USDA defines organic unnaturally

When Gertrude Stein said, “A rose is a rose is a rose,” she probably wasn’t thinking about a consumerist, market-driven economy. In a society where someone can walk into a grocery store and find at least 78 different ways to hasten death in the cereal section alone, brand name is the most important means of differentiating between products that are otherwise similar.
That’s why companies go insane about protecting their trademarked names. If I print Coca-Cola with a lowercase c, this newspaper will undoubtedly receive a complaint from a Coke cop. If I took my old Reeboks, put swooshes on them and sold them in a store as Nikes, I would probably be pulled out of my bed in the middle of the night, never to be seen again. Names define products. They create expectations. They form identities.
So what’s in a name? It depends. If your name is Monsanto, your name means about $9 billion, according to Fortune 500. If your name is Dole, it’s about $6 billion; Tyson Foods, $4 billion. The name “organic,” used by thousands of small farmers nationwide to market food products, is worth $3.5 billion, as of 1996. That’s still not all that much in comparison to the corporate heavyweights, but for the farmers who sell products described as organic it’s their livelihood. And the number is growing: Revenues have been increasing at about 20 percent annually.
Organic foods have been a boon to small, family farms that have used niche marketing to carve out their own place on America’s plate. Although organic foods are a small part of American agriculture — only 1 percent of the U.S. grocery bill is spent on organic products — foods grown without pesticides, artificial processing products or growth hormones — often boost profit margins 20 percent higher than the industrywide average for food products. As American agriculture is dominated more and more by large factory farms that use economies of scale to keep prices down, labor-intensive, low-yield organic farms are among the most promising fields in which family farms can compete.
For consumers who buy the products, the organic name is synonymous with ecological responsibility, natural nutrients and flavor, no radiation, and support for an alternative lifestyle and value system. But for corporations like Dole and Monsanto, organic means profits. And unfortunately for farmers, the meaning of organic is open to debate.
Currently, a national patchwork of 44 state and regional agencies determines which foods have the right to be officially certified as organic. Most of these agencies are very strict in their definition: no radiation, no genetic engineering and no sewage used for fertilizer. A federal effort that began in 1990 and has continued through the Clinton administration has attempted to create a national definition of organic food. So far, so good — the U.S. Department of Agriculture makes rules to protect consumers and guarantee product quality all the time.
Unfortunately, the proposed USDA guidelines don’t protect anything except corporate wallets. Under the pressure of food-industry lobbyists, one hallmark of organic agriculture after another — from saying no to pesticides to prohibiting growth hormones for artificially bulked-up cows — has been diluted.
Two aspects of the USDA’s guidelines that are especially insidious are inflexible standards and requirements for certification fees. Should the guidelines be adopted, organic farmers will not be allowed to create their own, higher standard of “organic” for advertising purposes. Even if they adhere to traditional organic standards, they won’t be able to publicly claim that their products are “more organic” than anyone else’s.
Also, for their crops to be sold as organic at all, farmers will have to pay a flat fee of about $900 for proper certification. The fee will be the same whether the farmer is growing five acres of corn or supervising 50,000 doped-up Tyson chickens. It’s clear to see whose voice was heard loudest when the regulations were made. The voice came from Wall Street, not the fields of those proud to call themselves “organic” farmers.
The USDA’s definition of organic doesn’t resemble any traditional sense of the term. Under the new guidelines, nuking food to kill organisms is OK; engineering animals that give quality milk but can barely walk is OK; using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers is OK. And, under the guidelines, corporate research and development departments can create products like Monsanto’s pesticide-resistant soybeans, plant 20 million acres of them, and call them organic.
This is not to say that processed, chemically engineered products are by nature evil: Wonder Bread and Fruit Roll-Ups, while mysterious and frightening, are among the choices that give people freedom to plan their diets as they please. But without clear guidelines to differentiate organic products from corporate counterfeits, both small-scale farmers and consumers will lose. By bowing to the profit motive, the USDA has slapped the faces of consumers and farmers who want to protect and promote alternative products.
The USDA guidelines, as proposed, make a mockery of the name “organic.” It strips it of its meaning, with disastrous results for small farmers pushed out of business by larger competition and for consumers deprived of real choice by the transformation of a substantive label into a meaningless buzzword.
So what’s in a name? In the case of organic food, the fate of an industry is at stake, and as the rules appear now, the future looks grim for small farms. But that could change. A five-month public review period, during which people can review the USDA guidelines and make comments included in final consideration, ends tomorrow. So far, the USDA has received about 125,000 comments — much more than they’ve received on any other measure in their history — and bureaucrats in Washington are already talking about backing off. And last week the Farm Aid folks, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Willie Nelson, got some press for publicly opposing the guidelines.
But it’s grass-roots support, not rock stars, that will save the integrity of organic farming. Whether or not someone buys organic products, it’s important to ensure choice, both in food and in livelihood. These regulations will affect everyone. Let the USDA people know what you think. Give em your name, so the organic farmers can keep theirs.

Alan Bjerga’s column appears in the Daily on Wednesdays. He can be contacted at [email protected]