Future of Organic Food and Agriculture at Risk

Are GMOs, synthetic preservatives and weak animal welfare standards what you expect in organically certified foods? 

Absolutely NO, but they are headed for a vote in the USDA organic program on November 30. The panel who will vote on this is divided among corporate agribusiness representatives and organic advocates.   

The 15-member National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) was created by Congress to advise the Secretary of Agriculture on organic policy and rulemaking.  Upcoming votes concern the use of genetically modified and synthetic additives that have been petitioned for use in organic foods and drinks, including baby foods and formula. 

Corporate representatives are from General Mills, Campbell Soup, Monsanto and others.

Under the Bush and Obama administrations, the USDA Secretaries have been criticized for appointing a significant number of corporate representatives, whose primary interest is loosening federal organic standards, allegedly in pursuit of enhanced profits. 

"We think this meeting may well decide the fate of organic food and agriculture in this country," says Mark Kastel, co-director of The Cornucopia Institute, which represents family-scale organic farmers and their consumer allies across the U.S.

Additives being recommended for use in organics include nutritional oils manufactured by Martek Biosciences, part of the $30 billion multinational conglomerate Royal DSM.  These oils, genetically modified to provide isolated omega-3 and omega-6 nutrients DHA and ARA, are derived from algae and soil fungus, and stabilized with a wide variety of synthetic ingredients. 

When incorporated in infant formula, the oils are processed with a neurotoxic solvent, n-hexane.  A byproduct of gasoline refinement, n-hexane is regulated by the EPA as a hazardous pollutant.  The recommendation to approve Martek’s oils, processed with hexane, has industry observers scratching their head since solvents, commonly used in conventional food production, are expressly forbidden in organic food production. 

"What is most egregious about the NOSB push to approve the Martek Biosciences Corporation petition is that these DHA and ARA oils are in no way essential in organics, as claimed by Martek," states Kastel.  "Other organic manufacturers have successfully used fish oil and egg yolks as legal and natural alternative sources of supplemental DHA."

According to a poll of nearly 1,500 Seattle area organic consumers, conducted by PCC Natural Markets, the largest member-owned food cooperative in the United States, the overwhelming majority of shoppers would reject organic products with Martek’s oils if they knew the manufacturing details of Martek’s "Life’sDHA®". 

NOSB will also vote on a petition allowing the use of the synthetic preservative sulfur dioxide (sulfites) in wine.  Winemakers who currently use sulfites are prohibited from using the USDA organic seal on their labels. 

The success of a growing number of certified organic winemakers that shun artificial preservatives proves that this synthetic is not essential to making a high quality organic wine.

"If the standards are weakened by the USDA, allowing these synthetics, it will significantly narrow the difference between organic and conventional wine," says Paul Frey of Frey Vineyards.  "A major strength of the organic standards comes from consumers trusting that organic foods are wholesome and free from artificial preservatives and other threats to health and environmental stewardship."

Meanwhile, the Livestock Committee of the NOSB, which is refining the standards aimed at ensuring high levels of animal welfare on organic farms, appears to be backing away from adopting strong, enforceable standards for laying hens and other species. 

"They are caving to the factory farm lobby, listening to giant vertically integrated egg producers, and ignoring the voice of rank-and-file family farmers," says Tim Koegel, a nationally prominent certified organic farmer producing pastured eggs and chickens.  "The NOSB has an opportunity to make organics the true gold standard in terms of animal husbandry but instead might choose to make the organic label a joke."

The proposal for chickens would give animals as little as one square foot of living space. "This woefully inadequate standard would violate the organic law that requires animals be allowed to exhibit their natural instinctive behaviors," adds Koegel.  "Hell, those birds will not even be able to fully span their wings, let alone forage outside for insects, seeds and worms."

This is not the first time the organic community, farmers and consumers, have come together to defend the integrity of the organic label.  In the mid-90s, when the Clinton Administration first suggested allowing antibiotics, genetic engineering and sewage sludge in organics, over 300,000 citizens recorded their objections with the USDA-and they won.

"We hope many people who care about organics, will make their voice heard, says Kastel. 

Here’s Cornucopia’s testimony and analysis on Martek Biosciences Corporation and sulfites in organic wine and animal welfare standards.

You can sign Cornucopia’s proxy letter here. Cornucopia will hand-deliver the letters at the NOSB meeting in Savannah:

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Comments on “Future of Organic Food and Agriculture at Risk”

  1. anthony

    I care about organic food and especially bio meat that I buy on a regular basis. That’s why the proposal for chickens was a nasty shock for me. If they continue to instigate measures like this one there will be no difference between animals raised in the crammed conditions and those raised on farms famous for general care of their animals that I frequently visit such as Toronto’s two biggest markets at the Evergreen Brickworks and the Wychwood Barns. The organic market has been on the rise in recent years but I’m afraid the measures like this will kill it completely.

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