Crowding the market

Ever since the U.S. announced it would relax organic standards, small farmers and green consumers have worried: Will agribusiness take over?

Published July 7, 2004 12:56PM (EDT)

John Wise stops in his tracks and squints up at the sun. "I love lemons," he says. "This is what I really love, growing lemons. The trees grow like crazy; you have to prune them, and when you pack the lemons, everything smells so nice."

The Ventura County farmer looks around him, at the 70-year-old trees laden with lemons large and small, green and yellow, at the clear blue sky, at the dry yellow earth, and loses himself in a moment of reverie.

"This is like old-style California. This is what Los Angeles was 100 years ago. If this was a conventional farm," he says, gesturing at the ground between the rows of trees, "this would be like a parking lot." Instead, the ground is covered in grass, and what he refers to as a "cover crop", a cereal that can be seen poking up from the earth here and there, its purpose to keep the weeds in check.

Wise is not a conventional farmer, he is an organic farmer, and his farm is one of many caught in a battle between the interests of small farmers and consumers concerned about the purity of their food, and government and agribusiness bent on maxi-mising the growth and earning potential of a burgeoning sector of the US economy, thought to be worth $13bn a year.

In April, the US agriculture secretary, Ann Veneman, announced a relaxation of the rules governing organic produce. Without public consultation the US department of agriculture (USDA) issued four directives which would have allowed organic farmers to use chemicals of unknown provenance on crops, to treat organic dairy cows with anti- biotics, and to feed organic cattle with non-organic fish meal.

The last directive was perhaps the most alarming and also the most comical. Declaring that it would take too long to come up with definitive guidelines as to what precisely constituted an organic fish, USDA declared that for the time being, any fish could be considered organic.

The outcry was immediate and took government officials by surprise. Where was the public consultation mandated by law, asked critics? Why was a government famously friendly to big business relaxing the regulations governing organic produce? And why introduce uncertainty into a market that was flourishing quite nicely without interference?

Unfortunately for Veneman, her timing was off. The changes were introduced days before the biannual meeting of the national organic standards board in Chicago. This body of private citizens, most with a specialism in the field, didn't like what it saw.

"All of the directives relaxed the standards, allowing things that would never be considered organic," Rebecca Goldburg, a board member, told the Los Angeles Times. "They were making the standards much less stringent, devaluing the standards to make them easier to meet."

The Consumers' Union led the protests, issuing press releases and petitioning the agriculture secretary. "These moves constitute a serious blow to the meaning of the organic label on food for consumers," it said.

But as the two sides drew up the battle plans, a surprising thing happened: the government withdrew the proposed changes, and Veneman asked her staff to work with the board to address its concerns.

"Weakening organic standards could severely damage consumer interest and confidence in the organic food label," says Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute, a progressive lobbying group. "This will be the test, in this election year, to see whether the Bush administration is going to be friendly to this organics segment of agriculture which has helped so many family-scale farms survive."

Certainly, the furore over just what the word "organic" means has not helped organic farmers. "Any kind of press like that is bad," says Wise. "Even for me it's confusing. Organic has to mean something. The certification helps dispel the cynicism. If it's watered down it loses that and becomes pretty much meaningless."

Citrus fruit has been grown on the site of Wise's 150-acre farm in the Santa Clara valley since 1906. The valley is something of an oddity: it has been under what he terms "biological control" since the 1930s. "Most people didn't spray their crops and it worked really well," he says. Wise started farming in 1983 and bought Sespe Creek farm in 1987, but didn't go organic until the following year.

"I was out spraying weeds all day and it's not the most pleasant thing in the world, so I started exploring alternatives. It was good for my health." Even in the late 1980s, organics was still a fringe activity, with little research and little help for farmers. "A lot of organic methods have been imported into conventional agriculture," Wise says, "but when I started, the conventional farmers were shaking their heads and saying it was just a bunch of hippies. Now some of them want to grow with me."

But even a committed organic farmer such as Wise sprays his crops, albeit with organic pesticides. "I don't like doing it," he admits. "But there are people around here who love farming and wouldn't pick up a pesticide if their lives depended on it. People in this area don't want to spend a lot of time spraying things."

In the middle of a bustling farmers' market in Santa Monica, Dennis Peitso of Maggie's Farm argues that the organic label has as many problems as advantages. "There's a move to get rid of the organic term altogether," he says, as he restocks boxes of greens with one hand and serves a stream of customers with the other. "There's talk of coming up with something like 'farmer-friendly', just because people can't afford the extra cost of going through the organic certification process."

For Peitso, who farms 12-15 acres producing all manner of exotic varieties of salad leaf and exquisite herbs with a staff of seven, the burden of producing the paperwork to get the organic stamp outweighs the benefits. "It costs one man-year of paperwork," he says. "It's a killer. We can barely keep afloat." The certifying agencies, he says, "are real tyrants, driving around in their Beamers telling people how to be organic."

But he is opposed to any relaxation of the standards for organic farming. "If that happened then everybody would call themselves organic and people just wouldn't trust it any more," he says.

Picking carefully through a tray of organic nectarines at a neighbouring stall, Colin, a Briton living in nearby Venice Beach, is dismissive of the efficacy of the organic label. "It was originally just an industry guideline," he says. "I prefer to go by my own instincts. I talk to the growers about their methods. You look them in the eyes and have a dialogue. I don't eat living beings, but I know that every one of the soft fruit sellers in this market uses slaughterhouse byprod-ucts in their fertiliser."

And he is not surprised that government agencies have tried to relax the organic guidelines. "Why would you expect any different?" he asks. "I'm always amazed at people's puzzlement. The government's going to lower standards? Surprise, surprise."

Now America's organic farmers are watching the Bush administration to see if it makes good its pledge to consider their views in drawing up new definitions of just what can and cannot be called organic. Many fear the worst, and suspect that the attempt to lower the threshold for organic goods is merely a prelude to a general relaxation of standards, paving the way for agribusiness to market itself as organic and sell its products in the farmers' markets that provide the lifeblood for so many small growers.

By Dan Glaister

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