Air Date: Week of April 24, 1998
When the federal government decided to move in to regulating organic food, the process was supposedly designed to avoid controversy. After all, Congress instructed the writers of the Federal Organic Standards to base the new rules on what organic farmers are already doing. But the first round of proposed rules included loopholes that would have given some big and questionable advantages to giant food producers. That led to a ton of outraged comments from those who have been in the natural foods business for a long time. Maine Public Broadcasting's Andrea DeLeon explains.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. When the Federal Government decided to move into regulating organic food, the process was supposedly designed to avoid controversy. After all, Congress instructed the writers of the Federal Organic Standards to base the new rules on what organic farmers are already doing. But the first round of proposed rules included loopholes that would have given some big and questionable advantages to giant food producers. That led to a ton of outraged comments from those who have been in the natural foods business for a long time. Maine Public Broadcasting's Andrea DeLeon explains.
(A supermarket checkout counter)
DeLEON: Organic agriculture has come of age. The fresh, pesticide-free vegetables and fruits that were once the exclusive province of back to the land style farmers' markets and worker-owned co-ops are increasingly turning up in the gleaming aisles of major grocery stores as well. Until now, many shoppers have relied on grass-rooted local organizations of growers to determine what constitutes organic. For example, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, known locally as MOFGA, made the rules for growers in Maine. Now, the Federal Government's getting into the act. It wants to standardize every step, from how food is grown to how it is processed and sold. Shoppers at natural food stores and co-ops seem to be a feisty lot, and the customers at Royal River Natural Foods in Yarmouth, Maine, are no exception. Sue Shippens heard about the proposed Federal standard, and she doesn't like it.
SHIPPENS: Well, I already have a fairly negative opinion of it from reading about it. And I would question my ability to buy any food, actually, because I really have a lot of trust in MOFGA and the standards that it has put out in the regulations that are here in Maine as well as in other states. And I don't really believe in the Federal regulations.
DeLEON: Like many organic shoppers, Ms. Shippens is outraged that the current draft of the rules would allow irradiated food, food grown from genetically modified seed, and food grown on land treated with sewage sludge to be sold as organic. If that's organic, Sue Shippens wonders what isn't. And she's hardly alone in her thinking. Twenty-seven-thousand people have used the USDA's Web site to post their views of the proposal. The vast majority have blasted it. Agency spokesman Tom O'Brien says USDA didn't propose any standards for the “Big Three” issues, because it wanted the public's input. Now, he says, USDA has the response it needs to craft a rule that mirrors consumers' and farmers' preferences, meaning irradiation, sludge, and bioengineering will be off limits.
O'BRIEN: You're absolutely right, and one, because of the enormous number of comments we've received, which is a good thing and which we anticipated, and two, because it was written as a proposal. And again, there we had the luxury of asking questions, asking what we should do, knowing we would get the response that would dictate where we go for the final rule.
DeLEON: Perhaps proponents of organic agriculture aren't used to winning battles with government. They can't quite believe Mr. O'Brien speaks the truth.
SIMONS: I don't necessarily trust the whole process at this point.
DeLEON: Royal River Natural Foods owner Ruth Simons has warned her customers that if the Federal Government's plan goes through, foods labeled as organic may not necessarily meet those clients' high standards. Ms. Simons suspects the Federal plan is a ploy to give agribusiness access to the organic marketplace.
SIMONS: I believe that the word organic has come to mean healthy, wholesome, it tastes better, looks better. And I think that they want to use it as a marketing tool. They've seen that the organic and natural food industry has grown dramatically in comparison with other areas of the grocery business, and they want to capitalize on that.
DeLEON: Ms. Simon thinks it may be time to get a little rebellious. Maybe she'll print up her own labels telling customers whether food merely meets the government's definition of organic, or her own, more exacting standards. But MOFGA, the group in charge of Maine's organic certification program, is now cautiously optimistic that the regulations will uphold its own principles of organic. MOFGA's Eric Seidman was recently appointed to the Federal Organic Standards Board. He says the USDA is taking the public's concerns very seriously.
SEIDMAN: They're willing to work with us and the recognize there are great weaknesses in the proposed rules that they didn't recognize before. And I believe, then, that they're going to work with us to change those weaknesses and make that rule strong and represent what organic is today.
DeLEON: But no matter what USDA does with these first organic standards, there will be attempts to change them. So, Mr. Seidman says members of the organic community are wise to remain vigilant. Monsanto, for example, says its bioengineered seed may not win a place in the coming organic standards, but spokesman Phil Angell believes Monsanto's time will come.
ANGELL: Because we simply need to look at it further. The issue is not that biotechnology is unsafe; it's whether or not the certain types of biotechnology crops can in fact meet these standards. A very good argument can be made that a number of the crops that use bioengineered seed can meet those standards. But the question really is, do you want to engage in that kind of a highly emotional debate right now, when in fact there is more information about biotechnology that's coming that in fact can inform the decision about whether it can be included or some of its crops can be included under the rubric of organic at some point in the future, you know, three or four years from now.
DeLEON: And no organic standard is going to please the distinct minority who say mechanization should be prohibited, or that meat, dairy, and animal manure have no place in organic agriculture. And many wonder whether any single standard set for farmers from northern Maine to southern California can foster another important part of organic farming. Grower Dave Colson of Durham, Maine, supports the idea of a Federal standard. But he says today, buying organic means supporting local farms: something he says is likely to change.
COLSON: It's not just pesticide-free and it's not just a system of regulations that can be put down at USDA, but it also has a sense of how you fit into your community and what agriculture means to the community.
DeLEON: There's no doubt that organic foods will enjoy a higher profile when the Federal Government finalizes its proposed standards early next year. Whatever connotation of the hippie fringe organic still conveys will vanish still further, as uniform rules make it easier for organic growers to ship products across state lines, and as everything from organic eggs to eggplants become more available in mainstream stores. Though the rule will undoubtedly have plenty of detractors, it may convince even more conventional growers to kick the pesticide habit. For Living on Earth, this is Andrea DeLeon in Portland, Maine.
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