by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Organics

Jan 3 2012

Musing about organics leads me to the Farm Bill

Sales of organic foods continue to increase at a faster pace than sales of conventional foods.  This alone makes people suspicious of the organic enterprise.

Another reason is confusion about what organic production methods are, exactly.  If you are part of the food movement, you probably want your foods to be organic, local, seasonal, and sustainable.  You might also want them produced by farm workers who have decent wages and living conditions.

Unfortunately, these things do not necessarily go together.

  • Organic means crops grown without artificial pesticides, fertilizers, GMOs, irradiation, or sewage sludge, and animals raised without hormones or antibiotics.  Certified Organic methods follow specific rules established by USDA.
  • Local means foods grown or raised within a given radius that can range from a few to hundreds of miles (you have to ask).
  • Seasonal refers to food plants eaten when they are ripe (and not preserved or transported from where they were grown).
  • Sustainable means—at least by some definitions—that the nutrients removed from the soil by growing plants are replenished without artificial inputs.

That these are different is illustrated by a recent article in the New York Times about industrial organic production in Mexico.  The story makes it clear that organics do not have to be local, seasonal, sustainable, or produced by well paid workers.

While the original organic ideal was to eat only local, seasonal produce, shoppers who buy their organics at supermarkets, from Whole Foods to Walmart, expect to find tomatoes in December and are very sensitive to price. Both factors stoke the demand for imports.

Few areas in the United States can farm organic produce in the winter without resorting to energy-guzzling hothouses. In addition, American labor costs are high. Day laborers who come to pick tomatoes in this part of Baja make about $10 a day, nearly twice the local minimum wage. Tomato pickers in Florida may earn $80 a day in high season.

The cost issues are critical.  Dairy farms in general, and organic dairy farms in particular, are entirely dependent on the cost of feed for their animals, and the cost of organic feed has become almost prohibitively expensive.  This has caused organic dairy producers to cut back on production or go out of business.  As another New York Times article explains,

The main reason for the shortage is that the cost of organic grain and hay to feed cows has gone up sharply while the price that farmers receive for their milk has not.

While the shortage may be frustrating for consumers, it reveals a bitter truth for organic dairy farmers, who say they simply need to be paid more for their milk.

Why is the price of feed rising?  Simple answer: because 40% of feed corn grown in the United States is being used to produce biofuels.

Why do farmers grow corn for biofuels?  Because the government gives them tax credits and other subsidies to do so.

But in a small step in the right direction, the ethanol tax credit program was allowed to expire last week,”ending an era in which the federal government provided more than $20 billion in subsidies for use of the product.”

One person quoted in the article connected the dots:

Production of ethanol, with its use of pesticides and fertilizer and heavy industrial machinery, causes soil erosion and air and water pollution. And it means that less land is available for growing food, so food prices go up.

Organics do not exist in isolation.  Their production is connected to every other aspect of the food system.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a food system that promoted organic, local, seasonal, sustainable agriculture and paid farm workers a living wage?

Wouldn’t it be nice if the 2012 Farm Bill supported that kind of a food system if not instead of than at least along side of the one we have now?

I will be watching to see what Congress does with the Farm Bill.  Stay tuned.

Apr 25 2011

Do farm pesticides reduce kids’ IQs?

The Environmental Working Group announces the publication of three studies finding a correlation between diminished IQ and blood levels of pesticides.

The studies were done separately by groups of researchers from the Mt Sinai School of Medicine, University of California Berkeley’s School of Public Health, and Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.  All were published in Environmental Health Perspectives and are available at that site (although sometimes with a delay and you have to look hard for the pdf of the whole article).

All three studies examined levels of organopesticides in the blood of pregnant women.  All looked at one or more measures of IQ taken when the children were 1 to 9 years old.

The Berkeley study, Prenatal Exposure to Organophosphate Pesticides and IQ in 7-Year Old Children, examined Latino farmworkers and their children.  Researchers found a difference of 7 IQ points between children with the highest and lowest levels of organopesticides.

The Mt. Sinai study, Prenatal Exposure to Organophosphates, Paraoxonase 1, and Cognitive Development in Childhood, was done with a prenatal population in New York City.

The Columbia study, 7-Year Neurodevelopmental Scores and Prenatal Exposure to Chlorpyrifos, a Common Agricultural Pesticide, also was done on an inner-city population.

