Monsanto & Agri-Toxic Companies Attempt Takeover of Organic Foods Industry
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Whose Organic Standards? USDA Prepares for an "Unfriendly Takeover" of the
Natural Foods Industry
July 9, 1997
by: Ben Lilliston, Sustain: The Environmental Education Group (Chicago,
Ronnie Cummins, Pure Food Campaign (Little Marais, Minnesota)
The Oxford American dictionary describes the word organic as "of or formed
from living things." Consumers generally define organic foods as those
produced naturally, without the use of toxic chemicals, drugs, or factory
farm techniques. But how the dictionary, organic farmers, or millions of
American consumers define "organic" will soon become a moot point. That is
because the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) will soon be
defining in legally binding terms exactly what "organic" means. And not in
a pithy phrase, but rather in what is expected to be a 600 page document in
the Federal Register--and given the history of the USDA, many are worried
about the impact of these new federal regulations on the natural foods
"This is the institutionalizing of the word 'organic' by the government,
and we should pay close attention," says Michael Sligh, Director of the
Sustainable Agriculture Program at the Rural Advancement Foundation
International (RAFI). Sligh is the former chairman of the National Organics
Standards Board (NOSB), an official advisory committee established by
Congress in 1990 through the Organic Food Production Act to make
recommendations to the USDA on organic standards and labeling
Despite precise recommendations from the NOSB to maintain strict organic
standards --policies basically in harmony with those advocated by IFOAM,
the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, and the
European Parliament--USDA officials have delayed as long as possible in
announcing federal regulations on organics. But now final rules are
expected to be published later this summer or fall, and will likely send
shockwaves throughout the natural food community. According to several
inside sources in Washington who have seen the proposed rules, the USDA not
only intends to disregard the NOSB's explicit ban on genetically engineered
food and intensive confinement of farm animals, but will actually make it
illegal for regional or non-governmental organic certification bodies to
uphold organic standards stricter than U.S. government standards. And of
course if the USDA gets away with this in the United States, their eventual
strategy will be to use the legal hammer of the GATT World Trade
Organization (WTO) to force European and other nations to lower their
organic standards as well.
"I know for a fact that one of the internal hold-ups is genetic
engineering," says Katherine Di Matteo, head of the National Organics Trade
Association, "Some people in USDA are unhappy."
The USDA is struggling with the connotations of the organic label which
indicates that no toxic chemical pesticides or fertilizers were used to
grow or process the food. The term "organic" is generally considered by the
public to indicate healthier food. Activist organizations opposed to
unsustainable agriculture practices or genetic engineering have
increasingly advised consumers to change their food buying habits and to
begin purchasing organic foods.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the USDA have been staunch
defenders of genetically engineered foods and high-chemical input
agriculture. Both agencies have actively fought against the labeling of
genetically engineered foods despite scant scientific research done on
their potential human and environmental hazards.
"Time and time again U.S. government officials have ignored citizens'
concerns and interests. The USDA understands that the public will never
accept chemically contaminated or genetically engineered foods if given any
real choice in the marketplace," says Ronnie Cummins, National Director of
the Pure Food Campaign. "But Monsanto and the agri-toxics crowd are
determined to undermine consumer choice and to cram their products down
peoples' throats if necessary. Our inside sources in Washington have warned
us that the new 'organic standards' dictated by the USDA will be bad news.
Bad news for the consumer, the natural foods industry, organic farmers, and
those farmers thinking of going organic. And bad news as well for farm
animals and the environment."
The USDA finds itself in a quandary. Central to defining the word organic
is to admit that a host of agribusiness practices such as pesticide use,
intensive confinement of livestock, hormone injection, and genetic
engineering are somehow less healthy. Yet, the USDA, FDA, and EPA have
strenuously argued for years that these practices are perfectly
In the case of genetically engineered foods, the issue becomes particularly
dicey because of the strong public support for labeling of these foods. A
February 1997 poll conducted by biotech giant Novartis found that 93
percent of American consumers want to see mandatory labelling of
genetically engineered foods. Seventy-three percent claim to "feel
strongly" about this. Consumers in Europe and other countries have
expressed similar views. Party as a result of this controversy, sales of
products labeled as "organic" have increased dramatically.
Up until now, there has been little or no testing required on the potential
human health hazards of gene-altered foods. In spite of this lack of
regulation, several studies have shown that dangerous allergens and toxins
can be spread through bioengineered foods, and that nutritional values can
be degraded. Other studies have shown that antibiotic resistance genes,
commonly found in gene-altered food, can make animals and humans more
susceptible to dangerous antibiotic resistant bacteria. In addition many
biotech crops are being engineered to resist specific herbicides, which
basically means that even more toxic chemicals will be able to be sprayed
on farm crops, ending up as residues on food products or pollultants in
drinking water. Besides these human health hazards, the increased use of
toxic herbicides and the spread of these herbicide resistant genes to weeds
and wild relatives of these plants pose a real threat to the environment.
And finally the "toxic trespass" of genetically engineered crops onto
adjacent farmlands threatens the economic livelihood of small farmers,
particularly organic farmers.
Despite warnings from an increasing number of scientists, this year a wide
variety of genetically engineered foods will be placed, unlabeled, on
supermarket shelves. Literally thousands of products--including nearly all
non-organic processed foods--will soon include at least some genetically
engineered ingredients. Two dozen biotech foods and crops have already been
approved for commercialization in the U.S., with a small but expanding menu
of biotech foods already approved in Europe, Canada, Japan, and other
countries. Millions of acres of biotech crops will be harvested this fall
in th U.S.
