October 21st, 2002 marked the date that the USDA Organic label hit the shelves. With 10 years in the making, the National Organic Standard has undergone considerable development, public outcry and finally, revision. While many are heralding this as a major victory, others feel that there is much work to do in maintaining and furthering the development of organic agricultural practices.
Rooted in the work of organizations like California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and Oregon Tilth, the new standards have been developed as part of the National Organic Program (NOP), a sub-department of the USDA. The creation of the NOP was mandated by the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, and consists of a 15 member Board, the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board), which is appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture. The 15 members represent various factions of the organic food industry, consisting of "... four farmers, two handlers/processors, one retailer, one scientist, three consumer/public-interest advocates, three environmentalists, and a certifying agent," according to the NOP. The NOSB represents various interests and acts as an advisory Board to the Secretary of Agriculture; the Secretary has the ultimate power to strike or add any piece of legislation to the final rule.
The creation of the NOP was originally at the behest of organizations that have been involved in organic farming, production, certification and consumption over the years. The year 1989 saw a burst of media attention on pesticides and food safety issues, primarily centered around the use of Alar (diaminozide - a growth regulator mostly used on apples) in commercial farming, and the EPA's failure to remove it from agricultural use. The media attention spurred renewed interest in farming practices that did not use toxic pesticides. Around that same time, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who chaired the Senate Agricultural Committee became one of the driving forces behind the development of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. Prior to this, numerous organic standards had been developing at the statewide level since the early 70's. At one point, Roger Blobaum, then Director of Americans for Safe Food at the Center for Science in the Public Interest counted 22 different state laws pertaining to organic food production.
When organic standards reached the government at the federal level in 1990, it lent a tone of seriousness to an issue that some touted as fanatical or lefty-liberal. The awareness that reached legislators came not only through more media coverage, but the fact that while organic only had a tiny share of the market, it was growing fast. There was no way that agribusiness could ignore the rising tide of consumer demand, and the number of organizations that were devoted to organic agriculture were fast growing. Alliances between farmers sprung up. Eco-activists began to include organic farming on their agendas. And consumer organizations began to make loud demands for foods untreated by pesticides.
The first few years of the NOP were chaotic and unproductive. Although the OFA of 1990 mandated the development of national standards, it wasn't until 1992 that the Board members were actually appointed and given a budget. Additionally, there were concerns at the start that big business interests were already cozying up with the NOSB. For five years, the NOSB worked on the standards, taking suggestions from various experts in the field. But the NOSB is strictly an advisory Board and not a policy-making body; the Secretary of Agriculture makes the final call on policy.
As the December 16 1997 draft of the new Organic standards was released for public comment it became clear that they would undercut current state standards by allowing the use of what has become known as "The Big Three": sewage sludge, irradiation and genetically modified organisms. The USDA took public comment for six months and in that time 200,000 consumers, retailers, farmers, activist groups and lawmakers offered their suggestions and complaints. Forty-eight members of congress signed a letter opposing the rule, and several celebrities added their voice to the chorus of dissent. "This is by far the worst beating that any federal agency has taken on a proposed rule," said Roger Blobaum.
On May 8, 1998 the USDA issued a press release notifying the public that there would be fundamental changes to the 1997 draft. According to then Agriculture Secretary, Dan Glickman, "Biotechnology, irradiation, and biosolids are safe and have important roles to play in agriculture, but they neither fit current organic practices nor meet current consumer expectations about organics, as the comments made clear. Therefore, these products and practices will not be included in our revised proposal, and food produced with these products and practices will not be allowed to bear the organic label."
Between 1998 and 2000, activists as well as the NOSB worked tirelessly to convince the Secretary of Agriculture to revise and accept the proposed guidelines. Eventually many of the main goals of the NOSB were included in the final rule. In Summary:
December 21, 2000, marked the publication of the final rule by the USDA, all 554 pages. It went into effect on April 21st, 2001 and gave farmers and industry members 18 months to reach compliance. October of 2002 marked the first time that consumers saw the USDA organic label on the shelves. It also marked a new era in organic activism. Now that the rule is final, activist groups, industry advisors, farmers, retailers and certifiers have a new set of problems to consider.
The Fair Trade system benefits over 800,000 farmers organized into cooperatives and unions in 48 countries. Fair Trade has helped farmers provide for their families' basic needs and invest in community development. However, these farmers are still selling most of their crop outside of the Fair Trade system because not enough companies are buying at Fair Trade prices. Help increase the demand for Fair Trade among companies, retailers, and consumers! Learn how you can get involved and make a real difference for small-scale producers!