It has been difficult to demonstrate demonstrable harm from agricultural pesticide use except among farmworkers exposed to very high doses.  These studies mean that lower doses experienced by people who merely eat agricultural products also can cause harm.

The study will undoubtedly be criticized for not adequately controlling for socioeconomic variables that influence IQ—they were all done with low-income populations—and, more importantly, for not explaining precisely how pesticides might influence childhood learning and achievement.  And some will surely argue that a 7-point IQ difference is well within experimental error.

But at the very least, pesticides are a marker for poorer cognitive outcome.  The fact that three independent groups of investigators arrived at similar conclusions means that the results need to be seriously considered.

Organic vegetables anyone?

And just for the record, here’s the Environmental Working Group’s list of the foods with highest and lowest levels of pesticides:

Highest Levels Lowest Levels
Celery
Peaches
Strawberries
Apples
Blueberries
Nectarines
Bell Peppers
Spinach
Cherries
Kale/Collard Greens
Potatoes
Grapes (imported)
Onions
Avocado
Sweet Corn
Pineapple
Mangos
Sweet Peas
Asparagus
Kiwi
Cabbage
Eggplant
Cantaloupe
Watermelon
Mar 5 2011

Update on organics

On March 02, USDA announced that it was revoking its accreditation of two certifying agencies, Certified Organic, Inc. (COI) and Guaranteed Organic Certification Agency (GOCA).

USDA says COI failed to

  • Communicate with hired inspectors about proper procedures or ensure they were adequately trained
  • Adhere to internal procedures according to their operational manual
  • Keep confidentiality agreements on file for all employees with knowledge about certification applicants or operations
  • Indicate on certificates the effective dates for organic certification,
  • Ensure adequate training for employees about the regulations
  • Provide clients with cost estimates including inspection fees
  • Clearly identify the company’s responsibility to pay for any required pre- or postharvest testing
  • Verify organic system plans against the actual practices of their certified operations

GOCA’s problems had to do with “persistent noncompliance,” including such things as “failure to require clients to use defined boundaries and border zones as required by the organic standards.”  This mayall  sound absurdly bureaucratic but it means the certifiers could be overlooking producers’ violations of organic standards.

You can track down the records of such things on the USDA’s website, and see the handful of other such enforcement actions at the National Organic Program’s site.

I’d say this is progress.  Organic producers are supposed to follow the rules of the National Organic Program, and to be inspected to make sure they do.  If the inspectors aren’t doing their job diligently, you won’t be able to tell whether the organic foods you buy are worth the premium prices.

This is a key point of a recent FoodNavigator story on the market for organics.  The U.S. industry is expected to go from $21.1 billion in 2010 to $36.8 billion in 2015.   How come?  Because of “the government’s monetary and regulatory support and increasing acceptance of organic food in the country.”

People will pay more for organics if they think the producer is credible.  Organics are about credibility.  That is why the USDA needs to fiercely enforce organic certification.   Doing so protects the industry.  The more of this sort of thing, the better.

Jan 28 2011

USDA approves controversial GM alfalfa

In an action long expected, the USDA approved commercial production of genetically modified alfalfa.

The announcement makes it clear that USDA did not do this lightly.  The agency was well aware of the concerns of organic farmers that GM alfalfa could—and will—contaminate their fields.

Secretary Vilsack said:

After conducting a thorough and transparent examination of alfalfa through a multi-alternative environmental impact statement (EIS) and several public comment opportunities, APHIS has determined that Roundup Ready alfalfa is as safe as traditionally bred alfalfa…All of the alfalfa production stakeholders involved in this issue have stressed their willingness to work together to find solutions.

…USDA brought together a diverse group of stakeholders to discuss feasible strategies for coexistence between genetically engineered (GE), organic, and other non-GE stakeholders.

…In response to the request for support from its stakeholders, USDA is taking a number of steps, including:

  • Reestablishing two important USDA advisory committees – Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture, and the National Genetic Resources Advisory Committee.
  • Conducting research into areas such as ensuring the genetic integrity, production and preservation of alfalfa seeds entrusted to the germplasm system;
  • Refining and extending current models of gene flow in alfalfa;
  • Requesting proposals through the Small Business Innovation Research program to improve handling of forage seeds and detection of transgenes in alfalfa seeds and hay; and,
  • Providing voluntary, third-party audits and verification of industry-led stewardship initiatives.

