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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Organic Labels

Air Date: Week of

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Now that the federal government has come up with a "certified organic" label for fruits and vegetables, some farmers want to broaden the definition of organic. They now want it to mean food grown in a "socially responsible" manner. Henry Sessions reports from Portland, Oregon.


CURWOOD: In October, the federal government will start labeling fruits and vegetables as "certified organic." For the feds, organic means produce grown without pesticides. But for some farmers, that's not good enough anymore. They want to broaden the definition of organic to refer to food grown in, what they call, a "socially responsible manner." And they've come up with their own ethical farming certification. Henry Sessions has our report.


SESSIONS: From chocolate bars to soda pop, you can get almost anything in an organic version these days.

McCARTHY: I buy soy milk, and I buy the organic milk, organic pizza, waffles.

SESSIONS: In her regular visits to New Seasons Market in Portland, Lisi McCarthy homes in on products with the organic label.

McCARTHY: You know, organic kind of means pure, natural, healthy. Anything that's organic I feel has got to be healthier than if it's not.

SESSIONS: That aura of health and purity has led to a projected $9.3 billion market for organics in the U.S. in 2001, according to The Organic Trade Association. Organic has outgrown the fragmented private network of groups now certifying food. So, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has adopted national rules for organic labeling. Those go into effect this fall.

But Deborah Kane, executive director of the Portland-based Food Alliance, says there's a new breed of consumers who aren't satisfied with the relatively narrow criteria behind the organic label.

KANE: So, I think that organic halo, to a certain extent, is waning. It's just simply been our experience that consumers are starting to ask the tougher questions rather than just simply were pesticides applied or not?

SESSIONS: The Food Alliance has developed its own certification system for produce and prepared foods. Food Alliance farmers agree to conserve soil and protect water quality on their farms, offer decent and safe working conditions, and reduce, but not eliminate, pesticide use. A major goal is to give consumers a better idea of where and how their food is grown.

KANE: More and more now, we see consumers saying, for example, they'd rather buy locally produced strawberries than organically produced strawberries that came from Mexico.

SESSIONS: So far, Kane says The Food Alliance has certified more than 150 farms, covering a million acres in the Northwest, Minnesota and Wisconsin. They're adding new farmers at a rate of 50% a year, most of whom are not organic. And they're planning on opening a New England office later this year.

CHAMBERS: You can see much of the remnants here of the cover crop.

SESSIONS: Karla Chambers enthusiastically shows visitors around Stahlbush Island Farms, the family farm and processing operation she runs with her husband, Bill, near Corvallis, Oregon. She terms the farm a "sustainable operation." Cover crops of clover provide natural nitrogen fertilizer to the fields. Satellite-guided tractors plow perfectly straight rows, saving in diesel.
Crop rotation breaks up insect cycles and gives the land a rest. But unlike organic growers, Stahlbush Island Farms does use pesticides and herbicides.

CHAMBERS: We're looking at every management tool we have available to us before we use the chemical. Under our sustainable production, we don't make the claim that we're pesticide-free, but we're managing our farming system so that our outcome will give us a pesticide residue-free product that we can guarantee to the consumer.

SESSIONS: Chambers estimates the operation uses about a tenth as much pesticides as a conventional operation. She also highlights working conditions. The farm offers wages well above the minimum, plus health insurance, and a 401K Plan for full-time employees.
As the organic movement was born in the '80s and '90s, many groups developed their own seals of approval. And many of those did take social factors, like working conditions, into account. But those standards won't be part of the new USDA Organic Certification.

Pete Gonzalves is executive director of Oregon Tilth, one of the nation's oldest and best-known organic certifiers.

GONSALVES: The USDA took the approach that those concerns are addressed in other elements of the law, labor laws and OSHA requirements, and that it was inappropriate to add those to organic.

SESSIONS: Oregon Tilth, by the way, will be helping carry out the new USDA system. As the new rules go into effect, Deborah Kane says the Food Alliance is betting its future on consumers seeing a link between environmental and social issues.

KANE: If you can go out into the marketplace and say to consumers, "I produced this apple in a way that was both environmentally friendly and socially just," there will be a consumer for that product.

SESSIONS: The Food Alliance's informational displays now appear in produce departments in more than 100 stores throughout Oregon and Minnesota. That's double last year's number. And produce and products bearing the Alliance's distinctive label, an image of a barn in a plowed field, are now being shipped all over the U.S. and Canada. For Living on Earth, I'm Henry Sessions in Portland, Oregon.



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