Because of these concerns, the NOSB passed a resolution in September 1996
which advised the USDA that "the class of genetically-engineered organisms
and their derivatives be prohibited in organic production and handling
Genetically-engineered foods are "not historic to organic, do not have a
long track record, and do not seem to be vital," says Sligh, explaining the
The USDA understands that it is politically impossible for them to dictate
that all genetically engineered crops can be labelled organic. Instead, the
proposed federal regulations will allow individual genetically engineered
products to be judged on a "case-by-case" basis. Under this
reasonable-sounding, yet ultimately insidious process, the NOSB would
evaluate individual genetically engineered products and either approve or
deny them. Those approved would be passed on the USDA, which would make the
final decision. Important to note, is that the USDA supposedly cannot add
anything to the "synthetic" list of approved inputs without NOSB
This is why Michael Hansen, of the Consumers Union, says that perhaps "The
worst case scenario is not that bad."
According to Hansen, the members of the current NOSB have indicated that
they will be extremely strict in case-by-case decisions in regard to
synthetic chemical inputs. In the short term this may provide a saving
grace for organic food, but the membership of the NOSB can change quickly.
All current and future NOSB members are appointed by and subject to the
authority of USDA officials. Present USDA Secretary Dan Glickman is an
outspoken supporter of genetic engineering, GATT, and factory farming. Thus
Glickman or his successor in the USDA will have the power, if need be, to
stack the NOSB with members who support the agribusiness and biotech
The fear by many is that the new USDA rules will subtlely but decisively
degrade, through a dense and ambiguous 600 page plus document, the label
"organic." This will open the door for large-scale agribusiness to highjack
the consumer respectability that comes with the organic label.
Transnational food corporations will then be able to fill supermarket
shelves with products labeled "organic"--except that these pseudo-natural
foods will not really be organic. The result could be devastating to the
natural food industry.
Di Matteo says she believes the organic industry will mobilize quickly if
the USDA rules run strongly counter to the NOSB's recommendation.
"But it will be hard for the organic industry if the USDA offers a
compromise position," admits Di Matteo, who fears that such a compromise
could cause a split within the organics community.
These are boom years for the U.S. organic industry. Since 1990, sales of
organic food have jumped 20 percent a year, reaching $3.3 billion in 1996,
and are projected to grow to $6.5 billion by the year 2000. Total organic
cropland has more than doubled since 1991. Sales of organic dairy products
are increasing by more than 100% annually.
Currently, "certified organic" indicates that the farming methods employed
were verified by one of the approximately 40 private or state certification
programs nationwide. Genetically engineered foods cannot be currently
labeled as "organic."
Many certifiers are concerned that the proposed USDA federal regulations
will make it illegal for them to uphold stricter standards than what the
USDA allows. Currently, organic standards vary among certification boards.
California and Oregon have tough standards, while several states such as
Illinois, have vague or nonexistent standards.
The call for national organic standards was largely pushed forward for
international trade purposes. But if the USDA decides to allow even some
genetically engineered crops on a case-by-case basis, such as those which
supposedly reduce pesticide use, it could cause serious repercussions
internationally, where there is increasing opposition to genetically
"It would have a huge impact and be viewed by utter dismay by the rest of
the world," says Ken Cummins, of the International Accreditation Services,
part of the International Federation of Organic Movements.
The Codex Alimentarius is designated by the World Trade Organization as the
officially-recognized rule-making body for international trade issues
related to food. The Codex has been holding a series of ongoing meetings to
define the term "organic" internationally. Thus far, the majority of
national representatives participating in the Codex meetings have resisted
the inclusion of genetically engineered foods under the organic label,
although the U.S. government delegation and the biotech industry have at
times lobbied for weaker international standards.
Besides the biotech foods controversy, the USDA proposed federal
regulations will attempt to allow meat, eggs, dairy, and other animal
products to be labeled "organic," even if the animals have been kept in
intensive confinement. This runs directly counter to NOSB recommendations
as well as the guidelines of organic certification bodies across the world.
Humane farming advocates are outraged at the possibility that intensive
confinement feedlots, factory-style dairies, or giant corporate hog and
chicken installations would be allowed under the new federal regulations to
label their products as organic.
"It has historically been a signature of organics to respond to the natural
behavior of animals," says Sligh.
"We must organize and fight against an `unfriendly takeover' of the organic
food movement by Monsanto and the giant food cartels," says Ronnie Cummins.
"We must not allow the destruction of organic standards by Washington
bureaucrats and Corporate America."
"If the Clinton Administration and the USDA try to tell us later this year
that genetically engineered foods and factory farm animal products can be
labelled organic, and try to prohibit state and regional organic standards
from being stricter than USDA standards, we must go on the offensive,"
Cummins says. "Every food co-op, natural food store, buying club, and
organic farm must turn itself into a center for activism--educating and
mobilizing its members, workers, and customers to write letters, send faxes
and emails, and to make telephone calls to elected public officials. Unless
the USDA and politicians feel the heat, they seem hell-bent on destroying
the alternative food system which we have so laboriously built up over last
30 years. So the time to begin organizing a nationwide grassroots
communications and action network is now."
For updates on food issues and the battle to preserve organic standards,
see the Pure Food Campaign's website at:
If you are willing to help organize a Live Wire communications and Organic
Food Action Alert network in your community, please send an email to: