The Future of Organic Agriculture -
The U. S. Dept. of Agriculture's
National Organic Program
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<In 1990, in response to the perceived need to establish a set of standards to which
foods labeled and sold as "Organic" must conform, Congress passed the Organic
Foods Production Act (OFPA). This established the National Organic Standards Board
(NOSB), composed of organic processors and farmers, and other experts involved in the
production and processing of organic foods. The NOSB was instructed to recommend to
the USDA a set of standards In 1997, the USDA proposed a set of regulations and
definitions called the National Organic Program. In doing so, USDA ignored many of
NOSB's recommendations, and inserted many loopholes that appeared to offer the industrial
food processing industry, and large-scale conventional agribusiness, an easy and low-cost
entre' to the ever-growing and very profitable organic foods market. On April 30,
1998, the public comment period for the proposed NOP regulations came to an end. By
that date, the USDA had received more formal comments than for any other issue in
history. The results were overwhelmingly negative.>
The last five years have seen an explosion of public interest in organic foods. The
market for these foods has tripled since 1990. Now, more than 2 million U.S. families
choose to buy organic. This large scale consumer acceptance of organic food represents
one of the most significant contributions to human health, environmental protection, and
animal welfare in our times. It also is a major force in revitalizing farming and farm
On December 16, 1997, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its
proposed rule for the national regulation of organic food. This proposal followed almost
seven years of public hearings organized by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).
The NOSB, which consists of environmental advocates, consumers, organic farmers,
producers, marketers, and certifiers, was empowered by Congress under the Organic Foods
Production Act (OFPA) to make recommendations to the USDA as to the contents of the
Unfortunately, the USDA's proposed rule is grossly misguided and inadequate. The
USDA regulatory proposal does not follow the recommendations of the NOSB, nor does it
comport with international standards on organic food production. Instead, the rule
potentially allows for a massive invasion of factory farm techniques, processes and
contaminants into the organic production. This includes use of toxic inert chemicals,
antibiotics, and the possible acceptance of genetic engineering, irradiation and municipal
sewage sludge. This betrayal of organic standards by USDA, accomplished at the behest
of the major food and pharmaceutical corporations, represents a potential fatal assault on
the integrity of the organic food industry.
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The public was given until April 30, 1998 to respond to the USDA's proposal. Over
200,000 angry consumers, farmers and producers flooded the agency with responses. Not
surprisingly, negative responses are outnumbering favorable ones by a tremendous margin
(at least 500:1). This represents the largest volume of comments that the USDA has
received on a proposal in their modern history. In addition to concerns about
biotechnology, irradiation and sludge, commentors were incensed by the agency's:
*failure to require sufficient space for movement and outdoor access for animals;
*allowing the use of numerous pesticides and herbicides previously forbidden;
*allowing the expanded use of antibiotics;
*allowance of certain genetically engineered food products (which would still be allowed
even if genetic engineering is later
*usurpation of the powers of the NOSB;
*ban on all other organic food labeling of any sort, and many other key issues.
Overall, commentors cited over 60 major provisions in the proposed rule that
would significantly undermine the organic standards.
The massive volume and negative tone of the comments caught the USDA by surprise. The
agency is now back on its heels and talking about "significantly revising" the
proposed rule, including reconsidering the genetic engineering, irradiation and sludge
issues. Even in the unlikely event that the agency were to flatly prohibit these three
categories (more likely it will define them narrowly and allow exceptions), it would leave
dozens of other key "deal breaker" issues unaddressed.
Now with the comment period over, the agency is no doubt assuming that the public will
have no continuing voice. Regulatory business as usual would mean that the 250,000 organic
food consumers, farmers and activists who have sent their comments to the agency will be
ignored. The agency, if free from continued public pressure, can "revise" the
rule by cutting deals with the food industry and government agencies. This will result in
the agency issuing a final rule which has some concessions to the organic community but
which still fatally undermines organic standards.
Among the new rules were the allowance of irradiation for
sterilization, composted municipal wastes for fertilizer, use of genetically
engineered crops, (these three were the most visible "hot buttons" of the public
responses); and loopholes allowing producers to restrict animal access to the outdoors,
use antibiotics on meat and dairy livestock for purposes other than medical emergency, use
non-organic feed, and use herbicides and pesticids that were explicitly disallowed by the
The most offensive of the new regulations were those prohibiting the
labeling as "Organic" of any foods not produced according to new NOP program
proposed by USDA, nor the inclusion in labeling of any descriptions of methods not
adhering to these standards. Since the new NOP standards were less than minimal, and
bore little resemblance to any description of "Organic foods" as most consumers
have come to understand them, the threat to the the concept of "organic" as a
premium standard and benchmark of nutritional quality and safety was clear.
As a result of the bombardment of negative comment on the the
proposed Rule, USDA has withdrawn the rule for re-formulation. The debate is not
When a new Rule is proposed, there will undoubtedly be many of the
same objectionable provisions found in the original, perhaps in more subtle language.
Many of the issues were more arcane and complex than the "big three",
radiation, sewage sludge, and genetic engineering, and ultimately of far more consequence.
Use of antibiotics in livestock is perhaps the prime example. This has
resulted in the evolution of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, such as salmonella,
which are already a real threat to human health.
This is why, if you value the wholesomeness and purity of
your food, and are a consumer of organic foods, you need to get involved and stay
involved. The emerging culture of organic agriculture and animal husbandry,
which has not only given us a safe and nutritious food source, but also establishes a
peaceful, wholesome, and earth-friendly ethic, is threatened by the direction that USDA
seems to want to take. If you care about this, stay informed. You can watch
this website for continuing information, or call Organic Watch at 202-547-9359,
or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also get
involved at the local level. Most Organic food stores have literature from the local
or state Organic Farmers Association. Ask about it. In fact, it was the
efforts of organic food stores in conjunction with local producers' organizations that
brought about the storm of criticism which defeated the propose NOP rule.
Editor's comment: It seems to me that the whole idea of federal regulation of
organic agriculture was a conceptual mistake from the beginning. State regulation,
notably in California, has created a widely accepted and trusted standard which defines
organic food in the strict sense most regular and concerned consumers of organic foods
think of organic foods. There is no evidence of an organized attack on these
decentralized standards by commercial food processors, and suppliers of the advanced
technologies for the commercial food industry, such as genetically engineered crops,
herbicides, pesticides, hormones, and irradiation. It is the attempt by the
processed food and agriculture technology industries to subvert for their own gain the
very concept of organic agriculture that has brought us into this debate in the first
place. I think that creating a brand new set of centralized standards gave the
agritech sector the very sort of target they could work with. The only sensible
thing for Congress to do is to repeal the OFPA of 1990, and just forget the idea. DO
YOU AGREE? DISAGREE? WHY? CLICK
HERE TO REGISTER YOUR OPINION!
detail: Ed Loewenton's formal comments to the USDA
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