USDA seems to think it has brokered “peaceful coexistence” (see previous post).  Skeptics, take note.

The USDA is providing more information about this decision online .  It also has issued a Q and A.  Here’s the Federal Register notice.

Jan 11 2011

Is GM alfalfa the new Cold War? USDA urges peaceful coexistence.

The USDA seems to be paving the way for approval of genetically modified (GM) alfalfa with pleas for coexistence and cooperation. These will be needed.  Organic alfalfa is the mainstay of organic animal feed.  Organic standards exclude GM.  But pollen from GM alfalfa transmits GM genes to organic alfalfa.

In releasing the Environmental Impact Statement on GM alfalfa, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack used Cold War rhetoric:

We have seen rapid adoption of biotechnology in agriculture, along with the rise of organic and non-genetically engineered sectors over the last several decades… While the growth in all these areas is great for agriculture, it has also led, at times, to conflict or, at best, an uneasy coexistence between the different ways of growing crops. We need to address these challenges and develop a sensible path forward for strengthening coexistence of all segments of agriculture in our country.

USDA is working hard on this one.  It held a stakeholders meeting to discuss the issues.  Secretary Vilsack also wrote an open letter to stakeholders pressing the need for coexistence:

The rapid adoption of GE crops has clashed with the rapid expansion of demand for organic and other non-GE products. This clash led to litigation and uncertainty. Such litigation will potentially lead to the courts deciding who gets to farm their way and who will be prevented from doing so.

Regrettably, what the criticism we have received on our GE alfalfa approach suggests, is how comfortable we have become with litigation – with one side winning and one side losing – and how difficult it is to pursue compromise. Surely, there is a better way, a solution that acknowledges agriculture’s complexity, while celebrating and promoting its diversity.

By continuing to bring stakeholders together in an attempt to find common ground where the balanced interests of all sides could be advanced, we at USDA are striving to lead an effort to forge a new paradigm based on coexistence and cooperation. If successful, this effort can ensure that all forms of agriculture thrive so that food can remain abundant, affordable, and safe.

The USDA is not going to back down on GM.  But I see real progress here.  At least—and at last—USDA recognizes the threat of GM agriculture to organic production.

We have an obligation to carefully consider…the potential of cross-fertilization to non-GE alfalfa from GE alfalfa – a significant concern for farmers who produce for non-GE markets at home and abroad.

I’m guessing USDA will approve GM alfalfa.  Will approval include mandatory—and enforceable—safeguards to protect organic production?  Let’s hope.

Addition: Guess what.  Farm groups supporting GM alfalfa strongly object to Vilsack’s “coexistence” initiative.   In a  letter, the groups argue that the coexistence policy could “adversely impact all producers of biotech crops, as well as the integrity of the American agriculture system.”

Noting that USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service concluded that RR alfalfa does not pose a plant pest risk, the groups accuse the Department of using motives beyond science to impose “unprecedented” conditions on alfalfa growers that they say may include isolation distances and geographic planting restrictions.

By “alfalfa growers,” they do not mean organic. Here’s who signed the letter:

  • American Farm Bureau Federation
  • American Soybean Association
  • National Cotton Council
  • National Association of Wheat Growers
  • National Council of Farmer Cooperatives
  • USA Rice Federation
Jun 16 2010

Bard College’s Prison Initiative: organic food politics!

Earlier this month, I went to New York State’s Woodbourne Correctional Facility to accept the John Dewey Award for Distinguished Public Service from Bard College and to deliver a brief commencement address to incarcerated graduates of the Bard Prison Initiative.

Bard’s program is one of the few privately supported prison education programs in the country (the New York Times recently discussed a similar program at Sing Sing).

Bard started the program after the government cut off funding for prison education programs in the mid-1990s.

Bard has awarded liberal arts associates’ and bachelors’ degrees to nearly 200 men and women inside three long-term maximum security prisons and two transitional, medium-security prisons (Woodbourne is medium security).

None of these graduates—not one—has returned to prison after being paroled.

Why me, why there, and why discuss it here?  Participants in this program started an organic garden and are growing food for the prison with the surplus going to local food banks.

In my speech, I said:

“John Dewey was a passionate champion of liberal democracy.”

“Dewey argued that education is good for individuals, but that it also has an important social purpose—that of encouraging students to become active and effective members of a democratic society….”

