Organic Standards Update
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 fears!
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 And Secretary of Agriculture Anne Veneman rescinded the clarifications, saying she'd work with the organic industry to create appropriate remedies.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 <>. For USDA action information see <www.healthyworld. org/organicstatus>.
(c) Patricia Dines, 2004. All rights reserved.

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