If the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has its way, food now
known as "organically grown" may be genetically engineered, fertilized
with sewage sludge, and/or irradiated with nuclear wastes. On December
16, 1997, USDA unveiled its proposed rule to implement the Organic
Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA). USDA's proposed rule would
legalize practices that are presently unthinkable for organic farmers.
All across the country, organic farmers and advocates for organic foods
have risen up in protest against USDA's proposal. If USDA prevails, the
labeling of "organically grown" foods will become meaningless and
consumers will no longer have confidence in the organic food industry.
Citizens have until May 1, 1998, to comment on USDA's proposed rule.
The practice of producing food organically began with farmers who
wanted to farm in harmony with nature instead of subduing nature by the
use of toxic chemical pesticides and fertilizers. For various reasons,
consumers want to buy food grown by these more natural methods. Those
consumers created the need to identify such foods in the market place.
Private, independent, third-party certifiers emerged to provide
assurance that the "organic" label actually means something. Third-
party certifiers inspect farms and processing facilities to insure
compliance with organic standards. These certifiers also establish
audit trails so that consumer products can be traced back to farmers'
fields. It is this third-party certification that gives the words
"organically grown" their meaning. (For an example of organic
standards, see the world wide web site of the California Certified
Organic Farmers at http://www.ccof.org/certstandccof.htm .)
As organic foods became more popular and commanded a premium price,
some growers and manufacturers labeled their products "organic" even
though they were not produced and processed in keeping with organic
standards. This fraudulent use of the "organic" label led the organic
food industry, organic farmers, consumer groups, and environmentalists
to ask for government regulation.
USDA's proposed rule, however, will not provide the needed assurance.
Besides failing to prohibit sewage sludge, irradiation and genetically
engineered organisms in organic farming and processing, the rule also:
** Fails to specifically prohibit factory-style farms from being
** Fails to strictly forbid animal cannibalism in organically produced
animals (believed to be the leading cause of transmissible spongiform
encephalopathy, like "mad cow" disease).
** Fails to prohibit the use of other materials in the production and
processing of organic food which have long been considered unsafe or
inappropriate by the international organic community, such as piperonyl
butoxide, arsenic, mono-and di-glycerides, etc.
The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA) required the Secretary
of Agriculture to establish a 15-member National Organic Standards
Board (NOSB) which the law empowered to make recommendations for
establishing the national organic standard. The law specifically gave
the NOSB authority to establish the list of allowable materials that
could be used in organic farming and processing. Importantly, the law
restrains the Secretary from adding materials to the list. Since USDA's
proposed rule adds materials to the list despite this prohibition, many
see this as a deliberate attempt on the part of USDA to challenge the
authority of the NOSB, a citizen board.
As troubling as all of these issues are, the rule proposes other
regulations that may have even more sweeping implications. These
regulations could affect every American, not just those interested in
the purity of organic food. The regulations, as proposed, would prevent
producers and manufacturers from identifying products in the store
based on production practices, thus ending the consumer's ability to
"boycott" or "buycott" food products with their shopping dollars to
support environmental goals. The proposed rule gives some examples of
the kind of labels that would be prohibited. They include: "produced
without synthetic pesticides", "produced without synthetic
fertilizers", "raised without synthetic chemicals" "pesticide-free
farm", "no drugs or growth hormones used", "raised without
antibiotics", "raised without hormones", "no growth stimulants
administered", "ecologically produced", "sustainably harvested", and
"humanely raised". In other words the rule, as proposed, could end all
eco-labeling, thus destroying an important market-based tool for
If they became law, these broad, prohibitory regulations would force
many U.S. companies and grower associations to refrain from marketing
eco-labelled products that they currently produce. Several examples
come to mind. Coleman's Natural Beef, which produces and markets a
growth-hormone-free, antibiotic-free beef product. Numerous companies
and grower associations that are presently marketing products produced
by reduced-pesticide practices. Perhaps even companies using the
"dolphin safe" and "SmartWood" labels to differentiate sustainable
fishing and forestry products would be in jeopardy.
Additionally, the proposed rule would prohibit private organic
certification companies from certifying or labeling products that
distinguish "any farming or handling requirements other than those
provided for" in the government's regulations. (Sec. 205.301) This
means that if the government insists on allowing sewage sludge,
irradiation, genetically engineered organisms, piperonyl butoxide and
other similar materials then no one can certify any product that is
produced or processed WITHOUT those technologies.
