Friday, July 03, 2009

Debating the organic rule

The most astonishing passage in the Washington Post's fascinating and detailed article about organic standards today comes from Joe Smillie, a member of the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) and an executive at Quality Assurance International (QAI), a leading organics certifier.

Smillie explains why advocates for a strict interpretation of the organic rule are unrealistic:
"People are really hung up on regulations," said Smillie, who is also vice president of the certifying firm Quality Assurance International, which is involved in certifying 65 percent of organic products found on supermarket shelves. "I say, 'Let's find a way to bend that one, because it's not important.' . . . What are we selling? Are we selling health food? No. Consumers, they expect organic food to be growing in a greenhouse on Pluto. Hello? We live in a polluted world. It isn't pure. We are doing the best we can."


Anastasia said...

I'd like to see some sort of scale. Perhaps "pure organic" can be "O-10" and a less pure can be ranked according to specific practices. For example, a significant reduction in pesticides might rate a 3. I bet a collaboration of various stakeholders could come up with a good sliding scale that consumers could access and use to determine what level of organic (or whatever this might be calle) was acceptable to them personally.

I think the comment about Pluto was flippant, but I do think that sustainable farming is not black and white.

The Almond Doctor said...
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The Almond Doctor said...

Could this be the beginning of the idea that maybe "Organic" is not the best way to produce food?

Mr. Smillie does bring up some good points on organic regulations:
Nitrogen can be subsidized with Chilean Nitrate, a mineral that is shipped from Chile and used for a nitrogen source.

Manure applications have led to increased rates of salt accumulation in soils (Se, Ni, Na, etc), and contamination of aquifers with nitrate-nitrogen.

Integrated pest management approaches involve scouting, minimal sprays, and usage of "softer" environmentally safer chemistries than some organic pesticides.

Newer "softer" chemistries are based on bio-mimicry, and tend to be safer, more easily broken down in the environment, more potent (thus less dosage), easier to produce, and more targeted to the pest than organic pesticides. I cite the use of strobilurins v/s copper sulfate for fungicides, and spinetoram v/s spinosad for moth control.

I know a grower who was certified organic and lost his accreditation due to the use of water based latex paint for marking his trees. The paint was applied to the trunk of the tree, not the crop.

I agree with Smillie in the point to bend the rules, but once the precedence is set, there is no going back.

OrganicTrade said...

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) and its members are organic advocates. We believe in, support, and advocate for the integrity of the organic label and strict enforcement of federal organic standards because this is fundamental to living up to the contract with consumers who choose or who are considering choosing organic products.

The industry and OTA have long pushed for national organic regulations that consumers can rely on. As a result, organic agriculture and products remain the most strictly regulated, as well as the fastest growing, food system in the United States today.

Matt DiLeo said...

Not only is sustainability not black and white, but our knowledge of the relative environmental impacts of different agronomic practices is limited - especially when you include more amorphous threats like global climate change.

Regulatory bodies need to begin adopting flexible, routinely updated sustainability certifications that don't resort to silly rules of thumbs such as eliminating "synthetic" chemicals.

Organic regs, as they exist today, are a step backwards, albeit a well-meaning one.