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Staying organic

(Wednesday, March 5, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- NY Times editorial: If it weren't so dangerous, the chicken fight going on in Congress would be laughable. Representative Nathan Deal, a Georgia Republican, slipped a paragraph into a $397 billion spending bill that would allow farmers to give livestock nonorganic feed but call their meat, eggs and milk "organic" anyway. That would clearly violate the new United States Department of Agriculture standard. Specifically, the provision, which was suggested by a Georgia chicken farm that contributed to Mr. Deal's campaign, prohibits the government from requiring that organic livestock producers use organic feed.

This is just the kind of provision, inserted at the last minute with Speaker Dennis Hastert's consent and without debate, that makes you wonder what else lies hiding in the darkly lit byways of the spending bill, passed by the House on Feb. 13.

Given the bitter Congressional politics of recent months, Mr. Deal could not have expected the speed with which a bipartisan coalition formed to attack his chicken deal, a group that includes fellow Republicans, major food corporations and the agriculture secretary, Ann Veneman. But then this is exactly the kind of issue that creates cost-free bipartisanship. Everybody but Mr. Deal gets a chance to look good.

And yet, his stealth paragraph, threatening as it is, may indirectly aid the cause of organic agriculture by alarming its Congressional supporters. Senators Patrick Leahy and Olympia Snowe have introduced legislation, co-sponsored by more than 50 other senators, that would kill Mr. Deal's provision. And Mr. Leahy and Representative Ron Kind have announced the creation of an organic caucus, designed to protect federal organic standards, which took effect last October, from other assaults.

There is a substantive point to be taken from Mr. Deal's effort to help out a local chicken farm. Too few farmers are raising organic grain for feed, especially in a market glutted with heavily subsidized conventional grain. Mr. Deal's provision became law when the spending bill was signed, and it must be repealed. Congress should look for ways to stimulate organic grain production rather than encouraging livestock producers to cop out, thereby confusing consumers and undoing the years of work it took to create the U.S.D.A.'s organic standards.