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Editorial: Organic Inconsistencies
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When you buy products that are certified organic, you would think that means no pesticides are being used.
But that wouldn't be the case had the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP) had its way when it unveiled changes to existing guidelines in Aprilguidelines that critics quickly rose up to oppose.
In late May, the USDA rescinded the changes, announcing that it needs to try again to clarify its standards. But it remains to be seen what will come from itsdiscussions with "industry representatives." Likewise, it's too early to say if the interests of those wanting to maintain high organic standards will have a say in any final decisions.
The organic food industry has sales of over $10 billion and, with business booming, some farmers were concerned that the new guidelines could lessen consumer confidence in the USDA's organic certification.
But should we have concerns and question our trust of what the USDA's certification really means?
Hell yes, we should!
When I'm spending $8 per pound for a red pepper, I damn well better be getting a pesticide-free vegetable. But, under the changes the NOP passed back in April, the organic vegetables I ate might not be as clean as I had thought.
Among other things, the changes allowed "organic producers to use pesticides that may contain inert chemical ingredients even if a 'reasonable effort' fails to determine what the ingredients are." ("Government accused of weakening organic standards," Associated Press, May 25, 2004)
Essentially, the change meant that if the farmer and the organic certifier don't know the specific ingredients of the pesticides applied to the "organic" plants, the crops can be sold as "organic." What's worse is that the regulation change does not require pesticide companies to list the ingredients on their products, so it's often the case that farmers don't know what the specific pesticide ingredients are.
Well, doesn't that work out just great!
Currently the USDA does, actually, allow some pesticides to be used on certified organic produce, but they can only contain specific inert ingredients and any active substances must be non-synthetic or deemed łallowed˛ synthetics. The rules seemed pretty clear but I'm assuming, since so many pesticides don't list detailed ingredients, the USDA felt it had to change its approach, which would make just about any pesticide fair game.
"Allowing [the] NOP to create and implement new directives 'at will' without open dialogue with stakeholders creates confusion for businesses and consumers alike," said Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association.
DiMatteo is right! This is a complete violation of the spirit of what organic means. If anything, the USDA should be implementing more strict regulations, not relaxing them.
"I think we have to fight to maintain the standards with their true and original intent. Unfortunately it's a waste of time and energy to have to fight with our overseeing agency, the USDA," said Nell Newman, president and co-founder of Newman's Own Organics ("Organic Food: Outcry Over Rule Changes that Allow More Pesticides, Hormones," San Francisco Chronicle, May 22, 2004).
Now we must wait and see what the USDA does this time. Will organizations like the Organic Consumers Association be heard when it comes to finalizing new plans or is the USDA simply delaying the implementation of its changes due to public outcry?
Regardless, in the end you're left really wondering what is organic and what isn't. It's no surprise that our government that is strongly opposed to labeling genetically modified products is now muddying the waters of organic labeling.
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