This article was published in the February/March 2006 Wedge newsletter. The following information may be outdated.

Organics at the Crossroads - Part 2

On the Corner of Growth and Integrity

"Organic is not merely a label, a variable seal of approval at the end of the processing chain. It means a way of raising crops and livestock that is better for the soil, the animals, the farmers and the consumers themselves - a radical change, in other words, from conventional agriculture. Unless consumers can be certain that those standards are strictly upheld, organic; will become meaningless." - The New York Times, editorial

This quote from The New York Times is bold, admirable, and few organic partisans would disagree with it.

But it's wrong.

"Organic" most certainly is a variable seal, and that fact was never more on public display than in last year's congressional fight over changing the United States' organic law, the Organic Food and Productions Act (OFPA).

To recap, in September 2005, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) backed an amendment to change OFPA. Critics saw it as a sneak attack that would weaken USDA organic standards.

Supporters of the OTA amendment, meanwhile, saw it as a necessary measure to preserve an organic industry consensus that was rattled when a court ruling (Harvey vs. USDA) determined the USDA's organic program was violating its own laws by, among other things, allowing synthetics in organic food production. So from the supporters' POV, the organic label itself was in jeopardy - and they were saving it.

Regardless of who was "right," the OTA amendment was an important reminder: The definition of "organic" is open to debate, and can be altered. And it forces us back to some basic questions about the "radical change" that's taken place in the food industry in the last 20 years.

So...What Does Organic Mean Now?

What we experienced in September and October, with the Wedge joining the National Co-op Grocers Association, the Organic Consumers Association, and the Consumers Union to stop the OTA amendment, was a bruising family fight. The fact that our longtime ally the OTA seemed to be "on the wrong side" and, worse, got its way, is no doubt disheartening and confusing to many Wedge members. But, likewise, the fact that we supported a drive that got the amendment kicked into committee where it had to be passed literally behind closed doors was a real embarrassment to the OTA. So there's blood on both sides of this family feud, both sides are still resentful and defensive, and the entire organic community has to respect that we're going to come together for good rule making.

And there's reason to be guardedly optimistic. As Bea James, of the National Organic Standards Board put it, "I'm not so sure the approach the OTA took regarding the organic rider was in the best interest of [the National Organic Program's] process and public collaboration. However, I have confidence in the outcome."

So what will happen now? Does the OTA amendment's passage mean that organic standards will be eroded? Will synthetics be allowed in organics now? Will the Wedge stop carrying the national organic brands that supported the OTA rider?

Let's take these one at a time.

1) Does the OTA amendment's passage mean that organic standards will be eroded?

We certainly hope not. The USDA has until June 2, 2006 to address the court and explain how they'll comply with the Harvey ruling. Meanwhile, the USDA Office of General Counsel will advise the USDA on what new organic regulations will satisfy both the Harvey ruling and the "post-OTA amendment" organic law, and will issue proposed standards for a swifter ingredient and substance approval system for organic production sometime this spring. All of this will be followed with a public comment period, so the organic community at large (you) will have a say in the coming changes.

The Wedge would have preferred the slower approach to changing the law, which was already built into the National Organic Program. Slow and steady - that's the kind of regulation that instilled consumer confidence and helped create 20% annual growth in the organic sector. We also would have preferred to see the reputable National Organic Standards Board, not the Office of General Counsel, create speedier methods for reviewing harmless synthetics to be added to the National List. The court in the Harvey ruling gave the USDA until June 2007 to come up with new regulations, so they had two years to get it right. Why rush?

But the manufacturing sector couldn't wait that long, according to OTA. As Tom Hutcheson, Assistant Policy Adviser to the OTA, said, "Food manufacturers need to know 12 to 24 months ahead of time what materials they'll need. We couldn't wait [two years for new regulations]." Big manufacturers might have pulled out of the organic sector, and OTA wanted to keep organics growing.

