Insights by Goldie
Save organic standards

Sound Consumer | April 2003

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

Friends, it is urgent that we act immediately — and tell others! Write letters, make phone calls and send emails. We must persuade national legislators to support two very important bills to save the integrity of the National Organic Standards. They are the Leahy-Snowe Organic Restoration Act, S.457 in the U.S. Senate; and its companion, the Farr-Kind Bill, HR.955 in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Passage of both bills is critical to the future of organic standards. Consumers especially must not lose confidence in the hard-won, high-quality organic standards that became national standards just last October 2002.

The Organic Consumers Association puts it right on the line: "It is critical that the calls and emails continue to pour in to assure the passage of these bills in a sweeping fashion to show the industrial agricultural sector that they cannot manipulate the National Organic Standards for their benefit and let these Standards become meaningless." We agree!

In March I reported on the outrageous stealth attack made by an opportunistic Georgia chicken grower's friends in Congress. An outrageous loophole "rider" clause was sneaked right past the awareness of most members of Congress at the eleventh hour behind closed doors. The tiny rider, hidden in a 3,000-page joint House-Senate appropriations bill, became law when President Bush signed the bill in February.

The USDA National Organic Standards themselves have not changed; they mandate that only 100 percent organic feed may be used to produce USDA Certified Organic meat, dairy and eggs. There are no exceptions in the standards allowing non-organic feed for the animals. The loophole exemption, however, lets a producer off the hook any time it claims organic feed would be double the cost of conventional.

The loophole specifically prohibits USDA from enforcing the standards, requiring 100 percent organic feed for livestock. Any opportunistic and unscrupulous producer is thus able now to make a mockery of the standards, yet continue to label its product "USDA Certified Organic!" Both Senators Cantwell and Murray have signed on to support the repeal of this loophole exemption via the Leahy-Snowe Bill, S. 457, which at press time had 63 co-sponsors — a majority. In the House, only Washington Representatives McDermott, Baird, Larson and Nethercutt have thus far signed on in support of the Farr-Kind Bill, HR. 955.

The other five members need to hear from us! PCC has written to all Washington legislators and USDA. You may read our USDA letter online at PCC's Letter to USDA. Or from our homepage, click on the USDA Organic logo and scroll down to "PCC's letter to USDA." Posted letters and faxed letters have the greatest impact, but phone calls and emails are fast and can help, too. If you telephone, call both the D.C. office and home state office of a representative.

If you don't know your epresentative's name and need an address and number, see the sidebar (right), or use the Organic Trade Association's Web site (www.ota.com) and follow directions to contact non-supporters. You can click to see all sponsors and, also, all non-sponsors. Then you can go right down the line, sending emails with a "click" — choosing either printed letters provided or using your own words. However you do it, please just DO IT!

To counter the current feeling that there is only bad news (on the organic front or internationally), I do think it is time for some Good News stories, so try these.

Good news story #1
In the February 26 edition of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Chemical Society (the world's largest scientific society), there was some particularly exciting and intriguing news. Research has now shown objectively what many organic farmers have privately postulated in the past. That is, that organically and sustainably grown vegetables and fruits contain significantly higher levels of cancer-fighting antioxidants than do their conventionally grown counterparts!

Flavonoid content was compared for each of three types of crops: corn, strawberries and marionberries. Flavonoids are various phenolic compounds that are known to have particularly potent antioxidant activity.

They are generally produced in growing plants as a natural response (defensively) to stressors in their environment. Such "stressors" would include nibbling critters as well as general competition from other plants (like weeds) in the environment.

The lead researcher, Dr. Alyson Mitchell, Ph.D Food Scientist at University of California, at Davis, explained, "If an aphid is nibbling on a leaf, the plant produces phenolics to defend itself." She explained that the phenolics are "somewhat bitter or harsh [tasting]" substances "that guard the plant against these pests."

The interesting "mother-nature-knows-best" aspect seems to be that the plant decreases production of these naturally bitter-tasting safeguards when grown in conventional (chemical-based) agriculture — apparently because pesticides kill off the marauders, both insects or weeds. Dr. Davis summed it up: "By synthetically protecting the produce from theses pests, we decrease their need to produce antioxidants. It suggests that maybe we are doing something to our food inadvertently."

Specifically, the study showed organically and sustainably grown marionberries had some 50 percent more antioxidants, sustainably grown corn had 58.5 percent higher quantities, and strawberries some 29 percent more antioxidants when each was compared to its conventional counterpart.

Good news story #2
As the grandmother of five (three are younger than 5 years old and the other two are teenagers — all having eaten "mostly organic" since birth), I am especially interested in the findings of another recent study, just published in the March issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, Volume 111, Number 3. Both urban- and suburban-dwelling preschoolers' diets were analyzed and classified as either "organic" or "conventional" based primarily on their parents' reports in food diaries. Residential pesticide use of each household also was recorded and taken into appropriate account in the study.

The researchers then analyzed urine samples of the children to see if any significant differences would be found in levels of organophosphate pesticide (OP) exposure. Understand that OP pesticides, widely used for many years in conventional agriculture as well as in conventional home and public horticultural use, are among the most toxic pesticides, especially for exposure to children. The research did show a significant difference in OP exposure between the two groups of children — "organic" and "conventional."

The abstract (summary) of the findings concluded, "The dose estimates suggest that the consumption of organic fruits, vegetables and juice can reduce children's exposure levels from above to below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's current guidelines — thereby shifting exposures from a range of uncertain risk to a range of negligible risk. Consumption of organic produce appears to provide a relatively simple way for parents to reduce their children's exposure to organophosphorus pesticides."

The study was supported primarily by the EPA, along with other agencies. The research took place in Seattle — in fact, many of those children were "organically grown" on food from PCC Natural Markets. The study involved several PCC shoppers and members!

Look for a cover story on this study in an upcoming issue of Sound Consumer.

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