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Organic gets an additive: A U.S.D.A. seal

(Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2002 -- CropChoice news) --

Elizabeth Becker, The New York Times, 10/21/02Beginning on Monday, the Department of Agriculture's new seal labeling food organic will appear in grocery stores, making clear to consumers for the first time what produce has been raised without conventional pesticides or fertilizers, antibiotics or growth hormones.

For more than 12 years organic farmers, environmental groups, chefs and food executives have lobbied for the seal, one of those cases where an industry or at least part of one has urged the government to impose regulations.

Beyond that, "Organic Monday" is a milestone in a long-running fight that takes in issues like the role of agriculture in pollution and the dominance of farming by corporations.

"People can make a statement by buying food that wasn't grown with chemicals and won't hurt the air they breathe, the water they drink or the soil they depend on," said Nora Pouillon, the owner and chef of Nora's, the country's first organically certified restaurant.

For two days this week, her Washington restaurant was host to a coterie of fellow organic travelers, feeding them dishes like smoked trout with horseradish sauce and cumin-crusted sirloin roast smothered in rosemary sauce.

This being a Washington celebration, it drew lawyers and lobbyists as well as farmers and publishers.

Maria Rodale, the granddaughter of J. I. Rodale, the man who coined the term organic farming, joined the Thursday lunch but only by speaker phone, getting not so much as a taste of what was causing all the clattering of forks and knives.

At lunch on Wednesday, Wes Jackson, a soil conservationist and president of the Land Institute in Salina, Kan., was treated to hugs from Ms. Pouillon for his work as a leader of the organic movement when there were few others.

"This is the single biggest step in the last 100 years to change a broken agriculture system that puts profits above all else," said David C. Cole, chairman of Sunnyside Farms and Acicra Inc., a company that acquires organic food companies.

Those sentiments are dismissed by the conventional agriculture industry, which prides itself for having turned American farmlands into the breadbasket of the world, with one out of every three acres now planted with crops for export.

Even the most fervent members of the organic movement acknowledge that mainstream agricultural practices will not change with the advent of one small green-and-white seal. Organic Monday will be celebrated on farms and at restaurants across the country, but it will also be criticized as a mixed blessing by many of its original supporters.

"Over all, it's a very positive occasion, but the seal should be the floor, not the ceiling of a new agriculture," said Andrew Kimball, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit Washington advocacy group.

Mr. Kimball said he and others feared that the paperwork and costs of complying with federal standards would discourage the smallest farmers from applying for certification. With organic food growing in popularity it is now a $4 billion industry there is real concern that large food companies and farmers will take over much of the organic market and push out small farmers.

After years of viewing organic farming with disdain if not outright hostility, the federal government began planning for the new organic regulations in 1990. Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman said last week that she hoped the label would increase sales of organic food.

"I know that many of the organic farmers in this country have been looking forward to the release of these regulations with anticipation and hope that they will create the kind of consumer confidence that will allow their segment of the agriculture market to grow," Ms. Veneman said.

There are three types of organic labels. Products that are entirely organic will be described as "100 percent organic." Those labeled simply "organic" are at least 95 percent organic. Products labeled "contains organic ingredients" or "made with organic ingredients" are foods that are 70 percent organic or less.

Until now, this debate about organic food has been confined largely to the elite consumer, according to the industry. Until mainstream consumers feel that organic food is worth the higher prices and extra effort it takes to find it, the number of organic farms will remain minuscule.

"It is very, very important to reach out to all consumers and make money if the organic movement is to make a difference," Mr. Cole said.

To that end, the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization, will post information on its Web site beginning on Organic Monday. The site, www.ewg.org, will use data from the Agriculture Department showing the chemicals found on conventionally grown fruits and vegetables and those grown organically.

"Organic is the gold standard for chemical-free food," said Richard Wiles, senior vice president of the group, "and we want consumers to know what they are eating."