BioDemocracy News #25 Organic Standards Revisited

Organic Standards Revisited: Beyond the Niche Market of "USDA Organic
Victory for Organic Consumers & Farmers: The USDA Surrenders
Proposed Rules Versus Final Rules: Consumer Vigilance & Comments Required
Industrial Agriculture Takes Over the World: Must Organic Remain a Niche Market?
The US and Global Farm Crisis: Organic Niche Markets Are Not Enough
Food Agenda 2000: Transforming American Agriculture

March 2000
Special Joint Issue of Organic View & BioDemocracy News on Organic Standards
News and Analysis on Genetic Engineering, Factory Farming, & Organics
by: Ronnie Cummins
BioDemocracy News and Organic View are publications of the Organic
Consumers Association <>

Organic Standards Revisited: Beyond the Niche Market of "USDA Organic"

Quotes of the Month:

"I do want to point out that the fact that we are once again announcing
a proposed rule on national organic standards is a living example of our
democracy at work. The people spoke very loudly... It's a well known fact
that we received an unprecedented 275,603 comments during the first go
round... But let me be clear on a very important point. The organic
classification is not a judgment about the quality or safety of any
product... Just because something is labeled as organic does not mean it is
superior, safer or more healthy than conventional food. "
Dan Glickman, Secretary of US Department of Agriculture, March 7, 2000.

"There's been no research to give consumers any confidence that paying twice
as much for their [organic] food is giving them any enhancement in safety or
nutritional value." Michael Phillips, executive director for food and
agriculture of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. Los Angeles Times
March 8, 2000

Victory for Organic Consumers & Farmers: The USDA Surrenders

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, under certain conditions, 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.

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

* 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 Rules Versus 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

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 US 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 US 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

"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 US 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 US 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

Food Agenda 2000: Transforming American Agriculture

The growing US 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 US 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


We invite you to join the Organic Consumers Association in our campaign to
transform America's food and agriculture system:

(1) Volunteer to help organize an OCA chapter in your local community. Send
us an email to <>

(2) Volunteer to help distribute OCA petitions--which we call our Food
Agenda 2000--in your local community. Again send an email to

(3) Make a tax-deductible donation to the OCA. You can do this by credit
card off of our website <> or by sending us a check
to our office: OCA/6114 Hwy 61/Little Marais, MN 55614

(4) Circulate this newsletter to your friends and tell them to subscribe by
sending an email to <> with the simple message subscribe in
the body of the text.

Editor's Note: We're happy to announce that we now have 30,000 subscribers
to BioDemocracy News and Organic View. But this is just the beginning. We
need your help to spread the OCA message far and wide. Join Us!

And finally don't forget to send in your comments to the USDA on the
proposed national organic standards by June 12. Stay tuned to OCA website
<> and our newsletter for further developments.

### End of BioDemocracy News #25

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