Tough choices. Regardless, the public comment period on new organic standards will probably come sometime in spring 2006. Stay tuned to www.wedge.coop or consult your local Wedge staff member for the latest details.

2) Will more synthetics and non-organic ingredients be allowed in organics?

Probably. But keep in mind that synthetics have already been allowed in organic crop production and food manufacturing: Soap-based herbicides, boric acid, ethylene, rice hulls as defoamers, and benign synthetic chemicals that break down quickly and harmlessly in the environment have been part of the so-called "National List" of allowable ingredients and substances for years.

You should keep in mind, too, that under current USDA organic rules, anything labeled "organic" (that is, with 95% organic ingredients) could have up to 5% non-organic ingredients. This is out of sheer necessity. For example, finding certified organic baker's yeast for the Wedge's organic breads is nearly impossible. Because the conventional yeast that we use is such a small percentage (under 5%) of the recipe, we can still label Wedge breads "organic."

But it's not 100% organic. So, to be clear, the Wedge didn't object to "rewriting" the organic law to reflect what certified organic companies like ours were already doing. We objected because the amendment did not delineate how future substances, synthetic or not, would be added to the National List. And that's still a concern.

For its part, OTA claims their amendment was written to address shortages of organic ingredients. According to Hutcheson, a system is needed where numerous ingredients and substances could be added to the National List to prevent shortages. Because the process for adding items to the National List is time consuming (on average, just 4-6 items are added yearly), OTA wants to put items on the List in one massive barrage so that organic food manufacturers have options before shortages occur. "You'd still have to prove that the item was unavailable organically," Hutcheson explains, "but now the [needed] item would be on the List already," and shortfalls wouldn't impede production.

Be honest. Have you complained when a national brand organic item wasn't available or was discontinued? Hutcheson says this is usually because organic manufacturing is still in its infancy and needs more ingredients, substances, and options to stay in business.

If the upcoming rule making phase creates a believable procedure for reviewing health and environmental impact of potential National List items, and clearly defines what constitutes an "emergency shortage," this could work out just fine. Again, we hope it does.

3) Will the Wedge stop carrying the Big Organic brands that supported OTA's amendment?

There's no reason to, since the organic standards themselves haven't changed. The Wedge feared that standards based on the OTA amendment might create unforeseen loopholes, but until the standards are actually written, we'd rather take part in the process, and help create good standards through public comment. Boycotting is always the last and most drastic step.

However, if the process ignores democratic input, if problematic ingredients/substances are approved for organic foods, if it becomes too easy for food manufacturers to use something other than organic ingredients and to hide it without putting it on the label, if factory farm dairies continue to flaunt organic rules on pasture, if organic soymilk makers continue to outsource soybeans from international markets when U.S organic is available, the Wedge and other natural foods retailers nationwide will have to do some soulsearching about the all-too variable organic seal.

100% ORGANIC

But there's hope, organic shoppers: The OTA amendment and subsequent USDA rule changes won't affect the "100% organic" labeling category.

Until this dust-up over the OTA amendment, the Wedge hadn't perceived a big reason to use the "100%" category in co-op signage, because it seemed self-evident that organic whole foods were 100% organic: You buy an organic zucchini, it's totally organic. Case closed.

But whether the organic rule changes for the worse or not, "This issue revitalizes the emphasis on health," says Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumer Association, "and the bigger issue of maintaining a diet of organic whole foods." All of a sudden, 100% organic becomes helpful and very meaningful to the organic shopper.

Cummins says that many companies will keep an eye on the 100% labeling category for that very reason. "There are still many that won't cut corners, I guarantee. Nature's Path, Eden Foods, and Dr. Bronner's to name a few." Instead of following Wal-Mart, Kraft, and General Mills in their race to the lowest common denominator, entrepreneurial companies could make the 100% organic category their domain.

If so, they'll need to see that organic shoppers value that integrity, so we encourage Wedge members to seek out foods labeled 100% organic-the category where, as The New York Times puts it, customers can be sure that organic standards are strictly upheld.