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Maladroit Farm

Maladroit Farm

Biotech Crops Won and Organic Food lost in the Clinton-Gore Years
Wednesday, March 1, 2000

For seven years, Bill Clinton and Al Gore have put biotech foods on the political and regulatory fast track, while organic farming was put on hold. The result? "Genetically modified organisms" approved by the government suddenly permeate the nation's food supply, yet not one bite of USDA-certified organic food will reach consumers before the end of the Clinton-Gore Administration. Less than a million acres of U.S. farmland are being used to grow organic crops that consumers can't seem to get enough of, while more than 60 million acres are planted with genetically engineered crops they may not want to eat at all. How did the Administration get it so wrong?

The government tried to put the best possible face on the two announcements it issued about organic farming in March, 2000. First, USDA released a long-awaited proposal to define uniform, national standards for organically grown food to replace a patchwork of several dozen state and private definitions and labels. And then the department reported that the area of U.S. farmland devoted to organic crop production "more than doubled during the 1990s."

But in both cases the ostensibly good news for organic agriculture merely underscored how little the administration has done in seven years to help the fledgling industry and the consumers and environmentalists who support it-and who presumed Bill Clinton and Al Gore would support it, too.

A national standard for organic food, complete with a "USDA-Certified Organic" label, is expected to be a boon to farming systems that protect nature by avoiding synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, hormones and antibiotics. But the newly proposed organic rules are almost a decade behind schedule, delayed in large measure by foot-dragging and policy blunders during the Clinton-Gore Administration, including a consumer uprising two years ago against the department's first, famously misguided organic proposal. In unveiling its second attempt, which seems much closer to what the organic industry and consumers want, USDA successfully underplayed the fact that while federal organic regulations may finally be on the books by the end of 2000, USDA-certified organic food will not reach consumers until sometime in 2002, at the earliest. The government delay has cost the organic sector billions of dollars in lost revenue. Sales of organic products have grown at a rate of 20 percent per year in the 1990s, according to industry sources, as a result of burgeoning consumer demand and a proliferation of processed, higher priced organic foods, from cereals to frozen snacks. But the market remains severely constrained by limited and irregular supplies of organic produce, meat and dairy products. Major food retailers that emphasize organic and natural food lines, such as the Fresh Fields and Wild Oats chains, cannot meet the demand for organic products. The delay of the USDA label has deprived grocers and consumers of a greater variety and availability of organic products, and the lower prices that will come with increased organic supplies.

Ultimately, the sector's impacts on the American diet and environment are in proportion to the extent of organic farming. Booming sales notwithstanding, the production of organic food remains anything but significant.

Beneath USDA's upbeat report of doubled organic cropland in recent years is the sobering perspective, acknowledged far less prominently by the government, that organic farming "is still small-only two-tenths of one percent of all U.S. cropland" (USDA 2000). An area, in other words, on the scale of Rhode Island. Organic's share of the farm landscape is more than seven times greater in Europe, where it occupies 1.5 percent of agricultural land and government aid is provided to help farmers "go organic". According to USDA, organic farming has a similar share in only a few crop categories here, including apples, carrots, lettuce and grapes.

The overall U.S. growth rate of the 1990s amounted to the addition of about 100,000 acres per year of organic cropland, a nationwide annual "expansion" only about twice the size of the District of Columbia. The total area of organic cropland and pastureland that USDA reported for 1997-just over 1.3 million acres-is actually a 10 percent decrease from the 1.5 million acre figure organic industry sources have been citing in recent years.

Whatever the organic agriculture industry has managed to accomplish during the Clinton-Gore years it has accomplished on its own, making do as it has for decades with essentially no government research funds, marketing assistance, promotional support or other help. Indeed, the sluggish, mishandled rulemaking for organic food typifies the treatment the "alternative agriculture" movement has come to expect from the Clinton-Gore Administration. Farmers, scientists and environmentalists working to create farming systems that grow safer food while reducing agriculture's environmental damage had high hopes when Bill Clinton and Al Gore won the White House. Not since 1980, when a landmark USDA report gave organic farming a boost in the closing months of the Carter Administration, have supporters of non-chemical farming had such high expectations for government support. The campaign pledges of the Democratic ticket in 1992 were especially encouraging for their focus on the need to assist small, family farms of the sort that predominate in organic agriculture. Instead, supporters of organic and other alternative farming approaches have spent much of the past seven years begging and battling the USDA and the White House for help on research funding, extension assistance, financial incentives for farmers, and tougher pesticide and environmental regulations. For the most part their efforts have gone unrewarded.

