March 23, 1998
A panel discusses what is involved in growing plants organically, the standards behind organic food practices, and the booming industry.
BILL BRAMMER, Organic Farmer: Well, here we have sugar snap peas and on this side we've got snow peas, and then here we've got spinach.
LEE HOCHBERG: When Bill Brammer started his southern California farm 20 years ago, he embraced the ideas of organic gardening, refusing to use pesticides or synthetic fertilizers.
BILL BRAMMER: We feel like it harms the soil, and we feel like it's not necessary to be eating those chemicals that are on the crops, you know, that we can grow just as good a quality without having those chemicals on the crops. And we're not convinced that those chemicals are that good for us.
LEE HOCHBERG: Today Brammer's farm has grown to 320 acres, a $2 1/2 million a year venture. Hundreds of regular customers in San Diego buy his organic fruits and vegetables. Once considered a bastion of hippy gardeners, organic farming has become big business, generating almost $4 billion per year nationally. That's only 2 percent of total food sales, but it's growing 20 percent per year because of people who believe the produce is healthier and healthier for the environment because of how it's grown.
LEE HOCHBERG: But just how organic foods are grown is a matter of controversy. Production standards for what constitutes an organic food vary widely from state to state. And food producers slap the label "organic" on all kinds of food. The organic industry hoped that a national standard enforced by the federal government would clear up the confusion. To that end, Congress in 1990 formed the National Organic Standards Board to advise the administration on a federal standard. Just this past December the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a set of proposed standards. They require that organic foods be grown without pesticides, that fields be free of pesticides for three years before harvest of organic crops, and that animals raised organically not be give hormones or antibiotics to stimulate growth or be raised in dark, unhealthy conditions. But the USDA proposed other standards that go against the recommendations of the expert panel. An angry organic industry says some of the proposals, like allowing irradiation of organic produce and allowing the use of treated sewage as fertilizer, would destroy the meaning of the word "organic."
LYNN COODY, Organic Certifier: It turns us into mush. It turns us into something that's not differentiated from the rest of the agricultural system at all.
LEE HOCHBERG: Horticulturist Lynn Coody helped write the state of Oregon's organic standards. She says the Agriculture Department bowed to pressure from other government agencies and approved practices that organic farmers believe are unhealthy and consumers don't want.
LYNN COODY: They all made little tweaks and little changes and little compromises. And what came out the other end is something completely different that has created a low standard for the industry, and something that, I feel, will be detrimental to the consumer interest in the industry in the long run.
LEE HOCHBERG: Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman replies that his agency is trying to be responsive to the many parties now interested in the booming organic food industry.
DAN GLICKMAN, Secretary of Agriculture: I recognize that if we don't come out with a rule that most people in the organic industry are comfortable with, we're not--we've spent a lot of time for not. So I don't want to prejudge this issue. I have to make sure that I get all the testimony, all the evidence in, but I'm also cognizant of the fact it's got to be a rule that people out there interested in organic food will support.
LEE HOCHBERG: The USDA, for example, wants to consider if irradiated food can be certified organic. No state has ever permitted that. Irradiation is an increasingly common method of sterilizing spices and conventional fruits and vegetables. It kills bacteria and pathogens like E. coli, which can be fatal. Foods rumble along a rail system in metal bins and are bombarded by one to ten kilogreys of radiation. In December, the federal government approved the process for red meat. Agriculture Secretary Glickman argues it also deserves consideration for organic fruits and vegetables.
DAN GLICKMAN: USDA must decide how to implement irradiation insofar as we deal with meat and poultry products. And since that issue was raised, right at the end of this process, we thought we ought to at least try to get some comment on how it would relate to this particular issue.
LEE HOCHBERG: You said, what--
TOM MATES, Irradiation Plant Manager: Garlic, and shallots--onion power, other dehydrated vegetables.
LEE HOCHBERG: California-based Sterigenics is the nation's largest sterilizer of food ingredients. It already generates $8 million a year, exposing 35 million pounds of beans, garlic powder, taco seasonings, and other food products to cobalt 60 in a radioactive chamber. Plant manager Tom Mates says the process extends the shelf-life of foods, like this avocado, so they're more marketable.
