Friday, October 29, 2004

Keepers of the organic standards

As some of you know, I'm working on a book on the fight over organic standards in the United States. I recently returned from Washington. D. C. where I attended a meeting of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the board which decides what constitutes organic production and processing in the U. S. The board is filled with dedicated defenders of the organic label. But, the USDA, which has been charged with administering the program, is implacably hostile to organic farming. The USDA has for many years been captive to the chemical fertilizer and pesticide industries and now to the producers of genetically modified crops. All are an anathema to the organic movement. Two times now the USDA has tried to slip into the organic standards allowances that no one in the organic movement would ever allow.

When the first proposed organic rules came out in the late '90s, USDA higher-ups inserted allowances for GMO crops, sewage sludge as fertilizer and irradiation of food. A huge letter campaign and political pressure from congressional supporters of the organic community stripped those last-minute additions out of the regulations.

Earlier this year, I was witness to the same kind of move in an April NOSB meeting in Chicago. The USDA staff simply declared unilaterally without even consulting the board that fishmeal with artificial preservatives could be used for cattle feed, that antibiotics could be used on organic dairy cows, that pesticides containing unknown toxic ingredients could be sprayed on organic crops, and that all personal care products were now suddenly not covered under the program. It also said fish and seafood labelled organic were now in violation because no specific standards yet been laid out. (The organic fish and seafood industry had been relying on the livestock standards for guidance until specific standards for fish and seafood could be drafted.) The meeting was very rancorous and testy. You can read about the whole thing here.

Some of the damage was reversed by the time of the meeting I attended earlier this month. The offending directives were withdrawn and task forces were set up to deal with the issues. The National Organic Program (NOP) staff was reshuffled in the wake of the outcry and they were considerably more conciliatory and deferential to the board. A. J. Yates, the administrator who oversees the Agricultural Marketing Service which runs the NOP, walked into the proceedings unannounced. Everything stopped and he was allowed to make some remarks in which he emphasized his support for the organic program.

It's hard to tell whether this really represents a new attitude. Given the USDA's record, the situation warrants continued vigilance on the part of the organic community.

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