Organic Food Standards Alert

How would you feel if your "organic" produce were grown on sewage sludge? This may happen if the US Department of Agriculture's proposed set of organic standards is approved this Spring. Unless amended, these standards could destroy our nation's organic farming system. The public has until mid-March to weigh in with their point of view on these industry-dominated guidelines.Perhaps the most controversial of the guidelines refers to the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer. Food grown in municipal sewage sludge is exposed to an unpredictable combination of the 70,000 different chemicals used by American industry. This includes pesticides, dioxin, heavy metals such as mercury and lead, asbestos and other carcinogenic substances. Many of these can be directly absorbed by plant roots. The USDA also wants to approve genetically-engineered plants as "organic," which preliminary studies have shown can pose serious threats to health and the environment. And the proposed standards take no stand against the agricultural practice linked to the cause of "Mad Cow Disease" in England -- feeding ground-up dead animal parts to cows. Consumer awareness about food quality and safety is at an all-time high and sales of organic goods have been booming in the past several years. The USDA wants to open the market to large-scale factory farmers concerned with new opportunities for profit. Unfortunately, this transition will come at the expense of our country's organic family farmers. These entrepreneurs have worked hard to establish practical and credible norms based on sincere concern for human health and the environment. But under the proposed new "organic" standards, consumers would have no means of being fully informed when making purchasing decisions about the purity of their food. That the USDA developed this proposal is surprising. Their National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture, had already concluded that genetically-engineered organisms and sewage sludge were unsound practices. Without significant reconsideration of many of their proposed new guidelines, however, organic agriculture as we know it will crumble.The public has until mid-March to voice its opinions. Write to the USDA today. Tell them that you will not accept the standards as proposed. Demand that organic foods adhere to real organic standards. Send your comments to: Eileen S. Stommes, Agricultural Marketing Service, USDA, Room 4007-S, Ag Stop 0275, P.O. Box 96456, Washington, DC 20090-6456. Or fax comments to (202)690-4632.Jill Harrison is Research Intern at the Institute for Food and Development Policy -- Food First, in Oakland, California.

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