Future of Organic Food and Agriculture at RiskNovember 17th, 2011
Use of Synthetic Preservatives, Genetically Mutated Ingredients
and Weak Animal Welfare Standards Headed for Vote by USDA Panel
Cornucopia, WI—The Cornucopia Institute, one of the nation’s leading organic industry watchdogs, is urging members of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), in formal testimony, to vote to preserve the integrity of organic food and farming at its upcoming meeting in Savannah, Georgia.
Some of the hot button issues on the agenda, including using artificial preservatives and genetically modified ingredients, would seem Orwellian to many longtime organic farmers and consumers. The forecasted dustup will be debated by a USDA panel, deeply divided between corporate agribusiness representatives and organic advocates.
Under the Bush and Obama administrations, the USDA Secretaries have been criticized for appointing a significant number of corporate representatives, whose primary interest appears to be loosening the federal organic standards, allegedly in pursuit of enhanced profits.
“We think this meeting may well decide the fate of organic food and agriculture in this country,” said Mark A. Kastel, Codirector of The Cornucopia Institute, which represents family-scale organic farmers and their consumer allies across the U.S.
The 15-member NOSB is a citizen panel, set up by Congress, to advise the Secretary of Agriculture on organic policy and rulemaking. Upcoming votes concern the use of genetically modified and synthetic additives that have been petitioned for use in organic foods and drinks, including baby foods and formula.
While these synthetics seemingly fail the legal criteria for inclusion in organic foods, the NOSB committee recommending their use is comprised mostly of representatives working for corporations like General Mills and Campbell Soup that have only a sliver of their total sales in the organic food sector.
Additives being recommended for use in organics include nutritional oils manufactured by Martek Biosciences Corporation, part of the $30 billion multinational conglomerate Royal DSM. These oils, genetically modified to provide isolated omega-3 and omega-6 nutrients DHA and ARA, are derived from algae and soil fungus, and stabilized with a wide variety of synthetic ingredients.
When incorporated in infant formula, these oils are processed with a neurotoxic solvent, n-hexane. A byproduct of gasoline refinement, n-hexane is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency as a hazardous pollutant. The recommendation to approve Martek’s oils, processed with hexane, has industry observers scratching their head since solvents, commonly used in conventional food production, are expressly forbidden in organic food production.
“What is most egregious about the NOSB push to approve the Martek Biosciences Corporation petition is that these DHA and ARA oils are in no way essential in organics, as claimed by Martek,” states Cornucopia’s Kastel. “Other organic manufacturers have successfully used fish oil and egg yolks as legal and natural alternative sources of supplemental DHA.”
According to a poll of nearly 1,500 Seattle area organic consumers, conducted by PCC Natural Markets, the largest member-owned food cooperative in the United States, the overwhelming majority of shoppers would reject organic products with Martek’s oils if they knew the manufacturing details of Martek’s “Life’sDHA®”.
76.4% of shoppers polled in the PCC survey would not purchase organic products with DHA from genetically modified algae, and 88.6% would not purchase organic products if hexane-extracted. If consumers knew that Martek’s oils are stabilized with synthetic ingredients, the poll suggests that 78.3% of consumers would reject the products as well.
The NOSB will also vote on a petition allowing the use of the synthetic preservative sulfur dioxide (sulfites) in wine. Winemakers who currently use sulfites are prohibited from using the USDA organic seal on their labels. “Approving sulfites, not only a synthetic preservative but a common allergen, would represent another blow to consumer confidence in the organic label, which has always signified the absence of artificial preservatives,” Kastel noted.
The success of a growing number of certified organic winemakers that shun artificial preservatives proves that this synthetic is not essential to making a high quality organic wine.
“If the standards are weakened by the USDA, allowing these synthetics, it will significantly narrow the difference between organic and conventional wine,” said Paul Frey of Frey Vineyards. “A major strength of the organic standards comes from consumers trusting that organic foods are wholesome and free from artificial preservatives and other threats to health and environmental stewardship.”
Meanwhile, the Livestock Committee of the NOSB, which is refining the standards aimed at ensuring high levels of animal welfare on organic farms, appears to be backing away from adopting strong, enforceable standards for laying hens and other species.
“They are caving to the factory farm lobby, listening to giant vertically integrated egg producers, and ignoring the voice of rank-and-file family farmers,” said Tim Koegel, a nationally prominent certified organic farmer producing pastured eggs and chickens. “The NOSB has an opportunity to make organics the true gold standard in terms of animal husbandry but instead might choose to make the organic label a joke.”
The proposal for chickens would give animals as little as one square foot of living space. “Like allowing synthetics, this woefully inadequate standard would violate the organic law that requires animals be allowed to exhibit their natural instinctive behaviors,” added Koegel. “Hell, those birds will not even be able to fully span their wings, let alone forage outside for insects, seeds and worms.”
This is not the first time the organic community, farmers and consumers, have come together to defend the integrity of the organic label. In the mid-90s, when the Clinton Administration first suggested allowing antibiotics, genetic engineering and sewage sludge in organics, over 300,000 citizens recorded their objections with the USDA—and they won.
“We have already received numerous proxies, downloaded from our website (www.cornucopia.org) from organic stakeholders demanding that the NOSB back away from sweetheart deals for corporate agribusiness at the expense of the organic label,” affirmed Kastel. “We hope many other folks, who care about organics, will make their voice heard as well.”
The Cornucopia Institute has a proxy letter on its web page that concerned farmers and consumers can sign and mail. Cornucopia will hand-deliver the letters at the NOSB meeting in Savannah. The proxy can be found here: http://www.cornucopia.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Proxy-letter-NOSB-2011.pdf
“This is an important time; time for the NOSB to choose the high road and bring organic standards, and enforcement of those standards, up to a level of integrity that the consumer expects. Failure to do so will undermine the future of the organic label, injuring the legitimate family farmer and deceiving the public,” added Koegel, a New York certified organic livestock producer.
Cornucopia testimony and detailed analysis on Martek Biosciences Corporation’s proposed novel DHA/ARA oils can be found at: http://www.cornucopia.org/official-comments-of-the-cornucopia-institute-to-the-usda-national-organic-standards-board/
Cornucopia’s response to the wine industry lobby’s request for artificial preservatives (sulfites) in organic wine can be viewed at: http://www.cornucopia.org/official-comments-of-the-cornucopia-institute-to-the-usda-national-organic-standards-board/
A detailed response from The Cornucopia Institute, to the NOSB livestock committee’s proposal on animal welfare standards can be found at: http://www.cornucopia.org/official-comments-of-the-cornucopia-institute-to-the-usda-national-organic-standards-board/