Organically blown

How the feds turned 'organic' into a bad word.

If you invite a 600-pound gorilla into your backyard, you shouldn't be surprised when it leaves behind a big, steaming pile. Yet that's exactly how organic food community members reacted last December, when the US Department of Agriculture released its 600-page proposal for federal regulations on organic food. First, organic-industry figures invited the feds in; now they're screaming about the results. Most objectionable are what Lon Johnson of the Washington Tilth Producers Association calls "the three abominations": allowing foods that are irradiated, genetically engineered, or grown with sewage sludge to be considered "organic." The same objections have been so widely raised nationwide that most people expect the USDA to scrap the whole proposal and start over after the review period ends on April 30. The outcry, though, begs the question: Why did the organic community—a scrappy group of independent-minded, anti-establishment folks in general—invite the government to mess around with it in the first place? To most organic farmers, after all, organics are "a way of life, a belief system," similar to the Jewish dietary laws. "Our traditions do not need to be scrutinized by the so-called scientific approach," said Gene Kahn, of Cascadian Farm and the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), during a 10-hour public meeting over the proposal held last month. "Please return to the original NOSB recommendations and create a final rule that is in keeping with our traditions, our existing standards, and perhaps most importantly, with consumer expectations." The organic community, of course, has always been divided, and many members objected to inviting federal study and classification in the first place. "There's always been people [in the organic movement] reluctant to get involved with the government," says Anne Schwartz of Blue Heron Farm in Rockport, who helped develop Washington state's standards. "A lot of farmers don't trust state government, much less the feds." One organic activist, who asked not to be identified, said, "The organic movement has always been pretty Balkanized." Conjuring up a common enemy, in the form of this USDA proposal, won't necessarily smooth over these differences—which are caused in large part by the organic industry's outsized success. Miles McEvoy, manager of the organic program for the Washington State Department of Agriculture, believes that "the industry was growing too quickly for everyone to agree on every aspect of what organic meant." Nationally, the organic market has been growing 20 percent per year since 1990, and growth in Washington has been close to 30 percent per year for the past four years. Those who pushed for federal regulation saw it as an ideological gamble, an opportunity to spread the gospel. Theresa Steig, marketing coordinator for Puget Consumers' Co-op, says that having federal standards would inject more money into organic research and consumer advocacy. "We wanted to show more people that this is a larger environmental issue. We hoped to have an impact on agriculture in general." Those who opposed it felt that federal regulation would benefit only conglomerates, while hurting the small farmer who had made organic produce a viable dietary option for Americans, and who comprises 70 percent to 80 percent of the industry. "We want to farm," says Blue Heron Farm's Anne Schwartz. "We'd rather be doing more consumer advocacy work, doing research instead of hassling with bureaucrats. Many of us have been working for two decades or more on developing organic standards. So who's this going to benefit? Big growers who ship across the country. The average 20-acre farmer doesn't need all this stuff." It may be years before a federal organic standard exists: Remarks on the current proposal, which took four years to draft, will be accepted until April 30, after which a new proposal will be written up and sent through the review process once again. In the meantime, organic advocates say the best thing to do is to vote with your dollar—and give thanks that you live in Washington, which is one of only three states with a state-run certification program, and which is considered to have some of the best standards in the nation. Consumers anxious to have something more than the undefined reassurance of the seller that his or her produce is "organic" are best off buying Washington state­ and Oregon Tilth­certified products. "I have enormous faith in most of the certification programs on the West Coast," says Anne Schwartz. "Organic food is at its finest when it's certified by Washington state and Oregon Tilth."

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