Sunday, June 04, 2006

The future of the organic label is looking dim.

From The New York Times today, The Way We Live Now: Mass Natural, an article on the impact that Wal-Mart's push towards "organic" may have on the industry and on the worldwide organic farm economy.

Frankly, I find it disheartening and scary that our government's definition of a single word, "organic", might have such far-reaching impact on a market that has been steadily growing over several decades and that I strongly subscribe to. And I've always found Wal-Mart's relationship with and treatment of its vendors to be decidedly abject (along with its behavior in any other number of arenas - this is why I have not shopped at Wal-Mart for over 10 years, and have no plans to step into one again any time soon). The article does bring up some interesting positive outcomes that I hadn't considered, though, among them a drop in world exposure to pesticides and other nasties that our government (and/or others) are slow to regulate or ban on their own.

Some previous information:

Compiled from The Organic Consumers Association: Campaigning for Health, Justice, and Sustainability (a great site to keep up on what's going on with the organic industry and what you can do to help safeguard it), compiled from their pages devoted to safeguarding organic standards:

The USDA has announced a very short public comment period (ends May 12, 2006) on a proposal to amend the
National Organic Program (read the proposal here) in a manner that would weaken organic standards. The USDA's actions were requested by a very small handful of Republican members of Congress. Take action now and tell the USDA you support strong organic standards!

In late 2005, despite receiving over 350,000 letters and phone calls from OCA members and the organic
community, Republican leaders in Congress attached a rider to the 2006 Agricultural Appropriations Bill to
weaken the nation's organic food standards in response to pressure from large-scale food manufacturers.

This rider was voted on in conference committee. Here is a list of the members of that committee who pushed this rider through:

Sen Robert Bennett (R-UT)
Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS)
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA)
Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO)
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)
Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT)
Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID)
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS)

"Congress voted to weaken the national organic standards that consumers count on to preserve the integrity of the organic label," said Ronnie Cummins, National Director of the Organic Consumers Association. "The process was profoundly undemocratic and the end result is a serious setback for the multi billion dollar alternative food and farming system
that the organic community has so painstakingly built up over the past 35 years.

As passed, the amendment sponsored by the Organic Trade Association allows: Numerous synthetic food additives and processing aids, including over 500 food contact substances, to be used in organic foods without public review. Young dairy cows to continue to be treated with antibiotics and fed genetically engineered feed prior to being converted to organic production. Loopholes under which non-organic ingredients could be substituted for organic ingredients without any notification of the public based on "emergency decrees." OCA will work to reverse this rider with an "Organic Restoration Act" in Congress in 2006.

Background of the Sneak Attack
After 35 years of hard work, the U.S. organic community has built up a multi-billion dollar alternative to industrial agriculture, based upon strict organic standards and organic community control over modification to these standards.

Now, large corporations, such as Kraft, Wal-Mart, & Dean Foods--aided and abetted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and members of the Organic Trade Association, have succesfully weakened organic standards by allowing Bush appointees in the USDA National Organic Program to take away the National Organic Standards Board’s (NOSB) traditional lead jurisdiction in setting standards. What this means, in blunt terms. is that USDA bureaucrats and industry lobbyists, not consumers, will have near total control over what can go into organic foods and products.

Organic Standards Under Fire:

Agribusiness front groups, such as the Farm Bureau, big food corporations like Kraft, biotech companies such as Monsanto, right-wing think tanks, such as the Hudson Institute, and industry-friendly government agencies have consistently tried to undermine organic standards and get the USDA to allow conventional chemical-intensive and factory farm practices on organic farms. Unless strict organic standards are maintained, consumers will lose faith in the organic label.

Federal Funding for Organics:
The current five year $220 billion US Farm Bill allocates less than $5 million annually for organic research, promotion and marketing...approximately one-hundredth of one percent. This means that Congress is using billions of our tax dollars to reward chemical-intensive, factory farm style operations, while penalizing non-chemical farmers. This, despite
the fact that organic food has been the fasting growing segment in the food marketplace for over 13 years. To move beyond using pesticides, chemicals and genetically modified seeds, conventional farmers need government subsidies and conversion programs that prioritize local and regional organic production. These misguided priorities must be reversed in the upcoming 2007 Farm Bill.

Preserving Organic Farms and Consumer Choice:
Genetically Engineered (GE) crops pose a serious pollution threat to organic food and farms. Windblown pollen from GE crops and commingling of seeds in grain elevators or transport vehicles are contaminating organic farms and seed stocks of corn, soy, cotton and canola. The OCA is calling for strict legal liability on all GE crops utilizing the "polluter pays" principle, to protect the property rights of farmers growing organic or non-GE crops. The OCA is also calling for mandatory labeling on GE foods- similar to laws already in place in Europe and other countries- so that consumers have a choice whether or not to buyGE foods.
And another NYTimes article published on May 12, 2006, eyeing Walmart's proposed organic shift: Wal-Mart Eyes Organic Foods.

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