The Biotech Bias: Zero to Sixty in Five Years

 

While organic farming and alternative agriculture have been relegated to the back of the bus in the Clinton-Gore Administration, genetically modified crops created and sold by multi-billion dollar chemical companies have ridden up front in the policy motorcade. And the results have been as lopsided as the Administration's treatment of the two approaches to agriculture.

No biotech crops were in commercialization when Democrats took over the White House in January, 1993. But instead of heeding the cautions of scientists and environmentalists concerned about unforeseen problems with the technology, the Clinton-Gore Administration plunged enthusiastically ahead, granting swift approval for a number of genetically engineered crops under a regulatory framework devised during the Reagan and Bush administrations. As many environmentalists in the U.S. predicted, the shortcomings of that framework have since become the centerpiece of the policy debate over agricultural biotechnology, and the foundation of much of the consumer protest abroad and, now, at home: lack of testing for food safety impacts, inadequate investigation of ecological impacts, and no provision for labeling of foods for their "GMO" (genetically modified organism) content.

With a regulatory green light from the White House, adoption of biotech crops exploded in the Clinton-Gore years. From essentially zero acres in the early 1990s, biotech crops were already planted on 23 million acres by 1997, the year in which USDA now estimates organic farming reached 1.3 million acres. In 1998 U.S. biotech crop plantings nearly doubled to 52 million acres, and shot up again to more than 60 million acres in 1999 Analysts expect the figure could range between 60 and 70 million acres this year, roughly 1 cropland acre in six. Because two of the main biotech crops, corn and soybeans, are major livestock feed sources as well as food ingredients, a substantial, if unknown, portion of the U.S. food supply has GMO-derived constituents. Consumer concerns about the technology have begun catching hold with food companies here, with both Gerber Baby Foods and Frito-Lay announcing that they would not use GMOs as ingredients in deference to their customers' preferences.

Organic farmers, however, have had little luck persuading the Administration to consider the impacts biotechnology might have on their industry. In addition to general concerns about human and ecological safety, organic growers are particularly worried that the extensive, genetically engineered incorporation of the insecticidal Bt bacteria into corn, cotton and other biotech crops grown on millions of acres will lead to insect resistance to the bacteria. That could destroy the bacteria's effectiveness in organic farming, where Bt-containing sprays have long been the mainstay of natural insect control. Another concern is the drift of pollen from GMO crops onto organic crop fields, a problem analogous to the drift of synthetic pesticide sprays that are not allowed in organic farming.

Beyond regulatory approval, the Clinton-Gore administration has strongly supported the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars for publicly funded agricultural biotechnology research through USDA. For the past seven years, out of a billion dollar-plus USDA research budget, funding has remained essentially flat, in the range of $6 million to $8 million, for research on "alternative farming" approaches that minimize pesticides and other environmental hazards. A fraction of that alternative farming research funding has supported organic systems. Lobbyists working to secure more funds for alternative agriculture report that even when the Administration has proposed modest increases of a few million dollars in its budget submissions, it has rarely fought Congress to secure the funding in final spending bills. Adjusting for inflation, alternative farming and organic research is minimally better funded today than it was during the Reagan-Bush era.

The political support for biotechnology has also been high-powered in the trade realm. As the "Frankenfoods" controversy has gripped Europe, threatening markets for U.S. farmers and the pesticide companies that dominate agricultural biotechnology, the administration has thrown its full political weight-and heavy-weights-into transatlantic arm twisting, engaging the secretaries of agriculture and state, and the U.S. Trade Representative in extended lobbying efforts to ease European fears and regulations.

President Clinton himself has weighed in to boost biotech, proclaiming January "National Biotechnology Month 2000" and declaring "Agricultural biotechnology reduces our dependence on pesticides".

For Organic, Too Little, Too Late

 

Consumers, environmentalists and the organic farming industry have only begun to comb through USDA's latest 660-page regulation. So far, they are encouraged.

