Would you pay the extra money to buy organic food if you knew the beef had been irradiated, the tomatoes fertilized with municipal sewage sludge, or the corn genetically engineered?
While state and private organic certification programs now protect consumers from these things, that may change with implementation of the new national organic standards proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Critics say the proposed rules released this winter are so lax that they could destroy consumer confidence in foods labeled organic, drive small farms out of business and allow big industry to grab hold of the small but fast-growing organic food market.
“If this proposal goes through as it is written, it will undermine the industry,” said Nancy Taylor, an organic certifying agent in Moscow who has worked for the state departments of agriculture in both Idaho and Washington.
Their fruit, vegetables, grain and meat compete on grocery store shelves with conventionally grown foods that often look better and are less expensive.
In addition to finding natural ways to fertilize, protect and harvest their products, organic growers have had to work on their own, without government support and little recognition. They’ve had to create their own systems to label, certify and sell their organic products.
“It’s hard to be organic,” said Alan Shepherd, store coordinator at Huckleberry’s Fresh Markets in Spokane. “These little guys have paved the way and pioneered the whole thing.”
But the once minuscule industry of organic farming is now agriculture’s fastest growing segment. Since 1986, the market has grown 40-fold and in 1996 sales reached $3.5 billion.
Some states, like Washington and Idaho, have organic certification programs. Elsewhere, farmers rely on private organizations such as the Organic Crop Improvement Association for certification. In all, there are more than 40 private and state organic certification programs.
A national standard would provide a blanket certification for organic farmers instead of the patchwork that now exists and would make interstate commerce and international exports of organic products easier.
That’s why farmers supported efforts seven years ago to establish the National Organic Standards Board to advise the USDA on what rules should go into a national standard.
Taylor, the certifying agent in Washington and Idaho, was a member of the board when it started. She said the USDA’s proposal differs greatly from the NOSB’s recommendations.
“We were worried about what they would propose,” Taylor said, “but I didn’t think it would be this bad.”
The most contentious issues in the rules for produce include allowances for biosolids (municipal sewage) as fertilizer and for genetically engineered foods.
For most consumers and farmers, it’s a question of upholding the purity of the food as chemical- and technology-free.
The problems with the livestock standards include feeding the animals up to 20 percent non-organic feed, allowing them drugs and medications and accepting certain types of living conditions like feed lots and cages - all things that are not accepted under most state and private organic certification programs.
The proposed rules also would limit what information organic producers could put on their labels. If their meat hadn’t been irradiated or their produce genetically engineered, the consumer at the supermarket won’t know the difference. “That is a real way to protect producers and retailers who use those things the consumers don’t want,” said Colette DePhelps, spokesperson for the Palouse-Clearwater Environmental Institute in Moscow.
Organic farms, because of the attention and intensity required to run them, are almost always small.
“Organic certification is so important to small-scale agriculture,” DePhelps said. “It’s the market niche that gives them the returns they need.”
The work isn’t easy. Farmers must idle their land for years to ensure it is free of synthetic chemicals and they must carefully control what feed is given to their animals.
“The organic movement has built itself upon uncompromising standards of purity,” said Chrys Ostrander, an organic vegetable farmer out of Davenport. “Organic farmers look at things in terms of qualitative instead of quantitative results.”
This hands-on, intensive farming has kept big business from stepping into large-scale organic production. But under the proposed rules, that could change.
“These rules are so lax, it will make it very easy for the large agribusiness company to move in and monopolize,” Taylor said, listing agribusiness Cargill Inc., food processor ConAgra Inc. and poultry giant Tyson Foods as industry examples. “These companies have a lot of economic power to put organic farmers out of business.”
Critics of the proposed standards say that big business influenced the USDA to change the proposed standards.
“I think probably in the rule making, there was extreme pressure from the White House … and most certainly from big industry,” Taylor said.
And when consumers see the “organic” label in natural food stores like Huckleberry’s, Bountiful Fresh Foods and Loriens, they won’t know for certain what they’re getting, critics say.
If the rules are approved, “almost everything is going to qualify as organic,” said Shepherd at Huckleberry’s. “But I would be hard-pressed to believe that they could actually get them through because of the enormous outcry that is going on right now.”
In fact, farmers and consumers have barraged the USDA with comments and criticisms of the proposed organic rules. To manage and encourage response, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman extended the public comment period to end April 30.
“USDA takes the public’s role in rulemaking very seriously,” Glickman said in a press release. The agency has already received 15,000 comments on the proposed rules.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo Graphic: Organic or not?
MEMO: How to comment The proposed rules are available on the USDA’s Web site: http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop. Comments can be made through the site or sent to Eileen S. Stommes, Deputy Administrator, Agricultural Marketing Service, USDA, Room 4007-S, Ag Stop 0275, P.O. Box 96456, Washington D.C., 20090-6456.