- Organic Standards Update
- by Patricia Dines
- West County Gazette, June 18, 2004, p. 1
- (c) Patricia Dines, 2004. All rights reserved.
- In early May, I received an email proclaiming, "America's
organic standards have once again come under heavy attack!" Did
you get this one?
- Luckily, I knew that the current situation didn't warrant that
level of alarm. While serious, it's less of an attack and more
like growing pains, an understandable outcome of organic's
success. But I also sighed at this too-frequent use of fear-based
we-are-so-small rhetoric. I know it gets attention, but too much
can make us feel weary and powerless. Hey, I want to say to the
computer, the organic community is strong, we have protections
written into law, and we have good allies. We're actually being
successful in decreasing the toxics in our farms and food. Let's
act to protect organic, but let's act from our power, not our
- Administrative Clarifications
- OK, so what's the real story? One current issue is the USDA's
four administrative "clarifications" of the organic standards. The
USDA's Barbara Robinson said that certifiers were interpreting the
rules in different ways and this was "just an attempt to be clear
[and consistent] about what is covered."
- Perhaps, but for the organic community, the USDA's choices
were unacceptable. For instance, they said that a cow that's gone
a year without antibiotics can be called organic again. (Nope, the
community has agreed that if it ever has antibiotics, it stops
being organic.) The USDA also said that if an "inert" ingredient
in an otherwise acceptable pesticide couldn't be identified,
they'd assume that the inert is acceptable for organic. (Nope,
that's not how organic works; prove that it's acceptable.) And two
more along those lines.
- Now, one can debate if the USDA's actions were innocent, but I
think they reflect the USDA's usual mindset of making small
assumptions and exceptions. Organic was created to demonstrate a
safer approach, and this process is a chance to teach that
approach to the USDA.
- OK, so then what happened? Organic organizations objected,
with support from citizens, Senators, and organic companies. And
Secretary of Agriculture Anne Veneman rescinded the
clarifications, saying she'd work with the organic industry to
create appropriate remedies.
- So that's great news, and yay team! But a key under-reported
part of the story is why we succeeded.
- Yes, because the community watched and spoke out. But also
because these changes violated the legal requirement that
all changes go through the National Organic Standards Board
(NOSB). The NOSB is composed of representatives from the organic
community, including consumers. So the USDA violated the law, got
called on it, and backed off. The system worked.
- What's important to me is to recognize that we're not
helplessly subject to the USDA's whims; there's a legal process
that helps protect organic. Organic leaders put this in the
National Organic Program's original design, because they wanted
organic standards protected by law, while giving the community
authority in its definition. While we might feel vulnerable having
our standards at the USDA, I feel that they're better protected
with a legal visible process than if they weren't in law. Witness
the corruption of the terms natural, green, and sustainable to see
what happens when such words lack legal authority.
- Expanding Into New Arenas
- The other key issue facing the organic community now is more
difficult: developing standards for new arenas -- fish, body care
products, pet foods, clothing, etc. I see this too as a symptom of
our success. The current standards for farm-grown food took
decades to define, through dedicated efforts of farmers and
consumers around the world. So it's reasonable that new arenas
need new details developed. Contrary to some rhetoric, there are
real issues to work through, and the community is doing that.
- The bad news is that the USDA recently stepped out of the
conversation, saying they won't regulate the use of "organic" in
new arenas. Suddenly these evolving arenas have become a Wild
West, where anyone can make any claim. The solution is clear:
let's insist that the USDA return to the prior status, where these
products can only make certain ingredients-label claims until
standards are finalized. Then let's support our community in
developing viable standards.
- But mostly, in all this, I want us to see the broader view
- that the organic community is strong and succeeding in
manifesting our visions. Let's continue acting for those ideals
from strength, even as we face new challenges. And let's use
organic's success as an example of how we indeed can make our
dreams come true.
- Patricia Dines is author of "The Organic Guide to Sonoma,
Napa, and Mendocino Counties." For more information, see
<www.healthyworld.org>. For USDA action information see
- (c) Patricia Dines, 2004. All rights reserved.
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