USDA has reversed itself on the three notoriously misinformed provisions that triggered most of the 275,000 complaints to Secretary Glickman from indignant consumers and an angry organic industry in 1998-a record public response at the department. The government originally left open the question of whether the federal organic label could be applied to bio-engineered foods, crops grown on fields fertilized with city sewage sludge, and on grocery products sterilized by nuclear radiation, technologies organic farmers have never used and consider inimical to their trade. USDA's latest organic proposal expressly prohibits all three. It was a decisive victory, but a defensive one that basically put federal organic agriculture policy back where it was in about 1996. Presuming USDA's second attempt at national standards meets their approval, about the only thing organic proponents can do now is wait until the regulatory process ambles forward.

Secretary Glickman has set of goal of issuing a final rule by the end of 2000, but the process could take longer if public comments are heavy. Then comes a 12-month transition for USDA to credential the first group of on-farm organic certifiers.

So the first foods to bear the USDA-certified organic label will reach consumers sometime after January 2002 at the earliest, nearly twelve years after Congress passed a law directing the Agriculture Department to establish a national organic standard, and almost a decade beyond the statutory deadline. Not one bite of USDA-certified organic food will reach consumers during the Clinton-Gore Administration.

When it does arrive, the single "USDA-Certified Organic" label on all types of foods will be a marketer's dream-a meta-brand created by the federal label and backed by hundreds of organic inspectors operating with USDA credentials. Most analysts expect the USDA-Certified Organic seal will rapidly boost the organic industry beyond its current $4 billion to $6 billion share of the nation's food budget, less than one percent of U.S. food spending. USDA's recent report notes that organic production appears to have expanded further since 1997.

In the meantime, proponents of organic agriculture can pressure USDA to insist that Congress fund several exceedingly modest initiatives to boost organic research and marketing that found their way into the final budget proposal of the Clinton-Gore era. But given USDA's track record on research budgets, no one in the alternative farming community is very optimistic that a lame-duck administration will fight to win for organic research funds.

The organic industry and its supporters also have reason to worry that the next administration may derail or delay the national organic food standard further. Even if a final regulation is issued by USDA by January, 2001, an unfriendly administration or displeased Congress could easily forestall implementation of the regulations, including the USDA certification process, for years. That is a distinct threat, particularly since a number of interest groups in the conventional food sector-from the Farm Bureau to the food processors-are vocally displeased that USDA has acted "unscientifically" by banning irradiation, sewage sludge fertilization, and use of GMOs in organic production.

Indeed, the conventional food industry seems increasingly sensitive to suggestions that organic food may in any way be safer than mainstream foods, insisting instead that organic represents a choice for environmentally-aware consumers, and nothing more. Secretary Glickman scarcely speaks of the proposed federal organic food standard without emphasizing that USDA certification will merely reflect how the food is grown or processed, not a government-backed claim that it is in any way safer or more nutritious for consumers.

Other developments in food science and policy, however, seem to be nudging conventional food in the direction of organic. Since federal pesticide laws were overhauled by the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996, for instance, the government has set a course-albeit a slow one-to reduce a wide range of pesticide residues on food in order to protect children. Last summer, in fact, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner used the new law to ban a decades-old, widely used bug killer, called methyl parathion, on a wide variety of foods that children eat. Browner indicated that more such actions would follow. Organic food, grown without pesticides, represents the ultimate destination of this policy course-foods with no residues, or extremely low levels caused by accidental pesticide drift or contamination during shipping. At the same time, evidence and concern also has been mounting about the long-term public health impacts of antibiotics that are widely used in conventional agriculture but essentially forbidden in organic farming.

Conventional farmers and food companies clearly do not want the public to perceive organic food as superior in safety or to begin to shop accordingly. A policy skirmish in 1998 illustrates the continuing tension. In a draft brochure for consumers about pesticide risks, the Environmental Protection Agency suggested that concerned shoppers might want to consider organic food. After the food industry aggressively complained the final brochure was severely watered down. In the end it weakly "advised" the obvious: "Your grocer may be able to provide you with information about the availability of food grown using fewer or no pesticides."

The battles for organic research funding and regulatory approval clearly will continue. But as Bill Clinton and Al Gore leave office, about the only thing organic farmers and their supporters can be thankful for in the policy realm is the public outcry of 1997 and 1998. The fight has not yet resulted in the long-awaited national standards for organic food, but without doubt it prevented a regulatory disaster at the hands of "friends."

Endnotes:

USDA 2000. U.S. Organic Agriculture Gaining Ground.Commodity Spotlight. March, 2000.

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