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Farmer sees danger to organic label

by Jim Goodman

(Monday, Feb. 24, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- When Fieldale Farms of Georgia petitioned the USDA last fall for an exemption to the rule that required them to feed 100 percent Organic feed to their organic chickens, I was hardly surprised. As a small Organic farmer I knew it was only a matter of time until one of the "big boys" of Organic farming decided it would be easier and more profitable to "sell Organic" while farming conventionally. When USDA denied Fieldale’s request they decided it was time to call in some favors, get the exemptions pushed through Congress and start selling those conventionally fed birds for the Organic price.

Georgia Rep. Nathan Deal’s campaign fund had benefited from the generosity of Feildale Farms and he was happy to insert a provision into the $387 billion omnibus spending bill that would allow organic livestock producers to apply an Organic label to their products while raising them on non-Organic feed. Since conventionally grown grain could be purchased at a lower price than Organic grain, why not get the rules changed, pocket the difference and to hell with paying a fair price to Organic grain farmers.

Several things about this bother me.

First, the fact that issues in no way related to a particular bill can be buried in the massive volume of "lawyer speak" that Congress uses when drafting legislation. It seems that if you want something controversial made law, the best way to do it is to sneak it into a massive spending bill that no one has time to read.

Secondly, this dilution of the USDA Organic Standards is totally against the original intent of the original Organic Foods Production Act and the USDA Organic Standards. Since when can one decide that meeting organic feeding requirements is only necessary as long as it doesn't cut too deeply into your desired profit margin?

If indeed Feildale farms says they cannot find enough Organic grain, perhaps they need to consider giving their chickens access to a pasture from which they could actually obtain measurable feed value.

Or perhaps they need to realize that part of organic farming is maintaining a diversified operation, not just a livestock feeding business. If the grain isn't available they need to change their system and grow it themselves or get someone to grow it locally for them.

Fieldale is trying to make an organic system fit into a conventional mold, and it doesn't work. There is more to "being Organic" than just feeding livestock or growing crops organically, just as there is, or at least ought to be more to being an "American" than just living in the United States. I certainly hope organic farmers and consumers will deluge their congressional representatives with strong requests to strike this provision and uphold the integrity of the National Organic Program.

Conventional farmers should be concerned as well. What is to stop an elected official in Washington, who, for adequate campaign contributions, would at some point include a provision into a piece of legislation that would require Tyson or Excel to pay a fair market price for livestock only if it doesn't cut to deeply into their profit margins,--Oh wait a minute I guess that has already happened.

Organic farmers need to get out of their little dream world. The goal of agribusiness is to gain as much profit from the marketing of Organic food as possible, just like conventional food. We know what happened in the conventional farming sector, farmers were squeezed to the point where the possibility of making a profit was replaced by the hope of survival.

Organic farming is next, farmers and consumers must stop this erosion of the USDA Organic standards. There will be more attempts, but this must be stopped now, or Organic farming will become unprofitable for small farmers, and at best, survival of the few for the largest Organic farmers. The corporations, with Fieldale Farms as the trailblazer, plan on winning.

Jim Goodman is a Wisconsin organic dairy farmer. Another of his recent opinion pieces, 'Destroying the land and those who keep it,' can be found at http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=1425.

You can reach Goodman at r.j.goodman@mwt.net.