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How Do You Define "Organic"?
By Mark Steil
April 29, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

Part of the MPR News project Religion in Everyday Life

What is organic food? That question is at the heart of a fight between the US Department of Agriculture and organic farmers. New rules proposed by the USDA leaves open the chance "organic" may include genetically modified food and items currently banned from carrying the label. A public comment period on the nation's first organic standard ends April 30. Thousands have commented; a majority oppose a broad definition of "organic."

MOST OF THE NATION'S organic farmers agree some sort of national definition of organic is needed. Right now organic is whatever individual state or private agencies say it is, and that varies a great deal. Farmers may be able to sell their products in some markets, but be locked out of others. Southeast Minnesota organic milk producer Randy Meyer says the agriculture department proposal, though, is completely inadequate.

Meyer: They're so far off-base ... It's almost like a bad dream.
Besides genetics, the proposal asks whether organically grown food can be irradiated to kill germs and still be called organic. And whether sewage sludge can be used as fertilizer on organic fields. Those sorts of practices are not allowed in any of the various regulations governing organic production today. Randy Meyer says not having those shortcuts makes organic production much more difficult than conventional farming.
Meyer: Organic agriculture causes the producer to actually think about what he is doing and why he is doing it. In conventional agriculture there is always a professional there to give them the recipe. So that you're just another number and you're just another producer like the other tens of thousands throughout the country that do it this way.
Meyer says changing the rules would make it too easy to qualify as organic. He says that could tempt corporate farms to enter the market, threatening the small farmers who've built the organic food industry. Thousands of comments have been registered at the Internet site maintained by the agriculture department on the organic question. Almost every one opposes a broadened definition of organic. One of the few comments supporting change came from a soil science professor at Clemson University. Ralph Franklin says irradiated food products should be allowed to carry the organic label:
Franklin: People fight this because they don't understand. They think it's going to make the food radioactive, which is foolish. It's not going to make it radioactive anymore than you getting irradiated to get a dental x-ray or a chest x-ray is going to make you radioactive.
Jim Riddle: Happy Earth Day! It's truly a pleasure and honor to be here today and it's most fitting that we're discussing organic food and farming on Earth Day, because organic agriculture is, simply put, farming in harmony with the earth. We all know that. Our question is when will the USDA get it?
Organic farm inspector Jim Riddle told a crowd on the state capitol steps in St. Paul they should send their thoughts on what is organic to Washington. Most of the anger is directed at the agriculture department, which, under pressure from other government agencies, agreed to explore a broad definition of organic. The possibility that genetically modified products could qualify as organic grew out of the difficulty conventional farmers have in exporting genetically altered crops. Many nations will not purchase bio-engineered grain. So the government's fear is if the agriculture department bans any genetic modification in organic food, it will be seen overseas as an admission of safety concerns in bio-engineered crops, and further hamper efforts to export those crops. The agriculture department's Tom O'Brien has been watching the comments on organic pour in. He says the Internet link is a great experiment in using cyberspace to further democracy.
O'Brien: We've really reached out to get public input in order to insure that we get the organic rule ultimately right. We need to draft a rule that organic consumers and producers want, that meet their expectations on what is organic.
O'Brien expects a final rule on what is organic to be in place within a year. Southeast Minnesota dairy farmer Randy Meyer says if done right the rule will help expand an organic market already estimated to be growing 20 percent a year. Although conventional food producers say their products are perfectly safe, Meyer says safety is the major concern leading people to organic food.
Meyer: I think they're tired of being sick. Plain and simple. I do think there's a correlation between the way we treat the land - applications of and the loose applications of herbicides, pesticides, and that sort of thing - and cancer.
Meyer says weakening the definition of organic could ruin what he says is a very important market for small farmers. He's paid a premium price for his organic milk, roughly a third more than conventional farmers receive for their milk. That helps him stay small and in business, something conventional farmers find increasingly difficult to do. If "small is beautiful" in organic farming, the rule in conventional agriculture too often is "get big or get out."