and Name Calling:
The Organic Movement’s New Face
by Nina Rubin
So you’re in the vegetable aisle at the grocery
Let’s say you have the choice between paying
$0.49 for some carrots, or $1.50 for a seemingly identical
bunch. Which do you think most people would choose?
Especially if the only apparent difference is seven
little letters. Seven letters - plus over a decade of
debate, and the blood, sweat and tears of countless
individuals throughout the world.
Those seven letters mean a world of difference to thousands,
if not millions, of people on both sides of the organics
debate. But let’s face it: outside of those circles,
who really knows what the term “organic”
While the general populace is still playing catch up,
an increasing number food industry folks are in the
know. Why? Because organic food production is growing
at a staggering rate – about 20 percent per year,
according to the Organic Trade Association. Organics
are in the big leagues now, and with retail sales exceeding
the tens of billions, droves of agricultural execs want
a piece of the action.
Which is why an event that occurred last year made
such big waves, and not even just with the foodies and
politicians. October 21, 2002 was a milestone in the
history of the organics movement. On that day, the U.S.
Department of Agriculture raised the bar on public awareness
of the organic concept by generating a set of strict
organic production guidelines. But this move was not
Mo’ Regulations = Less Money
The issue is not as cut and dry as for vs. against
organics. Many people are in the gray area, committed
to the concept of creating organic standards, but opposed
to the way in which those standards were implemented.
So while some activists and agriculturalists celebrated
the passing of the bill, others complained bitterly.
For meat producers, upping the organic standards often
meant a loss of money, or even the collapse of entire
businesses. With the new laws in place, many meat moguls
who had formerly qualified as “organic”
producers were unable to comply with the new regulations.
The result? More than a few turned to other industries
and livelihoods. Had they been given sufficient notice
of the changes, they believe they might have been able
to make a smooth transition to the new standards. Grain
farmers were put in an equally tight spot, according
to Rep. Nathan Deal, a Republican politician from Georgia.
“Since land that produces organic grain must have
had no commercial fertilizer or chemical insecticides
applied for a period of three years prior to producing
an organic crop, it would require a four year lead time
to change crop land to organic production” .
Vegetarians “R” Us?
Beyond the loss of jobs and capital, the other main
criticism is that the organics bill is riddled with
glaring inconsistencies - and a vegetarian bias to go
along with it. For Deal and others, the organic laws
seem much more lenient for fruit and vegetable growers
than for meat producers. They point to the fact that
produce can be labeled as “organic” even
if the seed or the plant stock is not organic, as long
as the organic seed or stock is not “commercially
However, if that same seed is fed to a head of cattle,
for instance, the beef could not be labeled as organic,
even if the producers complied with all of the other
requirements for organic status.
These grievances led several D.C. politicians to make
a bold political move, just four months after the organics
bill was signed. A group of politicians (reputedly led
by Deal and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, though
no one is willing to claim authorship) tried to soften
the blow for the struggling farmers by creating a loophole.
The idea was to amend the organic guidelines with a
provision – stuck in the middle of the 3,000-page
federal spending bill – that would relax the standards
for organic animal feed. Given all of the discrepancies
in the organic regulations, they argued, what would
be the harm in creating another one? (The loophole,
by the way, indicated that when organic feed costs twice
as much as conventional feed, meat and poultry could
be given the non-organic feed and still labeled as organic.)
The measure was signed into law on February 20th, after
passing without debate through Congress.
The measure was a serious setback for those who had
labored for over twelve years to standardize the organic
label. More than just wasting energy, critics of the
provision were concerned with the loss of money that
had been invested in organic herds and grains. According
to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who spearheaded an effort
to repeal the provision (and sponsored the Organic Foods
Production Act over a decade ago), “Organic products
are the fastest-growing sector for our farm exports…our
products are accepted worldwide because our standards
are higher. Lowering our standards would squander our
lead, and markets would begin closing to our products…it
would be devastating to our organic producers”
Taking it to a more abstract level, many people believe
that the provision caused a general loss of integrity
of the organic label. Especially given that the whole
point of the original bill was to achieve uniformity
within the system, what’s the point of standardization
with exceptions? (Not to mention the fact that the loophole
could potentially lead to massive confusion, even amongst
And speaking of integrity, another major objection
was not to the provision itself, but to the way in which
it was passed. After twelve painstaking years, a lot
of people feel that all of that hard work was put to
waste practically overnight. And not just overnight,
but allegedly without a public hearing. Some say that
this was entirely intentional, the goal being to prevent
the House and Senate from being properly informed until
it was too late. Not surprisingly, Deal and Hastert
have repeatedly been called underhanded or even “fundamentally
un-American” for their hand in the stunt .
Amidst the name-calling and lightning fast political
activity, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s
really going on here. Whittle down the arguments, and
the debate comes down to this: each side claims that
the other’s actions have caused significant loss
of money, resources, and integrity. With both sides
claiming the moral high ground and pointing fingers
at their “wasteful” adversaries, who’s
to know what’s really at stake - or how to proceed?
the debate begin.
Deal’s statement on “organic” food,
Judith. “Who Pulled a Fast One on the Organic
Food Industry?,” Washington Post, 19 March
2003, p. F01.