In 1973, after the United States banned the perilous DDT, the underground organics industry grew almost overnight, due in part to the expanding consumer opposition to chemical pesticides as well as the desire to eat foods that were produced without negatively impacting the environment. Many people feared that conventional store bought food was not as safe to eat as chemical produced goods and with the growing awareness of what DDT did to human and environmental health, consumers were growing weary of the corporate agricultural industry. So people hastily flocked back to the land and planted crops on their own, or joined food co-ops where they could grow and trade products among a community of like-minded comrades. The market soon reacted to this growing demand of organic foods and in the 1990s companies that produced organics estimated sales of more than $1 billion annually. Organic food was here to stay.
Congress soon followed and passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990, which was attached to the Farm Bill and established the initial framework to create National Organic Standards, which set the legal standards for organic foods. OFPA mandated the formation of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which was organized to advise the Secretary of Agriculture in setting the standards for the United States Department of Agricultures National Organic Program (NOP). NOSB based its recommendations on industry consensus an organic advocates were pleased. The next step, however, was a bit more cumbersome. Turning USDAs organic standards into rules and regulations, took some intense lobbying. Americans didnt seem ready to put the food they ate to the test. But in October 2002, USDA officially began labeling foods that met the agencys definition of organic products with 95% organic content or higher.
Attempting to define what USDA considers organic is like trying to figure out which lie George W. Bush told last -- it is a difficult, if not impossible task. Since 2002, USDA has changed their definition almost every year. So todays products labeled organic by the Agency may not have been labeled the same in 2003. This sort of wavering has been met with much criticism from many organic food advocates who believe USDA should stick to the standards it agreed upon in 1990. Others, mostly industry suit coats, still believe USDAs labeling is too stringent. And why wouldnt they? The lesser the standards, the fatter their bottom-lines. And here is where the lobbying efforts on the part of the agriculture giants come into play.
Certification is becoming big business, writes Hilary Chop for the Alternatives Journal, Accredited certification agencies are becoming for-profit enterprises instead of farmer and consumer run organizations. This raises the potential for conflict of interests, particularly since farms pay the certifying agency based on their acreage. If a mega-farm wants an exception from the rules, it can be all too tempting for the enforcing officer who receives a commission, to make allowances.
Later in April 2004, after intense lobbying efforts by ag-industry giants like ConAgra and Monsanto, USDA proposed new rules that would have allowed USDA-certified organic farms to use fertilizers and pesticides that contain "unknown" ingredients, or rather, ingredients that could not be identified by either the grower or the inspector. Also on the butcher block were USDA-certified organic dairy cows. Up until 2004, organic certified cows could not be fed any antibiotics or non-organic feed. That changed fast, as the desire for organic products grew publicly, so did the awareness among the big-agriculture folks who lobbied until they succeeded. Luckily, organic activists didnt back down from the fight. There was a public outcry, and in May 2004, USDA retracted the proposed changes they had put forth a month prior. If they hadnt reversed their plea, USDA-certified cows could have been administered antibiotics or fed non-organic fishmeal -- made with synthetic preservatives and potentially contaminated by mercury and PCBs, which is a known carcinogen.
Nonetheless, if industry giants are anything, theyre persistent. And by June 2004, USDA had reinstated one of the directives from April of that same year. Today all seafood, body care products, and clothing, fertilizers and pet food can be labeled "organic regardless of how they were manufactured. And on December 13, 2005, the U.S. Senate passed the 2006 Appropriations bill, which included language that weakened even more USDA organic labeling standards.
In January of 2005, the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Harvey's favor. The court mandated that USDA had one year to re-write their regulations. It looked like a win for the organic community. "The decision said that synthetic substances were not permitted in any type of product labeled as 'organic, Joe Mendelson, legal director for the Center for Food Safety told reporters after the decision. Such products could not be labeled with the official green USDA 'Organic' stamp of approval.
But when big money is involved, dont count on justice to prevail. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who has stood up for organic standards in the past, inserted the language in the Agriculture Appropriations Bill of 2006, countered Mendelson, "The Harvey case could have major impacts on the future of the organic industry, both for producers and processors. That is why I added language to the Senate bill instructing USDA to study the implications of the decision and report back to Congress. I believe a deliberative process to achieve consensus within the organic community would have been more appropriate." Leahy received over $32,000 from the agribusiness sector during the 2004 election cycle.
The Senators amendment now forces the U.S. Agriculture Secretary to analyze, within 90 days of the bills passage, whether reinstating the organic labeling standards set in 2002 would adversely affect organic farmers, organic food processors, and consumers. The secretary also has to analyze issues regarding the use of synthetic ingredients in processing and handling certified organic products.
This is where the Organic Trade Association (OTA) comes into the picture. The OTA represents virtually all the companies hoping to turn a profit in the organic foods market, regardless of their size. By and large the OTA was not in the least bit happy with the courts ruling in the Harvey case. They want to make money for their clients. The amendment had been opposed by many organic food growers, as well as public health officials, environmental organizations, including National Grocers Association, National Organic Coalition and Rural Advancement, Beyond Pesticides, National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, Organic Consumers Association among others.
According to the OTAs number crunching, had rules of the Harvey case gone into effect, 25 percent of organic manufacturers would have left the business, which they estimated would account for almost $758 million in lost sales per year. Clearly the OTA was putting potential profits over consumer and environmental health. The group also argued that 20 percent of organic farmers would have had to abandon their farming methods. So in effect, Harveys case will have no real impact on the way USDA manages and labels organic food. Not surprisingly, it wasnt small organic farmers who opposed the Harvey ruling, but rather it was industry Goliaths like General Mills and Dean Foods, who, along with others, hold considerable sway over the OTA.
As the organic food industry has matured, USDA standards have waned. Consumers can no longer be confidant that their foods meet organic standards, even if USDA gives it its green mark of approval.