What is Organic?

A look at the 1998 brouhaha over the federal organic standards

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A hundred angry demonstrators, many of them dressed as fruits and vegetables, marched outside a downtown Seattle office building, chanting "Hi-hi, hi-ho, organic standards have to go." A Greenpeace protester stood nearby in a strawberry costume topped with a fish head. Fishberry, she called herself, as she peddled T-shirts warning of the weird and horrid new creatures that would be created if the "government got its way" and genetic engineering was unleashed on America.

This was the scene at a recent public hearing on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's proposed rules on regulating the booming organics industry. After eight years of debate, agriculture secretary Dan Glickman in December unveiled the recommendations amid great fanfare. "The rules are going to clear up the confusion that sometimes exists in the minds of consumers, processors, and merchandisers about what is and what is not organic," he said.

Instead of clearing things up, however, the proposed standards have ignited a prairie fire of opposition guaranteed to cloud the real issues facing the organic food industry.

Although organic farms make up less than 2 percent of U.S. crop acreage, sales of organically grown vegetables, dairy products, beef, and poultry have been growing 20 percent a year since the late '80s to more than $4 billion annually. But with growth has come growing pains: Well-known companies, including Dole and Glacial Ridge Foods, have faced accusations of fraudulently marketing conventionally grown, chemically treated barley, beans, apples, and bananas as organic, while certification agencies allegedly turned a blind eye. In 1996, natural juice maker Odwalla and organic lettuce grower Holly Cut Farms were implicated in E. coli poisoning incidents blamed on slipshod safety and health standards. "There's always been a bad apple or two," says Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation and former head of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), which represents 600 growers, processors, shippers, retailers, and certification organizations. "But now it's up to five or six bad apples out of every hundred."

With so many newcomers rushing to cash in on organic cachet, self-policing hasn't always worked. At present, the term "certified organic" relies in large part on the honest representations of farmers about the growing process. Only 11 state governments certify crops and food as organic. Six others have independent organic certification agencies, but each has slightly different criteria. To bolster consumer confidence, the industry asked the government to draft a clear national standard.

And, in fact, there is a lot to like about the proposed standards. They require that organic crops be grown in soil that is enriched with compost, manure, and other natural materials and not treated with unapproved synthetics for three years. Farms and processing plants would face inspection by independent verification agencies, much like the system now in place in California, considered the pace-setter for the organic industry. Those that passed would earn the right to display a "certified organic" label on their product, a form of Good Housekeeping seal much like the USDA stamp on Grade A eggs.

But it was what the standards did not address that has generated so much controversy. Under pressure from the fertilizer and chemical industries, and from factions within the USDA, the government ignored the Organic Standards Board recommendations calling for a ban on genetically engineered crops, irradiation to kill bacteria, and the use of fertilizer made from municipal waste. "The Department of Agriculture must have stayed up nights to come up with such creative, flagrant violations of the spirit of organic agriculture," fumes longtime organic farmer Douglas Hines. "I was prepared for the worst, but this exceeded even my wildest, most cynical expectations."

Of these issues, genetic engineering is the most troublesome. President Clinton and agriculture secretary Glickman have taken the position that severe restrictions could hamper groundbreaking research. But as nearly everyone in the organics movement is quick to point out, genetically engineered crops are by definition not organic. Period. "If genetically altered food can be called organic," says Scowcroft, "organic wouldn't mean a thing. This issue is the line in the organic sand."

The controversy has forced the organics community to focus on its most appealing selling point—the unquestioned ecological benefits of chemical-free farming—rather than on scientifically dubious claims that organic foods are healthier or safer than conventional products. In fact, the proliferation of small farmers and processors using inadequate processing equipment and lax quality control to take advantage of the organics industry's premium pricing is one of the key reasons that the industry asked for federal standards.

"Everyone talks about how environmentally progressive our business is. That's bull," says Gene Kahn, founder of Cascadian Farm, now a $30 million company with 150 different products. "The conventional food industry, for all its faults, has higher levels of consumer disclosure and ethics than organics producers. In theory, the organics industry creates an enormous opportunity for us to live our lives as caretakers," he says. "It doesn't necessarily guarantee that."

The government recently extended the period of public comment to April 30, during which time supporters and opponents were encouraged to voice their concerns through calls, letters, public forums, and over the Internet. The USDA will then make revisions, before submitting them to Congress for debate in 1999. The full program is not likely to be implemented until 2000.

Meanwhile, certain factions in the organics community will continue to try to scuttle the proposal. It's all a sign of an industry coming of age, says OTA executive director Katherine DiMatteo, who believes the organics business is moving from the idealism of adolescence to the realism of adulthood. "The controversy has awoken all of us as to who we are and what we really stand for," she says. "Yes, we have real problems, but that's to be expected. Growing up is not always easy."