Standards) campaign as well as the plan endorsed by leading activists in the Organic Watch coalition. This multi-faceted plan has arisen out of numerous conversations with organic farmers, food co-ops, natural food stores, attorneys, organic certifiers, consumers, lobbyists, and public interest campaigners across the U.S. It has the support of international campaigners as well.
Strategy Track One: Force the USDA to Withdraw the Rules
The key tactic here is to keep flooding the USDA with thousands of protest letters every week while simultaneously building up a new, streamlined, and efficient grassroots activist network that can be mobilized for action on the other strategy tracks (grassroots lobbying of Congress and state legislators and development of our own non-governmental national organic rules and eco-label) as well. The bottom line is that there are several million people in the U.S. who buy or consume organic food every week. This is the primary group that we must mobilize. These consumers purchase or consume their organic food at three or four thousand different locations across the U.S.: farmers markets, food co-ops, natural food markets, community restaurants, Community Supported Agriculture networks, organic bakeries, etc. These organic consumers also tend to patronize holistic medical practitioners and green or eco-label stores. It's important that we get our views aired in the local and national media (both alternative and mainstream), but it's even more important that we inform and mobilize these several million organic consumers at the point of purchase, where they shop and eat.
The SOS campaign now has in-store displays (with ballot boxes for activist-inclined consumers to sign-up as volunteers in the campaign) or literature at over 600 locations across the country. This is a good beginning, but it is just a beginning. Every retail outlet or restaurant in America that sells or serves organic food needs to be approached and recruited into the campaign. This is one of the primary tasks for local activists. Any store that wants an SOS display can call the SOS campaign office in Minnesota at 218-226-4164 and leave a message, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and place their order. SOS also needs volunteer city or town coordinators. Last but not least the SOS campaign needs money--lots of it--to fight and win this battle.
In addition to organic food consumers, we estimate there are approximately 100,000 farmers and workers who are employed in the U.S. organic industry. These organic industry workers must be recruited and mobilized as well. Those retail stores with mobilized workers are the ones that can mobilize their customers most effectively. Natural food industry workers need to talk to consumers every day as well as write protest letters to the USDA. Hopefully these workers can write more elaborate letters than the general consumer, including page numbers and section numbers of the proposed rules under discussion (See the Pure Food website for the Special Supplement to Food Bytes #6, prepared by attorneys for Organic Watch). While irate consumers bury the USDA with thousands of general protest letters, industry workers can write even more substantive letters which will provide valuable evidence and ammunition for future Congressional hearings or Federal court battles.
Strategy Track Two: Get the U.S. Congress to Hold Hearings and Kill the Proposed Rules
The key tactic here is to get thousands of constituents, registered voters, to contact their Congressional Representative and U.S. Senators. Each local district office of Representatives and Senators need to get hundreds of letters (including copies of your letters to the USDA), faxes, phone calls, and emails from concerned voters in their district. Comment letters from constituents can be downloaded directly from the USDA web site (www. ams.usda.gov/nop), bundled together, and delivered in-person to home district Congressional and Senator's offices by pro-organic spokespersons. Phone calls from "grasstops," organic food supporters with special political or economic clout, are especially important. Delegation meetings can also be arranged whereby groups of concerned citizens and natural food industry workers and businesspeople visit their Congressperson or staff members in their local district offices. The bottom line is that 200-500 phone calls or letters over a two-week or four-week period will alert even the most uninformed Congressman or woman that this is an issue of serious concern to their constituents. If several hundred Congressional Representatives get a steady dose of grassroots lobbying, if every U.S. Senator's office receives hundreds of phone calls, letters, and constituent delegations, there's at least the possibility we'll see high-profile Congressional hearings, followed by the death of the proposed rules.
Industry workers and consumers who sign-up as volunteers by placing their names in the SOS ballot boxes need to be organized into district "telephone trees" to lobby their Representative and Senators. It doesn't hurt to call state and local legislators and the Governor's office as well. Each grassroots volunteer should recruit five others to make phone calls as well. The SOS campaign recommends a bi-partisan approach. Do not assume that progressive Democrats are our only allies. In many cases Democrats are firmly in the USDA camp, and many as well are afraid or else are reluctant to oppose the President. Many Republicans, on the other hand, believe that the private sector (in this case private organic certifiers and the organic industry itself) and the states can do a better job of regulation than federal bureaucrats. Many Republicans also believe that commercial free speech (in this case the right of certifiers to uphold and label organic products under higher standards than what the USDA requires) is very important. And of course many Republicans will be happy to oppose the President and the USDA on this issue and make the Democrats look bad. On the other hand we will likely find a number of Democrats sympathetic to our side as well. It's important to approach legislators with an open mind. Be courteous, but firm and persistent.
Strategy Track Three: Publish Our Own National Rules and Start Certifying and Labeling Organic Products Under a National Eco-Label that Meets NOSB & IFOAM Guidelines
Since everyone agrees that the USDA has proved themselves incapable of respecting traditional organic practices and values, we have a significant moral and political advantage. Since the feds have shown themselves unable to listen to consumers and to the recommendations of respected organizations such as the National Organic Standards Board and IFOAM, the organic movement has no real choice to avoid economic ruin other than to issue our own alternative, non-governmemtal rules and start certifying and regulating ourselves. Under current U.S. law this is perfectly legal, especially so prior to the issuance of final rules by the USDA, expected some time toward the end of the year.
Moreover even after the USDA issues its bogus final rules there will very likely be another six month or longer "grace period" before final implementation. That is, we're not going to see any products labeled as "USDA Organic" for 18 months or more. Our task in the meantime is to get out our own alternative eco-label, inform and train every natural food consumer in the country and the world to look for this label and to buy or give preference to products bearing this label, and to warn everyone about the forthcoming bogus USDA label. In addition to these important tactical advantages, if our product labels simply say "eco-certified" or "produced according to NOSB & IFOAM recommendations," the USDA will be on very shaky legal (outlawing eco-labels that don't even explicitly use the word "organic") and political ground (suppressing commercial free speech and private enterprise) should they be foolhardy enough to try to suppress an entire national movement supported by millions of Americans. In addition our side will be able to point to the fact that our alternative, non-governmental eco-labels are welcome all over the world, in the 100 nations where IFOAM has influence, whereas the fraudulent USDA labels are likely to set off a global boycott.
The first step is to issue our own alternative rules. Spokespersons for organic farmers and the organic movement should announce that we are beginning this process as soon as possible. At the national Natural Products Expo in Anaheim, California March 13-15 we should begin to spread the word of this strategy, not only to the 26,000 attendees at the Expo, but to the media and the public at large. The publishing of our own non-governmental "final rules" will be fairly simple since we already have the recommendations of the NOSB, IFOAM, and other respected non-governmental organizations to draw upon. Attorneys from Organic Watch and other organizations will only need to act in the capacity of "legal transcribers" to codify these recommendations into the proper commercial and legal language.
Some private organic certifiers already have rules that are basically in line with what the NOSB and IFOAM recommend. Thousands of organic farmers and hundreds of organic manufacturers and processors are either already operating under these rules or under similar rules. Businesses and farmers outraged by the USDA proposals will undoubtedly be willing to adjust their practices and labels a bit to conform to our new national eco-label standards. The organic movement around the world will likely be glad to express their solidarity and support for our new eco-label.
Once we have publicized new national rules we can begin to recruit private certifiers who will begin to certify under these rules. Of course not every organic certification group will agree to endorse our national eco-label, at least initially. But we can expect rather quickly that a number of the most reputable certifiers will agree to certify under this new eco-label, and the groundswell generated by mass consumer enthusiasm over these new rules will create a marketplace pressure that even the most "bottom line" certifiers and retailers will find hard to resist. After all what food producer or retailer will really want to market their products branded with a controversial and disreputable USDA label, especially when they start to realize that at least some of their competitors will be selling products with a respected national eco-label? By the time we have 5-10% of the U.S.'s organic produce branded with our label, there will be a marketplace momentum that is unstoppable.
As we begin to roll out our new alternative labels we will need to mount a national publicity and public relations campaign. This publicity campaign needs to reinforce the same message over and over again: since the federal government failed us, the organic food movement has decided to take an alternative, non-governmental regulatory approach, analogous to the approach that the Jewish community has developed in regard to the certification and labeling of Kosher foods. Because Washington bureaucrats have proven themselves once again to be incompetent, we have no choice but to regulate and police our industry on a national basis, in accordance with strict national and international standards. Certifiers and retailers who support our label will gain credibility, while those who back the USDA and the biotech-agribusiness label will tend to become suspect. Recent indications are that both the alternative and mass media will be sympathetic to broadcasting this message for us, since many journalists and media workers are apparently not that thrilled by the thought of paying premium prices for bogus "USDA certified" organic food either.
Once a critical mass of certifiers, manufacturers, and retailers begin to use our national alternative eco-label, government authorities and corporate agribusiness will find themselves in a difficult situation. Until the government issues its final rules, and even afterwards, there is very little they can do to try to stop us. And by the time they review 75,000 hostile comments, issue final rules, and then designate a final day for compliance, our non-governmental eco-label will likely already have achieved great popularity and market penetration. Once the deadline for compliance come into effect, some 18 months from now, the organic impostors will face a terrible dilemma. Do they dare try to prosecute an entire nationwide network of respected certifiers, manufacturers, and retailers for marketing and advertising a line of products which millions of consumers obviously want? And in strictly legal terms how can they justify suppressing our labels while allowing similar non-governmental Kosher or Hallal (Muslim) food certification networks to continue functioning?
Like the McDonald's McLibel trial in Britain or the recent persecution by the beef industry of Oprah Winfrey and Howard Lyman under the Texas "food slander" laws, there is no way that the USDA can defeat us in the national and international court of public opinion. And if we follow the alternative, non-governmental regulatory and labeling strategy outlined above, according to top legal analysts, it is highly unlikely that we can be defeated in the federal courts either. But the time to begin to implement this three track strategy is now. This is a battle we can win, but it is also a battle that we absolutely cannot afford to lose.
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