“In growing a garden and producing food for yourselves and for others under these particular and peculiar circumstances, you are carrying out John Dewey’s ideals better than he ever could have imagined.”

I was not kidding when I said that no award has ever meant so much to me.  It was a privilege to be there.

Jun 14 2010

USDA fires certifier of Chinese organics: conflicts of interest

In a move that should bring cheer to anyone who cares about the integrity of organic certification, the USDA has banned the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) from certifying foods from China as organic.  According to the accounts in today’s New York Times and the USDA’s enforcement announcement, OCIA used employees of a Chinese government agency to inspect state-controlled farms and food processing facilities.

Oops.  This is sending the fox out to guard the chickens (organic, hopefully).  The Chinese government has a vested interest in selling certified organic foods and can only be expected to be lenient in enforcing rules for organic production.

Honest, reliable, consistent inspection is the cornerstone of consumer trust in organics.  If producers aren’t following the rules to the letter (and, we wish, the spirit), why would anyone be willing to pay higher prices for organics?  Since it’s impossible to prove that organics are more nutritious than conventional foods, the entire system rests on trust.  And the value of trust rests with the inspectors.

Advocates of organics have been worried for ages about the credibility of organic foods from China and whether cheap organics produced according to high standards.  Now we know, and the answer is not pretty.  With respect to OCIA’s arrangement with Chinese government inspector, the New York Times explains:

The department objected to the arrangement after a 2007 audit, saying the partnership violated a rule barring certifiers from reviewing operations in which they held a commercial interest.  The department moved to revoke the association’s accreditation and the group filed an appeal. The department’s disciplinary process is conducted in secret, and negotiations often drag on. In O.C.I.A.’s case, it took nearly three years to resolve.

This cozy arrangement has been going on for at least the last three years?

It’s good that USDA is taking this on now.

But USDA really needs to take a hard look at conflicts of interest in organic certification, domestic as well as foreign.  Some USDA-authorized certifying agencies are much more lenient than others.  Witness: certification of fish and pet food as organic, despite the lack of final rules for such certification.  Some certifying agencies manage to find ways to do this; others refuse.

The organic industry ought to be pushing USDA as hard as it can to establish and enforce the highest possible standards for organic certification.  I’m looking forward to reading what the Organic Trade Association—and OCIA—have to say about all this.

May 29 2010

USDA’s latest collection of relevant reports

The USDA does terrific research on many useful topics.  Here is a sample of some just in.

STATE FACT SHEETS:  data on population, per-capita income, earnings per job, poverty rates, employment, unemployment, farm characteristics, farm financial characteristics, top agricultural and export commodities.

WIC PROGRAM: research, publications, and data related to WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children). WIC served 9.1 million participants per month at a cost of $6.5 billion in 2009.

FEED GRAINS DATABASE: statistics on domestic corn, grain sorghum, barley, and oats; foreign grains plus rye, millet, and mixed grains. You can also get historical information through custom queries.

LIVESTOCK, DAIRY, AND POULTRY OUTLOOK:  current and forecast production, price, and trade statistics.

AGRICULTURAL OUTLOOK STATISTICAL INDICATORS: commodity and food prices, general economic indicators, government program expenditures, farm income estimates, and trade and export statistics.

ASPARAGUS STATISTICS: acreage, yield, production, price, crop value, and per capita use; also world area, production, and trade.

FOODBORNE ILLNESS COST CALCULATOR:   the cost of illness from specific foodborne pathogens, depending on the  annual number of cases, distribution of cases by severity,  use or costs of medical care, amount or value of time lost from work,  costs of premature death, and disutility costs for nonfatal cases.

ORGANIC FARMERS: explains why use of organic practices in U.S. lags behind other countries, differences and similarities between organic and conventional farmers, reduced consumer demand resulting from the weaker U.S. economy,  and potential competition from the “locally grown” label.

LOCAL FOOD SYSTEMS: defines local food,  market size and reach,  characteristics of local consumers and producers, and  economic and health impacts.  Addresses whether localization reduces energy use or greenhouse gas emissions (inconclusive).

BIOFUELS: Reaches 88 million gallons in 2010 as a result of one plant becoming commercially operational in 2010, using fat to produce diesel. Challenges include reducing high costs and overcoming the constraints of ethanol’s current 10-percent blending limit with gasoline.

Thanks to USDA for producing data that policy wonks like me just love to cite.

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