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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has proposed national organic farming standards with "loopholes big enough to drive a chemical fertilizer truck through," says Steve Gilman of the Northeast Organic Farmers Association. By failing to incorporate the recommendations of the organic farming community, the USDA standards undermine what consumers have come to expect from the organic label - chemical-free food production that enhances, rather than degrades, the environment. As the organic industry grows beyond the face-to-face commerce of farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture - where mutual trust typically supersedes regulation - the continued input and oversight of the organic-farming community is the only way to keep the term "organic" grounded in its ethical traditions.

The proposed standards leave the door open to the use of genetically modified organisms, sewage sludge, confined-livestock operations, food irradiation, and other substances and practices that have never been considered organic. Various exemptions in the USDA standards would enable a conventional farm, with minor changes in its practices, to qualify as "organic." In conjunction with world trade agreements that drive agricultural regulation to the lowest common denominator, these standards - proposed by a nation with considerable negotiating muscle - threaten to supplant stricter international organic rules.

The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 was supposed to provide those who first gave life to this movement with a prominent voice in the development of national standards by creating a National Organic Standards Board. Composed of organic farmers, environmentalists, and consumer advocates, the board has served to determine the substances and practices that qualify as organic and to shield the burgeoning organic industry from the meddling of special interests. For seven years, it has labored to develop standards that would maintain the ideals and spirit of the industry. It has held exhaustive public hearings and meetings, and the resulting recommendations represent a national consensus on the working ethics of organic farming.

However, the USDA's proposed standards have usurped the authority of the board - and the involvement of the organic community - by writing it out of the decision-making process. The board's recommendations were largely ignored - demeaning years of work to reach a consensus. Numerous harmful substances, including strychnine, would be permissible for use on organic crops under the USDA standards - despite unequivocal opposition from the board.

The true strength of the organic label lies in the organic farmers themselves - environmental stewards who acknowledge the intimate connection between good food and good health. As conscientious objectors to the U.S. model of mega-monocultures, these farmers nurture diverse food production systems that restore and conserve the natural resources that sustain us. By disregarding their insight and experience, the USDA's standards sever this vibrant agricultural movement from its guiding convictions.

USDA should not only heed the recommendations of the National Organic Standards Board, but should adhere to the intent of the 1990 Act and explicitly recognize the board as the authority governing the substances allowed and prohibited for use in organic food production. Those farmers who refuse to contaminate our collective health and environment deserve nothing less.
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Title Annotation:US Dept of Agriculture's proposed organic farming standards
Author:Halweil, Brian
Publication:World Watch
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Mar 1, 1998
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