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Organic: Celebrating the success, facing the challenge

Sound Consumer | September 2003

By Cameron Woodworth

As September is National Organic Harvest Month, we celebrate the first birthday of the National Organic Standards ... and prepare for the work ahead.

(September 2003) — These are exciting times for organic food fans. An amazing array of exciting new products are hitting the shelves. The organic market continues to explode, growing 24 percent per year over the past decade. And recent studies seem to confirm that organic foods are more healthful than their non-organic counterparts.

Organic food is becoming so popular that even corner convenience stores are getting into the act, selling organic snack foods. And McDonald's, which few people ever claimed as progressive in its food policies, has begun serving Newman's Own organic salad dressings.

Overall, sales of organic foods and beverages will tally $13.4 billion in 2003, according to MarketResearch.com. Thirty-nine percent of Americans use organic products. Globally, organic farming now is practiced in nearly 100 countries, totaling 57 million acres.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that certified organic agricultural land increased by an astonishing 74 percent between 1997 and 2001, making organic the fastest growing segment of American agriculture. Washington State is seeing a huge increase in organic interest. In 1997, according to figures from the Washington Department of Agriculture, the state's 300 organic farmers generated $12 million in sales on 12,000 acres of farmland. By last year, the figures had spiked to 567 organic growers producing $47 million in sales on 40,000 acres.

Washington State University will boast the nation's first organic degree beginning with students entering in the fall of 2004, largely due to the key role of outgoing Dean Jim Zuiches and Bonnie Rice at the Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network.

The organic movement is trying to increase its clout in national politics as well. In the U.S. House of Representatives, legislators have formed the Congressional Organic Agriculture Caucus, consisting of 16 Democrats, five Republicans and one Independent. Washington Congressman Jay Inslee is part of the Organic Caucus.

"The formation of this caucus is a major step towards getting organic farmers their fair share of federal agricultural resources," says Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation. "Organic farmers and their supporters should call their representatives and ask them to join the caucus. When it comes to Capitol Hill, there is strength in numbers."

Initial studies show organic food more healthful
So far, not many studies have been conducted on the healthfulness of organic foods. But the studies that have been completed so far appear to confirm that organic food is more nutritious.

Nutritionist and former Johns Hopkins University student Virginia Worthington has reviewed 41 scientific studies from around the world that compare the nutritional value of organic and conventionally grown foods. In a report appearing in the April 2001 issue of The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Worthington says that organic crops boast significantly higher nutrients, and fewer toxic substances.

"In the more than 300 comparisons performed in these studies," Worthington writes, "organic crops had a higher nutritional content about 40 percent of the time, and conventional crops had a higher nutritional content only 15 percent of the time. Overall, organic crops had an equal or higher nutrient content about 85 percent of the time. These results suggest that, on average, organic crops have a higher nutrient content."

Worthington found that organic crops on average boast 29 percent more magnesium, 27 percent more vitamin C, 21 percent more iron, 14 percent more phosphorous, 26 percent more calcium, 11 percent more copper, 42 percent more manganese and nine percent more potassium. "This is a first step because usually in science, research must be replicated," says Worthington. "But on average, if you eat organic instead of conventional, you will get more nutrients."

This year, researchers at the University of California, Davis found that organic fruits and vegetables such as corn, marionberries and strawberries contain far more natural plant polyphenols than their conventional counterparts. Polyphenols — in addition to helping the produce ward off pests and resist bacterial and fungal infections — act as antioxidants, warding off cancer and heart disease, and slowing down aging.

The UC Davis study was published in a February issue of the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry.

The Organic Trade Association is developing a Center for Organic Education and Promotion that will finance nutritional research of organic foods. Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the OTA, told the New York Times "We want to take the knowledge to the next level until there is a solid body of research that we can stand behind. There needs to be more rigor."

GMOs loom as threat to organic agriculture
Despite the organic market's recent glowing success, there are some troubling threats looming on the horizon. Goldie Caughlan, PCC nutrition education mManager and consumer representative on the National Organic Standards Board, says, "Genetically altered crops are the single biggest threat to the integrity of certified organic crops."

"You cannot build a wall high enough to keep GMOs out of the environment," says Arran Stephens, president of Nature's Path Foods. He notes that wind carries pollen for miles, contaminating neighboring fields.

Genetically modified crops were first introduced on a widespread basis in the mid-1990s. Today, two-thirds of products on supermarket shelves contain genetically engineered ingredients. Millions of acres of genetically mutated corn, soybean and other crops have been planted across the United States, often in close proximity to organic crops. Many organic farmers are complaining that their crops are being contaminated by genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from nearby fields.

Caughlan notes that growers aren't required to notify their neighbors that they are planting modified crops. "Only certified organic requires segregation and monitors and verifies it," she says. "Non-organic, non-GMO seed suppliers now frequently have to hire laboratories to conduct expensive gene-testing so their ingredients can be certified as GMO-free."

Michael Meacher, who recently resigned as Britain's environment minister, toured Canada in July. He argues that GMOs and organic foods can't co-exist. British officials are debating whether to allow farmers to grow genetically engineered crops, in the face of strong public opposition.

"The buzz word in Britain is that we can have "co-existence" between the GM sector and the organic or conventional sector," Meacher told the BBC. "What Canada shows, who have been trying to do this for the last seven years, is that it is absolutely impossible. You have to make a choice and the choice frankly is: are we going to go for GM, for which there is no market and no one wants to buy, at the expense of organic, which people do want to buy and for which there is a tremendous market. You cannot have both."

Organic farmers have gained important allies in the fight against one genetically engineered crop: wheat. Monsanto, the world's largest biotech company, has signaled that it intends to bring modified wheat to market by 2005. But farmers throughout the United States and Canada are objecting to the commercialization of GM wheat, arguing that wheat exports will plummet because major wheat-importing countries such as Japan will refuse to import any wheat from North America.

In fact, the Canadian Wheat Board — that country's largest group of wheat farmers — has said it may sue Monsanto to prevent the company from bringing GM wheat to market.

In the United States, it is unlikely that the transgenic genie will ever be put back in the bottle altogether. But there are steps that can be taken to minimize the potential damage to organically grown food.

A plan to preserve organic
New legislation to require the labeling of genetically engineered foods (see sidebar) would help consumers choose whether to purchase modified foods. Environmental groups are calling for a moratorium on so-called "pharmacrops" — crops such as corn that are engineered to produce pharmaceutical drugs or industrial agents — because these pharmacrops would inevitably contaminate organic and conventional crops. Organic activists are also calling on the U.S. government to reject genetically modified wheat.

In the end, the continued growth and success of the organic market depends on the awareness and activism of its consumers. If organic shoppers and suppliers speak out against the genetically engineered food threat in a unified voice, our representatives in Washington, D.C. will be forced to pass laws to ensure the integrity of organic foods.

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