" Organic" with a corporate twist
by Joel Bleifuss
In These Times magazine, February 1998
The Department of Agriculture wants to label sludge, bioengineering
and irradiation "organic"
This may be the future life of an "organic" piece of meat:
| A male calf is born, castrated and, for two years, lives l on a Texas
range, feeding on grass that has been "fertilized" with sewage
sludge from New York City. The grown steer is then shipped to a feed lot
and jammed in a pen. While there, he gets sick and is injected with a variety
of antibiotics. Meanwhile, he fattens up on Purina cattle feed, made from
Monsanto's genetically engineered grains and supplemented with animal protein
that was rendered from the carcasses of diseased animals. He is eventually
sent to the abattoir to be slaughtered. Then, the meat is irradiated, packaged
and shipped to Chicago, where it is sold under the label, "Meets USDA
Such a scenario could happen thanks to the National Organic Program
that was recently proposed by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to define
what food can be marketed under the label "organic" and what cannot.
In an effort to accommodate corporate agribusiness, the White House is permitting
a number of agricultural practices, all of them dubious and none of them
natural, to be counted as organic.
The organic foods movement, which began in the '40s, bloomed when the
'60s counterculture questioned the value of industrialized food production
and sought out "natural" alternatives to pesticides, artificial
colors and other chemicals. In the '80s, interest in personal health, concern
about pesticides and the development of a silver palate among the upper
middle class expanded the natural foods market. Sales of organic foods have
increased from $1 billion in 1990 to $3.5 billion in 1996. Organic foods
now make up about 1 percent of total food sales.
But the hodgepodge of state and private standards governing the market
still makes it difficult for consumers to tell whether food labeled organic
is actually natural or for producers to know what farming techniques are
legitimate. So in 1990, producers of organic foods, with help from Sen.
Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), successfully lobbied Congress to pass th
Organic Foods Production Act. The act created the National Organic Standards
Board (NOSB) and charged it with drawing up a definition of organic that
would suit consumers, producers and retailers of organic foods.
After four years of hearings, the NOSB drafted a standard and presented
it to the USDA in September 1996. The board based its recommendations on
the organic farming principle that crops should be grown and livestock raised
as close to the way nature intended as possible. The NOSB said that organic
farmers could not use synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers or growth
hormones, nor could they extend the shelf-life of their produce with chemical
stabilizers and preservatives.
Then, the White House stepped in. In order to make the regulations more
palatable to corporate interests, the Office of Management and Budget and
the USDA reworked key provisions of the NOSB proposal. By the time that
Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman released the USDA's version on December
15, the distinction between organic and non organic foods had been rendered
almost meaningless. The organic industry, angered by this betrayal, is fighting
back. It has until March 16 to make the case to the administration that
the original standards were better.
Glickman changed the NOSB recommendations in five crucial ways. First,
honoring a request from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Assistant
Administrator Robert Perciasepe, Glickman proposed that fertilizer made
from municipal sewage sludge become an acceptable part of organic agriculture.
The NOSB had defined sludge as unacceptable "synthetic" material,
because unlike traditional manure, sludge contains concentrated household
and industrial waste, including pesticides, PCBs, a host of pathogens and
heavy metals like mercury, lead and arsenic.
Second, the USDA offered the organic label to plant and animal products
created through bioengineering. The Department of Agriculture, which strongly
backs genetically engineered foods, explains in a fact-sheet that "the
policy of the
United States Government is that genetically engineered organisms and
their products should be regulated on risk, not on how they are produced."
The principal corporate beneficiary of the change is Monsanto, the chemical
company that is the leading player in the bioengineering business.
Third' the USDA provided a sop to giant food processors, the nuclear
industry and the Department of Energy by opening up the question of whether
irradiation can be used to sterilize "organic" foods. The USDA,
piggy-backing on the Food and Drug Administration's December decision to
approve irradiated meat, is willing to make irradiation a standard organic
practice. Natural foods advocates note that irradiation can produce dangerous
"radiolytic products" like benzene and formaldehyde and destroy
a variety of vitamins. For these reasons, the NOSB had recommended banning
the use of gamma rays to sterilize organic food.
Fourth, the Department of z Agriculture's definition of 2 organic allows
farmers to feed rendered animal protein back to other animals in ~ the form
of protein feed a, supplements. This practice 3 caused the mad cow epidemic
in Britain and the emergence of a human counterpart, a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob
disease, which has so far claimed 23 lives. And it's not only dangerous,
but unnatural as well: The animals we eat are herbivores. Under the regulations
as currently formulated by the USDA, the daily feed ration of an animal
headed to the organic foods market can contain up to 20 percent non organic
Finally, the USDA's proposed standards undermine a hallmark of the natural
foods movement, the idea that animals should live a natural life prior to
slaughter. While the department's proposed recommendations make a gesture
in that direction, requiring that "all organically managed animals
would have to have access to health-promoting living conditions," the
language is vague and lacking in specifics. Michael Sligh, the former chair
of the NOSB, says, "The USDA left so many exemptions you could drive
a Tyson's truck through it. You don't even have to provide access to the
outdoors and sunlight." Further, the department's recommendations permit
the use of antibiotics in organic meat production if the animal is sick.
Both of these measures accommodate the factory farming industry, where mega-operations
depend on keeping the animals tightly confined (and therefore prone to illness)
and constantly dosed up with antibiotics.
The Clinton administration will not have an easy time getting the natural
foods movement to swallow this concoction. Pure Food Campaign has launched
an "SOS" (Save Organic Standards) campaign. And the Organic Trade
Association, an association of organic producers and retailers that helped
to start the regulatory process, is outraged. "These practices have
never been part of organic agriculture, and we will fight to keep them out
of the final regulations," says Katherine DiMatteo, the group's executive
Fortunately, the natural foods movement is stronger now than it was
16 years ago, when government quashed another attempt to develop a blueprint
for organic agriculture. During the Carter administration, the USDA investigated
organic agriculture and determined that it was commercially feasible. Then
in 1982, the Reagan administration shut down the USDA's Sustainable Agriculture
Research and Education Program, which had been established to promote those
Abby Rockefeller, a longtime organic gardener and one of the founders
of the National Sludge Alliance in Copake, N.Y., says that a good definition
of organic could help educate the public about the hazards of certain corporate
farming techniques. "A uniform organic standard, if it were good, would
become a wedge between safe, organic food and not safe, not-organic food,"
she says. But agribusiness giants don't want any regulations that might
make consumers doubt the safety of their products. Indeed, the USDA's proposal
allows corporate agriculture to win twice: Not only does it gain a share
of the organic foods market, but it protects its high-tech food production
operations from the stigma of being called "unnatural."
Until March 16, the USDA will accept public comments on the proposed
regulations by letter, fax, e-mail and via the USDA Web site (www.ams.usda.gov/nop).
Already, the site has received more than 1,000 comments, virtually all in
opposition to the USDA's changes. Next fall, the USDA is expected to release
its final version, which must then be approved by Congress.
The USDA's final standard will ultimately have international repercussions.
The World Trade Organization and the United Nations, under the auspices
of the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, are now developing international
organic standards. These bodies are sure to take the USDA's new regulations
into consideration when they write the world's rules. And that worries the
EPA's Hugh Kaufman. "Once these regulations get promulgated, the marketing
power will be lost for safer food," he says. "That will speed
up the continuing degradation of the food supply."