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ISSUE 120 VOL 17 PUBLISHED 4/13/2007

USDA threatens organic fare

By Katie Godfrey
Contributing Writer

Friday, April 13, 2007

In March the U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA] released a ruling that narrows organic certification requirements which could ultimately put farms that are part of co-operatives out of business. Current USDA regulations require organic inspectors to visit only some of the farms in co-ops each year, covering all of the farms in a period of five years.

The new ruling, if unchallenged, will require annual inspections of the entire co-op. Domestic organic farms would not be affected because the United States already abides by a system of annual inspection, but this ruling would severely damage co-ops in developing countries that cannot afford yearly inspections. Costs of inspections for these co-ops would more than double, forcing many farmers to lose the organic certification.

Before we delve further into the new ruling we must first attempt to deconstruct the word "organic." To many this word means that food is grown the way nature intended. To the USDA, the word "organic" essentially means that farmers cannot use chemicals in the growing process. While this is a positive thing, the USDA still allows organic food to be grown in monoculture, the practice of growing one type of crop in one place, which destroys the soil and requires synthetic fertilizers.

This is not to say that you should shy away from products labeled as "organic" but it is important to do some research before making your purchase. Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, makes the crucial distinction between "big organic" and "beyond" organic farming practices. Big organic food, which Whole Foods is notorious for selling, is based on the type of farming mentioned above that USDA regulations support. Besides the ban on chemicals, big organic farms function almost exactly like industrial farms. Compare this to "beyond" organic farms, which imitate nature by growing crops in polyculture (growing many crops together), which minimizes waste, retains soil and provides its own natural fertilizer.

In other words, current USDA regulations already hurt farmers, both abroad and domestic because of the way "organic" is defined and because the actual organic certification is very expensive to obtain. I worked in a café that offered fair trade organic coffee; only half of the coffee was officially certified, which was misleading to customers, who assumed that all organic coffee must be labeled as such.

While Americans should be encouraged to buy locally in order to support small farmers and reduce our dependency on oil, when it comes to crops like coffee and bananas, buying locally is not an option. Coffee is the second most-imported commodity after oil in the United States, so the organic fair trade coffee industry will be hit especially hard if the new ruling is left unchallenged. Farmers who work for coffee co-operatives that are in danger of losing their organic certification because of the new ruling might have to resort to working for large coffee corporations that do not ensure fair wages to the growers. In other words, this ruling will not only put the health of the environment but also farmers' wellbeing at risk.

Rather than putting co-operatives out of business, the USDA should develop stronger regulations to ensure that all organic food is produced in the "beyond" organic manner.

Staff writer Katie Godfrey is a junior from Madison, Wis. She majors in American studies with a concentration in environmental studies.

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