February 10, 1998
I suspect that is why the words "measurable degradation" appear so many times in the rule as the criteria by which we have to make our case if we want to say "no" to a material that we don't want used in the organic system, or that has traditionally not been allowed in organic production or processing.
This became crystal clear to me when we were told, by the NOP staff, in a recent teleconference that one of the ways we could document "degradation" to soil quality was measurable damage to earth worms. But every soil scientist working with earth worms and soil quality with whom I have conferred has told me that it sometimes takes years to establish cause effect relationships between farming practices and earth worm populations. And even then it is almost impossible to document precisely which practice causes the degradation. That means that under this regulatory scheme (i.e. risk assessment) we might have to allow ecologically damaging practices for years because we can't say no before we can document degradation.
This is especially true with respect to soil, since soil scientists are still debating how to measure soil quality, and since soil microbe communities are only now beginning to be understood. New gene typing technologies are now, for the first time, allowing us to identify soil microbe species. (See R. Service, Science, Vol 275,21) It will be years before we will be able to determine which microbes cause which effects in soil and plant systems. And then some years more before we learn how to manage soil to take advantage of this miniature world of ecosystem services---critical to our understanding of organic agriculture. In the meantime, using the risk assessment model, certifiers would not be allowed to prohibit practices we suspect might be harmful to this microbial community, because we can't yet prove it by establishing the necessary cause-effect data.
A good example of how this risk assessment will play itself out in the organic world can be predicted from the example that the proposed rule provides in the Preamble discussion for degradation in 205.2. The proposed rule says :
For example, if nitrate levels in an adjacent well are found to increase over two or more crop years following application of a highly soluble mined source of nitrogen to soil, as set forth in proposed section 205.7(e)(2) of subpart B, THEN the practice would have to be terminated or modified to PREVENT FURTHER adverse effects on water nitrate levels. (emphasis mine)
This reasoning is absolutely contrary to to two fundamental principles of organic agriculture. First, organic agriculture, from its inception has been practiced to PRESERVE the health of ecosystems by farming in harmony with nature. Sir Albert Howard (New Testament for Agriculture) made it clear that the principle function of this kind of agriculture was to determine whether we could "regulate [our] affairs so that [our] chief possession---the fertility of the soil---is preserved." In other words, organic agriculture is not a farming system determined by what we can get away with, but a farming system determined by what we can do to restore the health and vitality of the soil. Clearly, imposing a risk assessment model on the functions of organic agriculture will destroy that aim.
In fact, the above example given in the rule, would PROMOTE degradation. In the first place, under the best of circumstances it would allow a degrading practice to remain in place for at least two years before sufficient measurable data could be collected to put a stop to it. In the second place, if there is no "adjacent well" or no complaining neighbor, a certifier could never put a stop to it. There is no provision in such a regulatory scheme for other earth organisms to lodge a complaint---and it is precisely the health of ALL of earth's organisms that organic agriculture was designed to protect.
Secondly, according to the same example, the proposed rule would in effect lower the standard by which we operate. The rule states that if water tests show too much nitrate the practice would have to be stopped "to prevent FURTHER adverse effects" (emphasis mine). Of course this is the only possible action since the degradation cannot be reversed. But this, in effect means that the degraded state becomes the new baseline against which further degradation is to be measured.
In the meantime, certifiers would not be allowed to simply prohibit the practice of adding highly soluble nitrogen fertilizers to, for example, stop further loading the ecosystem with yet more atmospheric nitrogen. And this despite the fact that the President of the American Association of the Advancement of Science identified such nitrogen loading as one of the six major global changes that the scientific community had to address in our new era of a "human dominated planet." (J. Lubchenco, Science, Vol 279,23)
We will have these same problems with respect to evaluating the safety of pesticides, synergists, GEOs, etc. To some extent we will have the same problem with processing aids.
Since organic systems were designed to preserve (and hopefully enhance) ECOLOGICAL systems, the task of proving degradation is even more difficult than it is for industrial systems. Organic systems have to prove ecological degradation while industrial systems only need to prove toxicological degradation. As Jane Rissler and Margaret Mellon have pointed out in their work on THE ECOLOGICAL RISKS OF ENGINEERED CROPS (1996) assessing ecological risks can be tremendously complicated and time consuming. In my judgment there is no way that the NOSB (not to mention certifiers) has the resources to assess such degradation with any kind of assurance. The result will be that we will become mired down in a morass of practices for which we cannot "prove" ecological degradation. And certifiers will be spending all of their time trying to gather data to stop practices that we have traditionally said "no" to, instead of attending to the task of assuring consumers that they are getting what they are paying for.
Given these difficulties it is also ludicrous to ask the public to comment on the rule based on their ability to provide "scientific" evidence for their comments.
We will have to insist that USDA allow us to establish a regulatory system based on the ancient wisdom that has guided us all along. We have always operated on the assumption that we did not posses the cleverness to understand the intricate interrelationships of nature's biological and evolutionary systems. Consequently we have no choice but to act with caution. That is why we have always said "no" to exogenous materials, unless they were absolutely necessary, and the material had been proven safe, rather than merely not proven unsafe. This is the old "better to be safe than sorry" principle which has guided us for decades, and is the notion that lies at the heart of the Precautionary Principle.
An international conference on the precautionary principle was held in Racine, Wisconsin January 23-25, 1998. Attached is a "Dear Colleague" letter sent to participants at the conference from Carolyn Raffensperger which gathers up some of the ideas generated by the conference. A copy of the "Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle" that was unanimously adopted by all of the participants at the conference is also attached.
My sense is that this is a concept whose time has come and we will be hearing a great deal more about it in the months ahead. In fact several countries, and a few US states are either crafting statutory language, or have already adopted statutes, enshrining this principle into law. It would be a supreme irony if the organic community, which has traditionally operated by this principle, were forced to adopt a risk assessment regulatory model, at the same time that the conventional regulatory world is considering adoption of the precautionary principle.
We must convince the regulatory bureaucracy to allow us to use the ecological, precautionary approach, rather than the toxicological, risk assessment approach. Maybe we just have to say, as an industry, that this is the way we are going to do it, and if USDA can't function by those rules we will simply have to take our industry back.