This week, EatingLiberally.org wants to know whether I think organics are honest. Do organic food producers really follow the USDA’s Organic Standards? I think most do, but the question comes out of an incident in California where a fertilizer seller was passing off an unapproved chemical fertilizer as organic. Apparently, state agriculture officials knew about this but didn’t bother to tell anyone or do much about it. Not a good situation. Here’s my response to all this.
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Actually, they are more or less here already, but the USDA National Organic Standards Board has just given them a big OK. According to yesterday’s Food Chemical News, the Board approved (13 to 1) a rule to allow “farmed carnivorous fish to eat meal and oil derived from sustainably wild-caught fish — a practice to be phased out over 12 years until non-organic fish feed is no longer needed” (huh?). It also approved a more controversial recommendation (the vote was 10 to 4) to “allow use of open net pens in organic aquaculture, but with restrictions to prevent escapes of farmed fish and recycling of nutrients. Net pens would only be allowed in specified areas to avoid lice contamination.”
USDA-approved agencies have been certifying farmed fish as organic for several years now, so the Board was forced to take a stand on this question. As I have mentioned in previous posts on this topic (and written about extensively in What to Eat), organic rules are supposed to be about the conditions of production.
Since when is ocean water organic? And isn’t feeding “sustainably wild-caught fish” to farmed fish something of an oxymoron? The producers of farmed fish are desperate to be able to market them as organic. So isn’t this move more about marketing than about producing fish sustainably and healthfully?
While we are on the subject of marketing, I’ve just gotten a press release from a company selling what it says is the first certified organic bottled water. Since when is water not organic? And what’s so special about this one?
The National Organic Program says it welcomes feedback and comments. Here’s where to send them.
Proponents of genetically modified foods as the solution to the world food crisis have been busy. Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute blames Prince Charles for the crisis because of the Prince’ distaste for GM foods. In a quotation dear to my heart, he asks: “How would the future king tell the cat and dog owners of Britain that, because of his anti-science elitism, pet food sales must be banned so people could eat?” So without GM foods, we won’t have by-products of human food production to feed to pets? And then today’s Science Times interviews Dr. Nina Federoff, science advisor to Condoleeza Rice. She says all foods are GM anyway. Without them, we will have to destroy the world’s forests. And heaven help us if we rely on organics: “If everybody switched to organic farming, we couldn’t support the world’s population–maybe half.” Why do I think there are some logical pieces missing here? Maybe because the Hudson Institute is not exactly free of corporate influence? Or Dr. Federoff really is, as the interview suggests indirectly, the “ambassador from Monsanto?”
As I explain in What to Eat, USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) can’t figure out what to do about certifying fish as organic. Organics are about production methods. Wild fish eat whatever, wherever, and their production is uncontrolled. Farm fish are fed whatever. According to Food Chemical News (June 2), the NOSB held hearings on the use of fish meal and fish oil in organic aquaculture last month and postponed a decision until fall. The issue: is it OK for farmed salmon to “eat meal and oil derived from carcasses, viscera and trimmings from processed wild caught fish certified as ‘organic’ by foreign suppliers,” when there are no U.S. standards for such certification. I’d say no. How about you?
Thanks to Eric Colchimaro for sending links to two stories about the effects of rising food prices. One is about the food riots occurring worldwide , a story continued in the New York Times on April 18: “the worst crisis of its kind in more than 30 years,” or what the Chicago Tribune calls a “crime against humanity.” And now The Economist (April 19-25) says the era of cheap food is over, reviews the political risks this entails – food riots, to begin with – and calls the current food crisis “the silent tsunami.”
Eric’s second link brings it home; it’s a Washington Post story about the awful problems higher food costs are causing for U.S. school lunch programs. They are hitting home in other ways. Restaurant sales are down and the costs of making pizza are rising. Dollar menus at fast food chains are up – they account for 15% of sales at Burger King and give so little return that they are putting some outlets into bankruptcy, according to Advertising Age (March 31). A story in today’s New York Times talks about the sticker shock in the organic aisles. The fallout from rising oil prices, rising grain demands, and use of grains for biofuels gets worse every day. How do we get reverse this? Extricating from Iraq might help as would more enlightened energy and farm policies. Ideas, anyone? In any case, I’m going to keeping an eye on the effects of rising food prices. My guess is they won’t be good. I hope I’m wrong.
Thanks to Jonathan Latham of the Bioscience Resource Project for advice to check out the web pages of Professor Phil Howard at Michigan State University. Professor Howard, who I do not know but can’t wait to meet, has put together some terrific cartoons of how food systems work. Examples: who owns what in organic foods and the chain of distribution of spinach contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 in 2006. This last is especially useful, given the sharp increase in foodborne illnesses due to leafy greens. I fully intend to plagiarize.
Apparently, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has gotten a new management company to take the House of Representatives cafeteria healthy and green. Get this: the House, which serves 2.5 million meals a year, “is switching to locally grown, organic, seasonal and generally healthy food. It will be served in compostable sugar cane and corn starch containers instead of petroleum-based plastics. Even the knives and forks will be biodegradable.” The Senate, needless to say, is “the last place in America to abandon elevator operators and smoking in hallways.” Now, if they would just pass a decent Farm Bill…
A press release today from the Organic Center announces publication of a major study by Brian Halweil examining changes in nutrient levels of farmed crops in the United States. Halweil summarizes evidence that food crops are less nutritious now than they used to be and that organic crops are more nutritious than conventional. While such findings seem intuitively obvious, they are very difficult to prove. For one thing, methods for evaluating the nutritional content of foods were not as accurate 50 years ago as they are now. For another, the samples may not really be comparable. Even so, this report is worth having for addressing the questions in a serious way. Read and enjoy!