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Supporting family farmers, supporting organic standards

(Monday, April 21, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Below are two items regarding the organic agriculture community's successful effort to repeal a measure that would have diluted the organic standards.

1. April 20, 2003
Support Family Farmers

To the Editor:

Re "Keeping Organic Standard for Chickens" (National Briefing, April 15):

We commend the courageous leadership and persistence of Senator Patrick J. Leahy and Representative Sam Farr, who mobilized their Congressional colleagues to defeat the latest attack on national organic standards. The attempt to dilute these critical standards sheds light on how far big industrial agribusiness will go to put greed above the interests of American family farmers and organic food buyers.

Congress should now use its authority to strengthen organic farming the fastest growing sector of American agriculture. An equitable distribution of federal agricultural research dollars would provide $50 million annually to strengthen farmer-centered organic farming, rather than the $5 million it currently receives. Fairness and equity for family farmers the backbone of our agricultural system should be at the heart of all agricultural policies.

Somerville, Mass., April 18, 2003 This letter was also signed by Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews. All four are members of the board of directors of Farm Aid.


2. True to its roots: Organic food industry wins fight on U.S. standards
By Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 a.m. PDT Friday, April 18, 2003

The nation's fast-growing organic food industry flexed newfound political muscle this week, successfully blocking efforts that would have weakened the new national organic standards.

The outcry by farmers, consumers and industry groups persuaded Congress to quickly close a loophole in organic rules that would have allowed livestock producers to get around 100-percent organic feed requirements.

"This was democracy in action, people saying, 'Don't mess with my food,' " said Brian Leahy, president of Santa Cruz-based California Certified Organic Farmers, one of the largest organic certification associations in the nation.

It was a political coming-of-age for the organics industry, which is projected to reach $13 billion in sales this year -- double the sales of four years ago.

Organic products still account for less than 2 percent of the nation's food sales, and organically certified land is only 0.3 percent of the nation's farmland.

However, the number of acres certified as organic surged by 74 percent between 1997 to 2001, according to a study released last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.

Total certified acreage topped 2.3 million acres, including 163,000 in California. The state leads the nation in organic crop acreage but ranks fourth after accounting for organic pastureland.

That kind of growth -- and the backing of vocal consumer groups -- came in handy when an eleventh-hour rider was tacked onto the 2003 spending bill in February. Written for the benefit of a Georgia poultry farm, it would have allowed farmers to label meat and dairy products as organic without using 100 percent organic feed if the price of organic feed was more than twice that of conventional feed.

"It was just such a sleazy way of going about it because consumers wouldn't know what they were buying," said Barbara Haumann, spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association, a Massachusetts-based group of 1,200 organic growers, shippers and processors. "In organics, you do not decide what to do based on cost."

Simon Harris, spokesman for Organic Consumers Association in San Francisco, called the bill rider the first real attempt by outside interests to weaken the national organic standards implemented in October 2002.

"It's clear by what took place that the organic community is starting to have some political clout," said Harris, whose organization issued an e-mail alert about the issue to 200,000 members.

He estimates at least 20,000 of them voiced concerns to Congress -- as did an untold number of shoppers who saw notices at cash registers in natural foods stores across the country.

"The organic consumer group is a loud crowd," said Amy Kremen, co-author of USDA's most recent analysis of the nation's organic farms. "(The campaign) was everywhere."

There was plenty of support to repeal the Section 771 rider in California, which leads the nation with just more than 1,000 organic operations in 2001.

"Section 771 made a mockery of organic standards," said Bryce Lundberg, director of organic certification for Lundberg Family Farms in Richvale. "If this standards change stays on the books, what's next?"

As the largest organic rice processor in the country, Lundberg feared the erosion of consumer confidence once shoppers realized organic labels weren't strictly applied. Lundberg started calling politicians and garnering support from industry groups such as the California Rice Commission.

Even though less than 3 percent of California rice is organic, the commission "was able to recognize the real breach of proper process and standards developed for organic farming," Lundberg said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, were among the leaders of bipartisan efforts to repeal Section 771 by amending a supplemental spending bill that President Bush signed Wednesday. "Consumers need to know that the 'USDA Organic' label means what it says," Leahy said.

Farr took another step to boost the industry's profile on April 10 with the creation of the Congressional Organic Caucus to address new organic standards and other industry issues.

Trend lines suggest the caucus will have a growing constituency in coming years as the organics industry continues moving into mainstream culture and maintains faster growth than the conventional food sector.

The once-niche organic foods crossed a threshold in 2000, when more organic products were sold in supermarkets than in any other venue, including natural foods outlets and farmers markets.

Organic sales nationwide have grown at least 20 percent annually since 1990, driven by demand for organic dairy products and a boom in certified livestock. The number of beef cows, milk cows, hogs, pigs and sheep hit 71,000 in 2001, nearly a threefold increase from 1997, said the most recent USDA report.

Increases in organic cattle fueled the rapid expansion of certified organic acreage in rangeland states such as Montana, Colorado and Texas, which surpass California in overall organic acreage.

California, however, continues to dominate the nation's organic produce industry, with 40,000 acres of organic vegetables and 29,000 acres of organic fruit in 2001. In both cases, California has more certified organic acreage than the rest of the states combined.

There's no sign of stagnant demand yet. Supermarkets continue cautiously introducing new organic products and natural foods stores are "going gangbusters," said Karen Klonsky, agricultural economist at the University of California, Davis.

At Foothill Organic Growers in Newcastle, owner Jack Hertel has witnessed firsthand the demand that drove a 60 percent increase in California's certified organic acreage between 1997 and 2001.

After getting his first customer eight years ago, Hertel's cooperative of organic family farms delivers produce to 450 families a week in the greater Sacramento region.

"There are so many people out there who are really wanting fresh local organic produce," he said. "We almost can't keep up."

About the Writer

The Bee's Mike Lee can be reached at (916) 321-1102 or mflee@sacbee.com.

For more information: The most recent USDA report on the growth of the organic industry is at http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/aib780

To see this story, go to:http://www.sacbee.com/content/business/agriculture/story/6475798p-7427064c.html