US Plans to Define Bio-Engineered Foods as 'Organic.'

Earth Island Journal, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview
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US Plans to Define Bio-Engineered Foods as 'Organic.'


US -- Since 1990, organic food sales have jumped 20 percent annually, reaching $3.3 billion in 1996, and are projected to grow to $6.5 billion by the year 2000. Organic cropland has more than doubled since 1991, and organic dairy sales are increasing by more than 100 percent a year.

Currently, a "certified organic" label indicates that the farming methods employed were verified by one of approximately 40 private or state certification programs. Genetically engineered foods cannot be labeled as "organic."

Consumers generally define organic foods as those produced naturally, without toxic chemicals, drugs or factory-farm techniques. But how millions of US consumers define "organic" will soon become a moot point because the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is about to create its own definition of "organic."

"This is the institutionalizing of the word `organic' by the government, and we should pay close attention," says Michael Sligh, director of the Sustainable Agriculture Program at the Rural Advancement Foundation International. Sligh is also former chairman of the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB), a committee established by Congress to advise the USDA on organic standards and labeling practices.

Despite the NOSB's recommendation to maintain strict organic standards, Washington sources report that the USDA intends to disregard the NOSB's explicit ban on genetically engineered food and intensive confinement of farm animals.

The USDA also is expected to make it illegal for regional or nongovernmental organic certification bodies to uphold standards stricter than federal standards. If such a rule were approved, the legal hammer of the World Trade Organization (WTO) could be used to force European and other nations to lower their organic standards as well.

The Codex Alimentarius, the WTO's official rule-making body for international trade issues related to food, has already held a series of meetings to define the term "organic." The US delegation and the biotech industry have lobbied the body for weaker international standards.

Central to defining the word "organic" is to admit that a host of agribusiness practices -- including pesticide use, animal confinement, hormone injection and genetic engineering -- are somehow less healthy. But the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration have been staunch defenders of genetically engineered foods and high-chemical-input agriculture. Both agencies have actively opposed labeling genetically engineered foods, despite a February 1997 poll by biotech giant Novartis that found 93 percent of US consumers wanted mandatory labeling of such products.

In 1997, a wide variety of genetically engineered foods will be placed, unlabeled, on supermarket shelves. Thousands of products -- including nearly all non-organic processed foods -- will soon include some genetically engineered ingredients. Two dozen biotech foods and crops have already been approved for use in the US, and millions of acres of biotech crops will be harvested this fall.

The proposed federal regulations would allow the NOSB to evaluate individual genetically engineered products on a case-by-case basis. Those approved would be passed on to the USDA, which would make the final decision.

But NOSB members are appointed by and subject to the authority of USDA officials.

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