Organic Engineering

Mother Jones has obtained an internal memo that shows how the USDA is sacrificing the federal standards for organic foods to accomodate biotech special interests.

As the U.S. Department of Agriculture moves toward finalizing the first-ever federal standards for organic food, Mother Jones has obtained internal USDA documents that show the agency has bowed to pressure from biotech interests and flouted the recommendations of a congressionally empowered board of representatives from the organic industry by including genetically engineered products in its list of substances allowed in organic food production.

A May 1, 1997, USDA memo, written eight months before the department released its proposed standards, demonstrates the USDA's intent to ignore standards recommended by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB)—a panel of organic industry experts created in 1990 as part of the Organic Foods Production Act. The memo also shows that the department knew its intention to accommodate special interests—such as biotechnology—would "generate controversy."

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In 1990 the organic industry had pushed for and won the passage of the organic food act in the hope that a government-regulated standard and stricter enforcement would help protect consumers from fraudulent labeling claims and raise consumer confidence in organic products both nationally and overseas.

But since the act was passed, the food market has changed dramatically with the introduction of high-tech innovations such as bioengineered foods. While the biotech industry considers its food products safe, consumers have been less than confident. In Europe, protests against genetically altered soybeans and other products have made countries in the European Union reluctant to import or sell them.

The memo sheds light on the agency's concerns about not including genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the proposed standards: "Few if any existing [organic] standards permit GMOs, and their inclusion could affect the export of U.S. grown organic product," reads the memo. "However, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the Foreign Agricultural Service [USDA divisions] are concerned that our trading partners will point to a USDA organic standard that excludes GMOs as evidence of the department's concern about the safety of bioengineered commodities."

The USDA clearly finds itself in a predicament: The United States, with the support of the Clinton administration, has invested tremendous resources in bioagriculture and has become the world's evangelist for genetic engineering. In 1994 alone, the federal biotechnology research budget exceeded $4 billion. It's estimated that 24 million U.S. acres were planted with transgenic or genetically altered crops last year—up from 6 million acres in 1996.

"What [the USDA wants] to do is make sure that everything possible can be done to enhance the prospects for genetic engineering," says Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Biotech is facing an uphill battle for acceptance and would...like to be able to say, 'Well, the organic community accepted it, why don't the rest of you?'"

But USDA senior marketing specialist Michael Hankin argues that it was appropriate to include bioengineering in the proposed standards because the agency wanted feedback from the public on its inclusion. "The department supports the [organic] industry and is responsive to the wants and needs of the consumers," he says.

According to Hankin, the push for the inclusion of genetic engineering was not only internal but also came from none other than the Clinton White House, represented by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky has been pressing Europe to accept bioengineered food products. And Science and Technology's presidential advisory committee includes biotech giant Monsanto's senior vice president for public policy, Virginia Weldon.

The internal memo also discusses the USDA's attempt to wrest control from the NOSB over the most important component of the standards—the "National List" of substances allowed in organic food production. The law says that the USDA can't add any substances to this list unless it has NOSB approval. But the USDA has a different interpretation of the law: According to the memo, the department claims that since the word "list" is written in lowercase letters in one instance, the law allows the USDA to add substances to the list without the board's approval. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who penned the act, say this is baloney.

"The intent of the law was to give the NOSB sole authority to place items on the National List," says DeFazio. "If the USDA continues to stand by this interpretation, it is very likely that it will be challenged in the courts."

A three-page chart included in the USDA memo also details 15 areas in which the department's recommendations differ from the NOSB's. For example, under "pesticide residue" the chart explains that the USDA does not agree with the lower pesticide level recommended by the NOSB because "[the NOSB standard] establishes organic as being a 'safer' food, and our program is not a food safety program."

The chart also addresses standards applied to slaughter animals. While the NOSB recommended that the use of drugs in slaughter stock be prohibited, the USDA again overruled the board, proposing that "use of antibiotics [be] allowed in very young animals" and that "parasiticides may be used any time other than on a routine basis." The listed reason for the change? "Not allowing use of antibiotics and parasiticides would prohibit production of organic livestock in some locations."

When the USDA finally released its national standards proposal last December, it not only included the use of genetically engineered products but also allowed for irradiation and fertilization with sewage sludge—which can contain metals and toxic chemicals.

The proposed standards also would prohibit organic certifiers from requiring higher standards than those of the USDA. "This means that if the government insists on allowing sewage sludge, irradiation, genetically engineered organisms, piperonyl butoxide, and other materials and technologies that the NOSB specifically rejected for use in organic production, then no one can certify that any product is free of these practices," says organic farmer and NOSB member Fred Kirschenmann.

The public comment period for the regulations ends April 30, and, so far, the USDA has received thousands of letters of protest from organic producers and consumers demanding changes in the proposed standards. The USDA, which hopes to release a final set of rules late in the fall, promises to consider these protests and make changes to the rules. However, if the USDA retains control of the National List, the organic industry, and hence consumers, will always be at the mercy of government interests. "The very fact that [the USDA] would add genetic engineering at the service of the biotech industry illustrates precisely why [Congress] did not want the USDA to have complete discretion over that list," Mellon says.

Opinions vary as to what the final outcome will be. It is within the realm of possibility that new rules could be written, followed by a another public comment period. The idea of using interim standards while the details are hashed out has also been raised. Even after eight years, the organic industry would still rather hold off than make compromises. "We've waited this long," says Kathleen Merrigan, a senior analyst for an alternative agriculture institute and member of the NOSB. "There's no reason now to rush to the finish line."

Comments may be submitted or reviewed via the Internet at http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop or may be submitted in writing to Eileen S. Stommes, Deputy Administrator, Agricultural Marketing Service, USDA-AMS-TM-NOP, Room 4007-S, Ag Stop 0275, P.O. Box 96456, Washington, DC 20090-6456.

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