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Federal Food Policy
A s the rate of cancer continues to escalate, and with an obesity epidemic in the United States, people are turning toward healthier diets and lifestyles in hopes of enhancing their longevity. Awareness about food’s nutritional content is also on the rise—many people are concerned with the quality and content of their food. As these interests have grown, so has the organic food movement. Organics, as the general definition puts it, are products that are not genetically modified, and are developed without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or hormones.
In 1973, after the United States banned DDT, the underground organics industry grew almost overnight. With growing awareness of what DDT did to human and environmental health, consumers were growing wary of the corporate agricultural industry. People flocked 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 people. The market soon reacted to this growing demand for organic foods and by the 1990s companies that produced organics estimated sales of more than $1 billion annually.
Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990, which was attached to the Farm Bill, establishing the initial framework for National Organic Standards. 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 Agriculture’s National Organic Program (NOP). NOSB based its recommendations on industry consensus and organic advocates were pleased. The next step, however, was a bit more cumbersome. Turning USDA’s organic standards into rules and regulations took some intense lobbying. In October 2002 the USDA officially began labeling as “organic” products with 95 percent organic content or higher.
Today, attempting to define what the USDA considers organic is like trying to figure out which lie George W. Bush told last. Since 2002 the USDA keeps changing its definition, so today’s products labeled organic may not have been labeled the same in 2003. This sort of wavering has been met with criticism from organic food advocates who believe the USDA should stick to the standards it agreed to in 1990. Others, mostly industry CEOs, still believe USDA’s labeling is too stringent. And why wouldn’t they?
“Certification is becoming big business,” writes Hilary Chop for 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.”
In April 2004, after intense lobbying efforts by agri-industry giants like ConAgra and Monsanto, the USDA proposed new rules that would have allowed USDA-certified organic farms to use fertilizers and pesticides that contain “unknown” ingredients—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. 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, so did awareness among the big-agriculture folks who lobbied until they succeeded. Luckily, organic activists didn’t back down. There was a public outcry and, in May 2004, the USDA retracted their proposed changes. If they hadn’t 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.
On December 13, 2005 the U.S. Senate passed the 2006 Appropriations Bill, which further weakened labeling standards. Young dairy cows can now be treated with antibiotics and fed genetically engineered feed. Not only that, numerous synthetic food additives and processing agents can now be used. In case of “emergency decrees,” or a shortage of organic goods (shortage is determined by the USDA, not the U.S. public), loopholes now exist in the federal statutes that allow for the substitution of non-organic ingredients without any public notification or oversight. The new changes are a result of a recent fight over USDA standards that began heating up in 2002 when organic blueberry farmer Arthur Harvey of Maine filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture for allowing products containing synthetic ingredients to be sold as “organic.” Harvey contended that the USDA’s organic standards were ambiguous, thereby undermining consumer organic goods and confidence in USDA labels.
In January 2005 the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Harvey’s favor. The court mandated that the 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, justice won’t often prevail. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who had stood up for organic standards in the past, inserted language in the Agriculture Appropriations Bill of 2006 countering Mendelson. “The Harvey case could have major impacts on the future of the organic industry, both for producers and processors,” Leahy said. “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 agribusiness during the 2004 election cycle.
The amendment had been opposed by many organic food growers, as well as public health officials, environmental organizations, the National Grocers Association, the National Organic Coalition, the Rural Advancement Foundation, Beyond Pesticides, the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, and the Organic Consumers Association, among others.
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. According to the OTA’s 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. OTA also argued that 20 percent of organic farmers would have had to abandon their farming methods.
Not surprisingly, it was industry Goliaths like General Mills and Dean Foods who, along with others, opposed the ruling. The entrance of such big names into the organic market is a good indication that organic foods have been corporatized. Examples of the corporate influx include:
- McDonald’s restaurants in the Northeast will be carrying organic fair-trade coffee
- General Mills owns Cascadian Farms and the popular organic Muir Glen brand
- Kraft, which is owned by Phillip Morris, owns Boca, a popular soy burger company
Dean Foods, the dairy giant, owns White Wave and Silk soymilks,
as well as Horizon
As the organic food industry has matured, USDA standards have waned. The result is that consumers can no longer be confident their foods meet organic standards even if the USDA gives its green mark of approval.
Joshua Frank is the author of Left Out!: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press).
Z Magazine Archive
HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; email@example.com; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; email@example.com; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
IRAQ/REFUGEES - Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thousands of displaced Iraqi refugees are still facing a crisis in the United States. The Lost Dream follows Nazar and Salam who had to flee Iraq in order to avoid threats by Al- Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents that consider them “traitors” for supporting U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: email@example.com; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.