The proposed rule takes the power of preference away from consumers,
limits the market opportunities of producers, restricts commercial free
speech, and leaves chemically sensitive and allergic people without any
reliable choices in the marketplace to protect them from possible harm.
Ironically, the proposed rule does not place such restrictions on
imported products or on foreign certifiers. The rule simply requires
that imported products "at least" meet the requirements of the U.S.
organic regulation. In effect, then, the regulations would allow
foreign certifiers to certify that foods were produced without sewage
sludge. etc. for import into the U.S., but U.S. certifiers could not
certify U.S. products to that same standard for U.S. consumers.
This same regulation would also force international certifiers doing
business in the United States, who want to uphold the standards they
have become identified with over the past few decades, to move their
base of operation out of the U.S. to retain the value of their
trademarks. Other countries not only allow private certifiers to uphold
and market higher standards than those required by government
regulation, but some actively encourage it.
Alternatively, U.S. certifiers apparently could certify products to a
higher standard if those products were destined for export, but could
not certify those same products for the U.S. domestic market. This
potentially creates a preposterous scenario in which U.S. certifiers
could certify products to meet export standards, see those products
sold into foreign markets from which they could then be sold back into
the U.S., yet it would be illegal to market those same products
directly in the U.S.
In short, this proposed rule does not serve the interests of either
American producers or consumers. This raises an interesting question.
Who would benefit from this rule? It would be a boon for the
conventional agribusiness food system which has, for years, sought to
eliminate any differentiation in the marketplace that threatens their
market share. This rule would simultaneously erase most of the major
distinctions between organic and conventional food, make it illegal to
use any other eco-labels, and prevent private certifiers from
certifying to any standard other than the one proposed by USDA. One
could hardly imagine a single piece of regulation that could bring more
joy and comfort to the agribusiness food industry.
Given these disturbing developments, citizens need to take steps to
protect their shopping and marketing rights. There are several things
we can do. First, everyone can inform themselves by getting additional
information about the proposed rule from various web sites. Several are
Second, every citizen can submit comments to USDA to voice their
concerns about this rule. Information on how to comment and how to gain
access to the rule is also noted below.[2,3]
Third, we need to take steps to protect citizen rights to "boycott" and
"buycott" foods so that we can use our shopping dollars to protect the
environment. Every citizen can support the efforts of consumer groups
like Consumer's Union, Mothers and Others, Greenpeace, Food & Water, or
any number of other consumer and environmental groups that are fighting
to preserve these rights. And everyone can contact their congressional
representatives urging them to support the right to label products
based on point of origin or production practices.
Some private organic certifiers have already decided that they will not
certify products to a standard like the one proposed in the USDA rule.
We need to encourage USDA to establish a strong standard for organic
food --a rule that supports farmers who are producing food ecologically
and customers who choose to buy and eat that food. The existing
proposal only supports agribusiness --the same industries that have
brought you pesticides and genetically engineered crops. -
--by Frederick Kirschenmann
 For the past 22 years, Frederick Kirschenmann has operated a 3100-
acre organic farm in North Dakota. He serves on the board of the World
Sustainable Agriculture Society and is president of the board of the
Henry A. Wallace Institute. He was a founding member of the Northern
Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy
from the University of Chicago.
 The proposed rule can be downloaded from
http://www.usda.gov/ams/nop on the world wide web, or you can purchase
a paper copy from the FEDERAL REGISTER for $8.00 by calling 202-512-
1800 in Washington, D.C. The original comment period was slated to end
March 16, but has now been extended to May 1.
 Comments to USDA on the proposed organic rule should be submitted
by May 1 to: Eileen S. Stommes, Deputy Administrator, USDA-AMS-TM-NOP,
Room 4007-S, AG Stop 0275, P.O. Box 96456, Washington, D.C. 20090-6456.
Comments can also be faxed to 202-690-4632, or E-mailed via the
National Organic Program home page at http://www.usda.gov/ams/nop .
Anyone filing comments by fax or E-mail should check to make sure their
comments have been received and duly noted.
 For a brief but thorough statement on opportunities to protect the
environment through consumer purchasing power with eco-labels, see Mark
Ritchie, "Purchasing Power: Consumer Choices and Environmental
Protection," December 3, 1997, an unpublished paper available by
request. Send a request via E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or via fax to
Descriptor terms: organic farming; food safety; food irradiation;
sewage sludge; pesticides; fertilizer; usda; agriculture; agribusiness;
organic agriculture; regulations; eco-labels; frederick kirschenmann;