" 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 Organic Requirements."

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 feed material.

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 director.

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 findings.

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."

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