Is USDA Organic Grade B Organic?

Is USDA Organic Grade B Organic?
By Ronnie Cummins, Organic Consumers Association

IS "USDA ORGANIC" GRADE B ORGANIC?

On October 21, many of the products in your local health food store or coop
will start bearing the label "USDA Organic." This culminates a
controversial, decade-long process in which the federal government,
specifically the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its appointees to
the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), now have legal control over
what can or can't be labeled "organic." From the beginning, the OCA was
skeptical about turning over control of the organic certification process to
federal bureaucrats, as opposed to leaving it in the hands of
non-governmental third party certifiers and the states, but now "USDA
Organic" has become the law of the land.

The USDA's infamous proposed federal regulations on organic food in 1997
(which gave birth to the OCA) suggested it was okay to use GE, irradiation,
toxic sludge, intensive animal confinement, animal cannibalism, and
pesticides, and still label such products as "USDA Organic." After a
tremendous backlash by organic consumers across the country, the Feds
decided it was too politically risky-at least for the moment-to degrade
organic standards and turn over the nation's multibillion-dollar organic
food industry to corporate agribusiness.

Now organic standards may be at risk once again as George Bush Jr. tries his
best to outdo Bill Clinton in catering to the transnational food giants,
biotechnology corporations, and the nuclear irradiation lobby. Keep in mind
that Anne Veneman, Bush's Secretary of Agriculture, has final say over
appointments to the National Organic Standards Board. Before serving as USDA
head, Veneman was an executive for Calgene, a biotechnology company acquired
by Monsanto. Later, she was the head of the California Department of
Agriculture and promoted pro-agribusiness, pro-industrial forestry policies.

If Bush and company allow corporate lobbyists to degrade organic standards
and open loopholes for industrial agriculture to take over the "USDA
Organic" label (by allowing intensive confinement of farm animals, loopholes
on genetically modified organisms, and more synthetic ingredients in organic
production, for example) the OCA will consider joining in on a federal
lawsuit to stop this.

Even more important than monitoring the USDA Organic program is
understanding the limitations of the "USDA Organic" label itself and
figuring out how we as organic consumers can find and purchase "real
organic" products, which not only meet the minimum health and production
standards of the federal government, but also serve to promote environmental
sustainability, social justice, Fair Trade-especially between consumers in
the industrialized world and farmers in the developing nations-and humane
treatment of animals.

The basic position of the OCA is that "USDA Organic" is and will remain for
the foreseeable future "Grade B" organic. This Grade B organic is certainly
better, safer, and healthier than the chemically and genetically
contaminated industrial food which fills the shelves of America's
supermarkets and convenience stores, but it is not necessarily a full
embodiment of the organic ideal. "Real organic" food, Grade A organic, if
you will, embodies additional characteristics which the USDA does not
consider to be important-for example Fair Trade or social justice
requirements guaranteeing equity to small farmers and farm workers; local or
regional production by smaller, family farm producers which reduces food
miles, energy use, and greenhouse gases; and guaranteed humane treatment of
farm animals, to name just a few.

In other words, by all means keep buying organic food (and clothing), but at
the same time try to go "Beyond USDA Organic," by keeping in mind an
additional set of principles:

1. Buy local, unprocessed, and in season foods whenever possible.
Long-distance shipped, or heavily processed and packaged organic foods
require the use of tremendous amounts of energy compared to locally or
regionally produced and unprocessed foods. The average food item in American
supermarkets has traveled 1400 miles. A significant percentage of all the
trucks on the highway are carrying food and beverage products over large
distances. Twenty-five percent of all greenhouse gases in the US are a
by-product of industrial agriculture, food processing and long-distance food
transportation. Avoid organic foods with wasteful or non-recyclable
packaging.

2. Buy organic, shade-grown coffee and other products that bear the Fair
Trade or Union Made label. Fair Trade certification means that producers are
guaranteed a living wage and decent working conditions. Keep in mind that
products produced on corporate farms or plantations where farm workers are
exploited can still bear the label "USDA Organic." The OCA is currently
lobbying food companies in the USA such as Starbucks to purchase and sell
significant quantities of Fair Trade certified coffee, chocolate, tea,
sugar, and bananas-products which are already offered on a mass scale under
the Fair Trade label in Europe. In the US the only Union Made (United Farm
Workers Union) label currently on organic products is found on a limited
supply of California strawberries.

3. Give your business, whenever possible, to local businesses and local
farmers, rather than large national or transnational corporations. Just
because prices on some organic items are cheaper in the supermarket chains,
doesn't mean you should give them your business. Just because Starbucks is
starting to offer organic milk and soy milk (for an outrageous 40 cents per
cup extra charge) and sell a token amount of Fair Trade coffee, doesn't mean
you shouldn't support your local coffee shop, especially if they're willing
to do better than Starbucks in terms of offering organic selections and
promoting Fair Trade. Support your local natural food stores, farmers
markets, CSA's, and cooperatives -these are key institutions if we are to
build and maintain a sustainable and socially responsible economy.

We are what we eat and what we consume. We owe it to ourselves and the
planet to move beyond "USDA Organic" to the real thing.

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