June 06, 2020

Organic proposals draw fire> Suggested standards worry Maine farmers

Maine farmers say that when their customers buy an organic head of lettuce, they do not expect it to be grown from genetically engineered seeds, in land fertilized with sewage sludge, or that it might be shot with X-rays before it hits the salad bowl.

Orland organic vegetable farmer Paul Volckhausen said the word organic “has come to mean pure, not just to farmers but to our consumers.”

But federally proposed organic standards have farmers and consumers upset that such practices as irradiation, a process of treating food with radiation to kill bacteria, and fertilization with sewage sludge could be considered acceptable for the organic label. Maine organic farmers are leaders in objecting to the proposed national rules they say run against traditional organic farming practices and will taint their industry.

“At a minimum, organic implies natural from start to finish,” Peter McFarland, a member of Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, recently wrote to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Diluting the meaning of organic is a crime against nature and a crime against consumers who have demonstrated a burgeoning interest in organic products.”

After years of ignoring the organic food industry, the USDA announced in December a sweeping set of regulations aimed at defining what is and is not organic and setting standards for the production and handling of these products.

The organic industry is governed now by 11 states and 33 independent certifying agencies. In Maine, that independent agency is MOFGA. National regulations were intended to establish a system of mandatory certification and federal oversight to ensure truth in labeling of organic products. The USDA said the rules eventually would create a well-functioning market in organic food, including the growth of an international market for U.S. organics, based on consistent standards.

The proposed federal regulations grew out of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, the act that empowered the National Organic Standards Board to develop recommendations for uniform standards. The board completed its recommendations in 1996, based on a consensus among organic farmers, food processors, retailers, environmentalists, scientists and consumers.

Farmers are concerned that part of the USDA’s Dec. 15 proposals are inconsistent with the recommendations of the National Organic Standards Board.

The standards recommended by the National Organic Standards Board covered all aspects of agriculture, including crop and animal production, land management, fertilization and animal medications.

They stressed regenerating the land, producing pure products, and the ethical treatment of animals. But when the proposals were reworked by the USDA, they contained the use of sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetically engineered seeds and crops. The proposals also included feeding livestock ground-up waste products from slaughterhouses, allowing laying hens to be caged, and permitting antibiotics in animals for sale, practices that organic farmers find objectionable.

The departures from NOSB’s recommendations are being blamed on political pressures from mainstream, nonorganic food producers, distributors and lobbyists.

The USDA has been bombarded with objections and so many complaints that the deadline for comments on the proposed regulations has been extended from March 15 to April 30.

Volckhausen sells his organic produce to local health food stores and restaurants. “I walked in after the new rules were announced and my customers were very upset,” he said. “Organic has come to mean something, and these rules are not compatible with that meaning.

“This will allow anyone to farm and call it organic,” said Volckhausen.

Key objections by Maine farmers are the inclusion of sewage sludge as fertilizer, the use of genetically engineered seeds and the irradiation of food. All three practices run opposite to what natural, organic farmers ascribe to, said David Colson of New Leaf Farm in Durham, the chairman of Maine’s organic certification committee.

“These proposed standards are a step back for the organic industry,” he said.

The industry’s national trade group, the Organic Trade Association, also has spoken out against the proposed regulations. Unanswered questions are putting industry standards at risk, said Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association. Missing from the proposed rules are traditional organic practices such as composting and crop rotation.

Russ Libby, president of MOFGA, said Thursday, “I don’t believe the people at the top in the USDA realized how grass-roots the organic industry still is. They missed the point that the organic customer base doesn’t use the word `irradiation’ in the same sentence as `organic beef.”‘

In Maine, Libby says, most of the 140 certified organic farmers are considered quite small by USDA standards and most market their products directly to the consumer. “We may end up with a two-tier system,” said Libby, “with the big agribusinesses certified as organic and the smaller farmers finding new ways to describe their products.”

Jim Gerritson of Bridgewater echoed some of Libby’s concerns.

“The next 50 years of organic farming hangs in the balance here,” said the Aroostook County organic potato farmer. “The organic industry — the producers and the consumers — they all know what organic means. It’s USDA that doesn’t have a clue. This is the beginning of a travesty. There is no way we will accept a bogus definition of organic.

“If we have to, the organic industry will walk away and invent a brand-new word that will carry the same pure meaning that organic does today.”

Also, said Colson, new fees are proposed that may push Maine’s smallest, most marginal organic farmers out of the industry. In Maine, MOFGA charges a certification fee based on a sliding scale. Farmers making less than $5,000 a year pay $75, while those making more than $5,000 pay $175. Colson said under the national proposal such fees could top $600 per farm. “Besides adding insult to injury, the fees may be more than some farmers are able or willing to pay,” said Colson. “Their range of feelings is from unhappy to upset.”

In announcing the delay on the proposed rules recently, USDA Secretary Dan Glickman said the USDA had taken no stand on the controversial issues and wanted to hear from the public.

“Our goal is to develop a final rule that the organic community and all the public can embrace,” he said.

Colson said many in the organic community believe that Glickman is depending on an outcry from the public that will enable acceptable standards to be created.

Comments may be directed to Eileen S. Stommes, Deputy Administrator, USDA-AMS-TM-NOP, Room 4007-So, AG Stop 0275, P.O. Box 96456, Washington, D.C. 20090-6456.

An Internet address also has been set up to receive comment. It is http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop

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