TOM MATES: They pick the avocado in the morning; they pulp it in the afternoon; we'll zap it over the evening hours. They'll convert it to guacamole mid morning tomorrow. And it'll be on the shelves by 5 o'clock tomorrow. Irradiation is killing some of the enzymatic ripening that would otherwise spoil the product very quickly. So what they're trying to add is two, three four days of shelf life to the ultimate product.
LEE HOCHBERG: But those in the organics industry say they're not convinced food isn't somehow altered in the irradiation process. And they argue the nuclear waste the process generates is definitely not organic. They say the only rationale for using irradiation is a commercial one.
BILL BRAMMER: It's one more way for someone to make money. It's one more way to have a product that's going to sit on the shelves a longer period of time, and do we really want tomatoes that sit on the shelves for three or four weeks and that have no flavor and taste like cardboard?
LEE HOCHBERG: The organic industry also objects to a controversial farming method the USDA might allow in the fields. The rules permit sludge, or reprocessed sewage, to be dumped on organic crops as fertilizer. This is treated human and industrial waste. It's used in conventional farming, but no state allows organic crops to be fertilized with it.
LYNN COODY: It's clearly established that heavy metals are usually a component of sludge. Once they're in the system they can be picked up and given to people in their food. These types of contaminants should not be applied to organic crops.
LEE HOCHBERG: The Organic Standards Board recommended against sludge. It's members argued it raises the risk that toxic substances may get in the food chain and puts land itself in jeopardy of contamination. But the Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates sludge, assured the Agriculture Department that it's safe. And Secretary Glickman listened.
DAN GLICKMAN: When you have a major government agency that has a strong environmental bias, which I think we would argue the EPA does, taking a position different from the National Organic Standards Board, that theoretically has also a strong environmental and consumer bias, I think that it was smart for us to get more data.
LEE HOCHBERG: That data will probably include the fact that fertilizing with sludge solves another problem, what to do with the billion tons of it cities generate each year. Pouring it into the ocean is illegal. Dumping it into landfills is expensive. The technical director of Orange County, California's Sanitation District says the county saves $10 per ton recycling its 180,000 tons of sludge onto crop lands.
NANCY WHEATLEY, Orange County Sanitation District: A hundred and eighty thousand tons times $10, that's a couple of million dollars a year. So it's--from our perspective, we're--you know, it's a good deal.
LEE HOCHBERG: Still, critics say labeling these processes "organic" is really just a way to help big Agni business get a part of the booming organic food niche. Oregon Congressman Peter Defeats.
REP. PETER DE FAZIO, (D) Oregon: It's a lucrative market. That's why they want to incorporate the sludge. You know, they don't want to have to go through everything it takes the good organic farmers follow. They just want to slop a bunch of sludge on there, you know, for the quick nutrients and then say, hey, we're growing organic, right over there, in that sludge.
LEE HOCHBERG: Defeats, who co-sponsored the congressional call for a national standard a decade ago, says tough standards are needed to satisfy potentially huge markets overseas. Late in January, the Industry Trade Association said it has grave concern that the proposed standards will destroy all the industry has built. Dave Decor manages this $7 million a year organic coop in Eugene, Oregon.
DAVE DE YOU, Organic Farmer: Ultimately, the industry is built upon consumers who believe they're getting a product that's different than conventional food and different in a way that they are willing to pay for. If they don't feel that's the case, why are they going to pay for it?
LEE HOCHBERG: The government says it recognizes the importance of organic farming, one of the few areas where small farms are still profitable.
DAN GLICKMAN: It's pursuing an agriculture strategy that helps a group of farmers in this country who I think have been pushed out by the trends toward consolidation. So I want to see this industry successful.
LEE HOCHBERG: The new standards are open to change. Government has already received more than 1,000 public comments. Input will be taken until late April, after which final standards will be drafted.