In the Washington Post
March 22, 1998
Imagine a chicken on its way to the kitchen table. It spent its life in a huge shed, one of hundreds of thousands of birds stacked in cages in windowless barns. It was fed grain grown on land fertilized with sewage from a nearby town. After slaughter, it was rolled on a conveyor belt past radioactive waste and "irradiated" to kill bacteria.
Now, you may or may not be bothered by these procedures -- all of which are part of American agriculture and food manufacture. But would you label the chicken "organic"?
To the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it's an open question. After seven years of study, the department issued proposed rules recently to define what can be labeled "organic" among the fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry and even processed foods on supermarket shelves. Organic farmers, whose business is growing by 20 percent a year, had been awaiting rules they hoped would protect their industry. What they got were preliminary rulings with loopholes large enough to accommodate a factory farm, an irradiation plant and a biotech lab.
If you're like me, recently referred to by my fiancee as a junk-food-loving couch potato (I really believe she meant it affectionately), you've probably given only occasional consideration to organic food. Yet, like a growing number of my fellow shoppers, I sometimes worry about just what is in the plump chicken breasts and eerily tasteless tomatoes I toss into my shopping cart. With the choices that consumers face growing ever more complicated, the government's commitment to plain-spoken, accurate labeling is critical.
That's why USDA's organic rules are so troubling. Ignoring the recommendation of a board of farmers, environmentalists and consumers, the department left open the possibility that irradiation, sewage and even genetic engineering could be used on products labeled organic. In a final twist, the USDA included provisions that could block labels with specific claims such as "raised without synthetic chemicals" or "pesticide-free farm."
Hit by a storm of criticism since the rule was issued, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman has emphasized that the rules will be revised based on public response. "Our intention is to develop a final rule that meets the expectation of organic farmers and consumers," says Tom O'Brien, associate administrator of USDA's Agriculture Marketing Service.
As they stand now, however, the proposed standards represent something else: an Agriculture Department so entranced by conventional agribusiness that it could crush an alternative approach, making it difficult for consumers to make informed choices.
The story of organic farming is the story of a small, home-grown industry that existed for years below the radar of federal regulators and beyond the ideologies of the Farm Belt.
For more than 100 years, conventional agriculture was built on a determined faith in the virtues of technology and chemistry: A bigger combine, a better pesticide, a more judicious mix of fertilizer and hybrid plant seed could bring forth an ever more bounteous harvest. And it has led to supermarket shelves bulging with a cornucopia of every kind of food at amazingly cheap prices. It has led to foods that are clean, attractive and present no immediate health risk.
It also has led to problems -- soil erosion, ground-water pollution and crop disease. And while government researchers believe they pose no danger, debates still continue about chemical residues on fruits and vegetables and artificial growth hormones in meat.
In the 1960s and '70s, a small number of farmers began to resist the industrial model. The approach they turned to is both as old as human civilization and a product of today's heightened environmental awareness. As Frederick Kirschenmann, an organic farmer from Medina, N.D., explains, "You look at nature as being the production system and try to fit agriculture into that."
In practice, this means doing without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. It means depending on crop rotation and natural substances to control disease and pests. For livestock, it means avoiding artificial growth hormones or antibiotics and allowing animals access to open air and land.
The farmers who first adopted the organic method were frequently derided in rural America as muzzy-headed, pseudo-hippies. But as health-conscious Americans became increasingly suspicious of food additives and chemically intensive farming practices, the organic business won a following.
"Nationally, it's about a $4 billion a year industry," says Kathleen Merrigan, of the Henry Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture. That's only a small part of the total food business, but it has been growing rapidly enough to make cashing in on the trend a real temptation. Vermont, for example, had 17 certified organic farms in 1987 with a total of 138 acres in production. By 1997, the state had 170 certified farms with 13,900 acres in production. But with no national standard in place, false claims multiplied over the same period. "Organic" threatened to become as hip and meaningless a label as "healthy."
Then, in the late '80s, organic farmers asked Congress to write a law that would create a minimum national standard. It was an unusual event -- a grass-roots movement seeking out government regulation. Merrigan, then on the staff of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), remembers the drafting process as a collaboration between lawmakers, consumers, environmentalists and organic farmers. "It was really democracy at its best," she said.
The law created a special board that was to establish a list of accepted substances for organic farming. The law's authors argue that it did not give the agriculture secretary authority to add items to the list.
The lawyers at USDA saw things differently. Glickman ignored the board's recommendations on several items, allowing substances that organic farmers consider "synthetic" (including two bioengineered products). He also made it easier for meat from animals treated with drugs to be sold as organic.
The net result, say those who followed the process from the beginning, has been to water down the standards so that conventional agribusiness could slap an organic label on some products with only minimal changes in the way it operates. "Our whole intent was to help," said Merrigan, "and if this is how it comes out, we won't have helped the industry. We might have destroyed it."
There are those who see the fingerprints of agribusiness lobbyists and imagine quiet conspiracies to undo a small but growing industry before it becomes a real threat. In truth, the USDA -- indeed the entire U.S. government -- has such a vested interest in convincing you and the rest of the world that conventional farming is the best possible approach, that it's hard to see how things could have gone differently. Export sales depend on it. Consumer peace of mind depends on it. Organic farming is inevitably seen as an implicit criticism of that approach.
What's more, each of the controversial items that USDA allowed into the organic standards has its defenders. The biotech industry insists that genetically manipulated products are as natural as any. The food-processing industry and the Food and Drug Administration support the use of irradiation. (The government's concern about food safety, in general, is warranted. Recent episodes of tainted meat and unpasteurized apple juice left many sick and some dead.)
The Environmental Protection Agency likes the idea of sewage -- they prefer the term "biosolids" -- being recycled through agricultural use. Animal confinement and the use of hormones are supported by agribusiness and producer groups.
But there are opposing views. Irradiation, for example, does slightly change the color and taste of meat and is viewed as a food safety treatment of last resort by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Environmental experts have raised concerns about heavy metals that may be present in sewage. Others believe the implications of introducing genetically engineered species into nature may take generations to determine.
Organic farmers are not proposing that these practices be outlawed. They are only asking that their industry be allowed to remain free of them -- at least for now.
The underlying notion is a respect for the complexity of nature, a belief that it's hard to assess all the risks that change can bring to an ecosystem. "Organic," said Kirschenmann, "has always operated on the old wisdom that it is better to be safe than sorry."
And, indeed, science has brought us wonderful things. But the history of scientific progress is full of false steps and hideous results, from DDT poisoning to thalidomide babies. Consumers may embrace the notion of better broccoli through chemistry, or they may decide to take a wait-and-see attitude. The question is not whether the practices of conventional agriculture are good for you or whether they are humane for animals. The question is whether we should have a choice.
We may buy white bread sold by Sweetheart and produce with an organic label. Some of us may decide we care enough about how animals are raised or how much chemicals seep into ground water to pay more for food that avoids these practices. Others may say the heck with it, and shop at a huge food warehouse looking for nothing but bargains.
But the question remains whether the USDA will give us enough information about those alternatives so we can make informed choices, or whether it will subvert anything that challenges the status quo. In its preliminary rule on organic farming, USDA has passed judgment on itself. The product it has delivered to American consumers is tainted.
Reed Karaim is a freelance writer who has reported on the farming industry.