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DON'T PANIC, BUY ORGANIC

The bad news is that USDA has scrapped the bulk of the NOSB's work and has rewritten the NOP Rules according to their own predilections. That this action has widely overstepped the mandates of the original OFPA law and has pulled a bureaucratic end run around the clear intent of Congress is seen by some as just Washington's business as usual.An appropriate analogy is the recent "Made in the USA" truth in labeling debacle where some special interests tried to get the Federal Trade Commission to increase the allowable content of foreign manufactured materials in U.S. products to still qualify for the "Made in the USA" logo and label. The ensuing explosive reaction from a large and previously unlikely coalition of business and labor and the grass roots public sent shock waves throughout Washington and the integrity of the "Made in the USA" label was resoundingly saved.

Organic advocates see many parallels in the proposed gutting of the organic standards. USDA's action effects far more than those in the industry, however:As it is now, the agribusiness corporations have enforced a virtual no-labelling policy. Products in the marketplace like milk produced from cows injected with recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) or potatoes containing transgenic Bt, a biopesticide, are not labeled as such or even identified. Today, a "Certified Organic" label means such substances are not used in the production of the organic foods you buy -- tomorrow is another question.

Although organic food is one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. agricultural economy (over 20% a year since 1990) the repeated foot-dragging by USDA has already accounted for considerable economic losses in the industry. The NOP Rules were due out back in October of 1993. Year after year their promised publication eventually took on the nature of a sick joke to farmers who were uncomfortable with the wisdom of willingly turning Organic over to the machinations of Government and potential meddling by special interests to begin with.

As Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman pointed out at the press conference for the unveiling of the Rules, "One, unified standard could clear the path and unleash even stronger growth in the organic industry. National standards would clear a similar hurdle on the international front.

...Greater income for small farmers and ranchers, stronger imports, one high consistent standard for consumers -- clearly we have a lot to gain from this rule." The combination of USDA's delayed implementation, however, and now the issuing of a bogus set of standards has instead dealt the industry a major blow.

In addition, all along the NOSB and the existing certifying groups have been very concerned about the fee structures that could be charged by USDA to administer the program. The danger is that excessive fees would quickly put the smaller certifiers out of business and that thousands of small scale farmers would also become disenfranchised. Unfortunately, these worst nightmares are now the reality in the proposed NOP Rules. Many of the smaller, grass roots Certification programs operate on shoestring budgets and rely on considerable dedicated volunteer labor and assistance. The pricey USDA monitoring provisions are greatly bloated and burdensome in comparison.

Organic farmers have become inured to being treated like an unwanted stepchild by UDSA. A study a year ago conducted a thorough search of USDA's publicly funded research projects and identified only 1/2 of 1% of them as having any content or relevance for Organic practitioners. The tremendous growth of organic, however, from a $78 million industry back in 1980 to $3.5 billion last year is now becoming harder to benignly neglect. That this growth is being led by consumers is something no politicians can afford to overlook.

USDA's National Organic Program is so much at variance with the letter and the intent of the Organic Foods Protection Act that it difficult to see what good the 90 day comment period will do, even though their website response line is already chock full of negative reactions from all around the country.

Some organic advocacy groups are clamoring for a Congressional Investigation, Court action and dumping the Rules altogether. These dire straits for the industry may be enough impetus for the separate Certification organizations to create an overall national organic certification program based directly on the OFPA and the NOSB standards to guarantee the continuing integrity of Organic in the marketplace. It may be quite some time before the USDA is willing or able to do it themselves.

Written by: Steve Gilman


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