Second Helpings

Organicide: If you're one of the growing number of folks who makes a point of buying organic produce, the news is grim.

For more than 20 years, through no-nonsense state laws and rigorous, independent third-party certification, organic growers have kept careful control over what can and cannot be called organic. Right now, if you see produce labeled organic, you can be sure it has met very strict standards.

That may all change, and in as few as two weeks. Under pressure from agribusiness and the chemical industry, the Department of Agriculture is poised to lower organic standards. Without putting too fine a point on it, the new, watered-down proposals are disastrous.

* Federal standards will permit genetically engineered organisms in organic food. No certification system currently permits this technique. It means that the "organic" tomato you eat next summer might come spliced with a flounder gene to enhance shelf life.

* The USDA will permit organic food to be irradiated. Organic producers and many consumers worry that the long-term effects of irradiation are unknown. Currently, irradiated produce cannot be certified organic.

* The USDA won't forbid the use of biosolids--that's municipal sludge--for fertilizing organic crops. Organic producers believe biosolids may contain chemicals that aren't compatible with the principles of organic farming.

* Organically raised meat will also be affected. The proposals permit the use of nonorganic feed and antibiotics.

* The new standards say land can be certified if it has been chemical-free for the past three years. Organic producers argue that contaminated sites might still pass muster. Current organic standards mandate that the complete history of the land be taken under consideration before certification is granted.

* The most pernicious element of the proposed standards: Both states and organic producers are forbidden to issue standards higher than those of the USDA. Organic produce could not be labeled, for example, "Exceeds USDA standards." Nor could it be labeled "Meets 1997 Organic Code." Of course, organic producers could still grow their fruits and vegetables as they do now, if they wish--they just couldn't alert the public. But if consumers aren't allowed to distinguish between cheaper, minimum-standard and costlier, higher-quality organic produce, the lower-standard stuff will prevail. That's basic economics.

Europe has announced that if the new standards go into effect, American organic produce will be kept out. Organic farming is a $3.5 billion industry. And it's been growing spectacularly, more than 20 percent annually during the past five years. Producers are thriving. Consumers are happy. Nothing is broke. So why is the USDA trying to "fix" it?

What can you do? Write the USDA: Eileen S. Stommes, Deputy Administrator, USDA-AMS-TM-NOP, Room 4007-S, Ag Stop 0275, P.O. Box 96456, Washington, D.C. 20090-6456. And check out the Organic Program Web site: www.ams.usda.gov/nop.

--Howard Seftel

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Howard Seftel