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Insights by Goldie
Stealth attack on Organic Standards

Sound Consumer | March 2003

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

I've often joked about wanting someday to shout, "Stop the presses!" but today — unfortunately — I had good reason to do just that. There was some late-breaking news just as we were finishing this issue. The editor and I agreed, "Kill my column! Let's run the threat to Organic Standards!"

Since "news" is such a transitory and fickle thing, you may or may not have heard: on February 13, U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga) made a dirty-deal attack on national organic livestock standards, undermining 12 years of extraordinary progress by organic and sustainable agriculture. He pulled off a shameless stealth maneuver on behalf of some Georgia constituents, Fieldale Farms, a huge poultry-growing conglomerate in Georgia.

Dirty dealing
Rep. Deal has been haranguing the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Fieldale's behalf for nearly a year, whining that they should have "an exemption to the 100 percent certified organic feed" standard that's required of producers who are certified organic by the USDA's National Organic Program, implemented in October 2002. Fieldale's position has been, "Yes, organic feed is available, but we don't want to pay twice what we have to pay for conventional." Oh? What about "market forces"? Organic grows as it goes. Consumers understand that to "grow the availability" there must be a premium for the grower of field grains.

Deal's shameful attack was made simply by inserting one paragraph in a 3,000- page, $400 billion spending package that both the U.S. House and Senate passed after wrangling over it since October. That one small but powerful little paragraph contains language on an organic feed exemption. If permitted to stand, it will totally undermine and weaken Organic Standards. It would permit any grower of organic meat, chicken, eggs or dairy products to avoid the current requirement of feeding 100 percent certified organic feed, if the cost of the feed exceeds twice the cost of non-organic feed.

Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, a Bush appointee, is reported at press time to say that although members of the USDA were aware of the maneuver, they are "neutral" and it was not their place to take a position or interfere with the Congressional will. That sounds like a mouthful of chicken feathers!

When unscrupulous efforts of this nature are made in an obvious attempt to subvert 12 years of work on the livestock standards and thousands of hours of effort by consumer advocates, organic activists and taxpayer-supported staff at the USDA, then "neutrality" has nothing to do with it. This is wrong and right is right. The Democratic process has been trampled on.

Chillingly, this measure would open the door for genetically altered feedstuff since conventional makes no distinction and since the primary livestock feedstuff includes quantities of corn and soy — the two most heavily genetically altered feed grains in the world. The Bush administration is a strong supporter of biotechnology, as sales of genetically altered seeds are "slumping" worldwide. Coincidence? In fact, the USDA co-owns a patent on the so-called Terminator seed technology.

As to the dirty-dealing in the halls of Congress by "statesmen," whose actions stretch the meaning of that term till it snaps, please believe me when I say they will not prevail in their efforts to derail organics. They certainly can cause problems, as they already have, but "It ain't over till it's over and it ain't over yet!"

Write letters, make calls, send e-mail
Those of you who have stayed the course for these many years as we fought for Organic Standards, know what this means: write letters, make phone calls, send emails and tell all your friends to do the same.

I'm writing this column only days since the dirty deal, yet already the Web sites of the two largest nationally marketed producers of dairy and eggs, Horizon Organics and Organic Valley, have expressed consternation and are offering to assist consumers in advocating for change. Horizon's Web site is more developed, with links to direct your outrage and concern.

Both companies have representatives that serve as I do on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to advise the USDA. When you read this, we'll have just finished a long-planned two-day strategic planning retreat with USDA to better utilize dwindling resources yet support, expand and promote the highest-quality organic agriculture in coming years. We know this new development will be on our agenda.

Check labels on your favorite organic dairy, eggs, beef, pork or chicken products. Any vendor who uses certified organic animal products needs to hear from you, too. Tell them to hold the line on standards, regardless of any finagling by organic pretenders. Petaluma Poultry, producer of Rosie's organic chicken, is reiterating its absolute dedication to upholding the high current Organic Standards, which it helped lobby for. So must others.

Good news at WSU
There is also some good news concurrently: our land grant university, Washington State, did receive $125,000 (in that same spending package) for use on organic research. True, the request had been for $300,000, but in these times we're grateful for this sum. How will the funds be used? Those of us who work closely with the Washington Food and Farming Network, an advocacy group, will continue to meet and discuss these issues with WSU and with Chris Feise, director of the Sustaining Agriculture Program at WSU, and we will report more as this progresses. Thanks so much to all of you who wrote to Rep. Nethercutt and others, urging support for the funding!

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