The rapidly expanding national organic food industry, at $13 billion of sales projected this year, demonstrated its newfound political clout this past April, for the first time since the national organic standards went into effect in October 2002. For about 10 years before the USDA organic standards were enacted, the debate over what could be labeled “organic” played out between a group that subscribed to a holistic view of organic agriculture that supported small, diverse growing operations that would ultimately lead to national and international agricultural systems promoting social and environmental well-being for communities everywhere; and larger food production, processing, and distribution companies who saw “organic” simply as a growing niche market in the food business that had profit growth potential. After unprecedented debate and public comment our national standards now reflect a compromise from this debate, which address direct issues such as pesticides and genetic modification, but do not deal with issues historically related to the organic farming movement such as local eating and labor rights.
In any case, the standards were too strong for a North Georgia chicken farming operation, Fieldale Farms, who wanted to sell their product as “organic”, but did not want to feed their animals USDA certified organic feed, one of the requirements for selling chickens as organic under the new rules. Fieldale Farms contributed $5000 to Representative Nathan Deal’s political campaign during his 2002 run for the House of Representatives and the Speaker of the House of Representatives Dennis Hastert, at the request of Deal, with no public notification or discussion, inserted a rider in the $397 billion budget bill passed both houses of Congress in February (Section 771 of the Ominbus Appropriations Bill), addressing completely unrelated issues, that would weaken USDA’s organic standards and allow Fieldale Farms to sell its chickens as “organic”.
With the integrity of the label threatened, a broad coalition of those involved in the original organic standards debate, from local food activists to mega-corporation Tyson foods, fought back. Nathan Deal’s clause in the budget bill was repealed by the Organic Restoration Act in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and soon afterwards the first meeting of the Congressional Organic Agriculture Caucus in Washington D.C. convened. The purpose of this group is to protect the integrity of the organic standards in the future, and to lobby for more federal money to be used for organic agriculture research.
The ultimate outcomes of the political debate around organic standards remain to be seen. Will they ultimately contribute to a more sustainable and just system of agriculture, or will they allow for further environmental degradation and consolidation of food production power? It is unfortunate that we have to remain a watchdog over the influence of private interests in policy that is meant to better agricultural production practices and look out for the public good. However, Nathan Deal?s bad deal points to the importance of campaign finance reform, the necessity for watchdog groups that act to serve the needs of the public, and reinforces the fact that we as consumers need to keep ourselves educated and aware.
For more information on the USDA Organic Standards: www.ams.usda.gov/nop/ (Of the National Organic Program)
For more information on the Congressional Organic Agriculture Caucus: www.ofrf.org(Organic Farming Research Foundation)
For more information on campaign finance reform: www.publicampaign.org/