by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Organics

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.

May 7 2010

Presidential panel says: choose organics!

Thanks to Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times (“New alarm bells about chemicals and cancer“) for telling readers about a report on chemicals and cancer just released by the President’s Cancer Panel.

I had never heard of this panel – appointed during the Bush Administration, no less – and went right to its 2008-2009 annual report.

The Panel says that the “risk of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated,” that “nearly 80,000 chemicals [are] on the market in the United States, many of which are…un- or understudied and largely unregulated,” and that “the public remains unaware…that children are far more vulnerable to environmental toxins and radiation than adults.”

evidence suggests that some environmental agents may initiate or promote cancer by disrupting normal immune and endocrine system functions. The burgeoning number and complexity of known or suspected environmental carcinogens compel us to act to protect public health, even though we may lack irrefutable proof of harm.

I’m guessing this report will cause a furor.  Why?  “Lack irrefutable proof” means that the science isn’t there.  In this situation, the Panel advises precaution.  Check out these examples selected from the recommendations:

  • Parents and child care providers should choose foods, house and garden products, play spaces, toys, medicines, and medical tests that will minimize children’s exposure to toxics.  Ideally, both mothers and fathers should avoid exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
  • It is preferable to use filtered tap water instead of commercially bottled water.
  • Exposure to pesticides can be decreased by choosing…food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers [translation: organics] and washing conventionally grown produce to remove residues.
  • Exposure to antibiotics, growth hormones, and toxic run-off from livestock feed lots can be minimized by eating free-range meat [translation: don’t eat feedlot meat].

Expect to hear an uproar from the industries that might be affected by this report.  The American Cancer Society (ACS) doesn’t like it either, since the report implies that the ACS hasn’t been doing enough to educate the public about this issue.  The ACS said:

Elements of this report are entirely consistent with the recently published “American Cancer Society Perspective on Environmental Factors and Cancer”…Unfortunately, the perspective of the report is unbalanced by its implication that pollution is the major cause of cancer, and by its dismissal of cancer prevention efforts aimed at the major known causes of cancer (tobacco, obesity, alcohol, infections, hormones, sunlight) as “focussed narrowly”…it would be unfortunate if the effect of this report were to trivialize the importance of other modifiable risk factors that, at present, offer the greatest opportunity in preventing cancer.

ACS says the Panel does not back up its recommendations with enough research [but see May 14th note below].  Maybe, but why isn’t ACS pushing for more and better research on these chemicals?   However small the risks – and we hardly know anything about them – these chemicals are unlikely to be good for human health.   Doesn’t precaution make sense?  I think so.

Addition, May 7: Here’s Denise Grady’s take on the report from the New York Times: “Cancer society criticizes federal panel as overstating risks.”

Addition, May 14: I received a note from Michael Thun,  retired Vice President for Edemiology & Survey Research of the American Cancer Society requesting a clarification of my statement.  He says:

I hope that you can correct your report to say that ACS actually is pushing for more and better research, and has never discouraged people who choose to eat organic food from doing this. The only thing we object to is unsupported claims that the effect of current level of pollution on cancer has been “grossly underestimated”.

In 1996, I chaired an ACS committee writing dietary guidelines for cancer prevention and worked with Dr. Thun on our report.  I’d take his word for this.

National Home Office | American Cancer Society, Inc.


May 5 2010

Oops. Weeds are developing resistance to Roundup

Yesterday’s New York Times ran an article disclosing the rise and spread across the United States of “superweeds” that have developed resistant to the herbicide Roundup.  The article comes with a nifty interactive timeline map charting the spread of Roundup resistance into at least 10 species of weeds in 22 states.  Uh oh.

Roundup is Monsanto’s clever way to encourage use of genetically modified (GM) crops.  The company bioengineers the crops to resist Roundup.  Farmers can dump Roundup on the soil or plants.  In theory, only the GM crops will survive and farmers won’t have to use a lot of more toxic herbicides.  In practice, this won’t work if weeds develop Roundup resistance and flourish too.   Then farmers have to go back to conventional herbicides to kill the Roundup-resistant weeds.

In 1996, Jane Rissler and Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote “The Ecological Risks of Engineered Crops” (based on a report they wrote in 1993).  In it, they predicted that widespread planting of GM crops would produce selection pressures for Roundup-resistant weeds.  These would be difficult and expensive to control.

At the time, and until very recently, Monsanto, the maker of Roundup, dismissed this idea as “hypothetical.”

I know this because in the mid-1990s, I traveled to Monsanto headquarters in St. Louis to talk to company scientists and officials about the need for transparent labeling of GM foods.  Officials told me that Roundup had been used on plants for 70 years with only minimal signs of resistance, and it was absurd to think that resistance would become a problem.  I pointed out that Roundup resistance is a “point” mutation, one that requires minimal changes in the genetic makeup of a weed.

As I explained later in my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (the new edition arrives June 1):

From a biochemical standpoint, resistance to Roundup is not difficult to achieve.  Its active chemical, glyphosate, inhibits the action of an enzyme that makes three amino acids needed to construct plant proteins.  Plants cannot make the protein when the enzyme is blocked.  Bacteria, however, are well known to produce a mutant varient of this enzyme that is completely unaffected by glyphosate; they do so through “point” mutations (mutations that alter just one amino acid) or mutations that that cause the enzyme to be produced in such large amounts that glyphosate becomes ineffective.  Such mutations could occur in plants as well as in bacteria.  The transfer of Roundup resistance to weeks through pollination also is probable, and has already occurred.  The idea of widespread resistance to Roundup is not improbable, and it alarms the industry as well as environmentalists.  [Pages 183-184]

The Times article makes it sound like Roundup resistance is the end of the world.  It’s bad news for GM crops, but sure seems like another good reason why we need more acres planted in sustainable, organic agriculture.

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