Fighting for sustainability | PCC Natural Markets

Insights by Goldie
Fighting for sustainability

Sound Consumer | April 2004

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

In honor of Earth Day, I'd like to share some of the positive developments in our local and regional efforts to support and promote organic and sustainable agriculture. And, of course, point out some continuing concerns (read: opportunities) for improvement.

In February we learned the U.S. Congress appropriated $225,000 to support and expand organic research at Washington State University in fiscal year 2004. This will support organic and sustainable farming research in Washington state. The surprise in this funding is that it is $100,000 more than had been hoped for or expected! Clearly, that doesn't happen often. I know you made a difference. How? Let me explain.

The Network works
Long-time readers of the Sound Consumer may recall that, over the years, we've pointed out the excellent educational and organizing efforts of the Washington Sustainable Food & Farming Network (WSFFN). Known as "the Network," it's the only broad-based, member-supported, statewide advocacy organization for sustainable and organic agriculture in Washington — in fact, in the entire western region. That's precisely why we at PCC have worked closely with WSFFN over the years.

The Network has worked hard to secure adequate funding for organic research, and, from time to time, PCC has informed you of the need to write to WSU to support organic research. We've also let you know of the need to contact key members of Congress to build funding support.

Local politicians and folks at WSU have told us that many of you acted and that your support had an impact. You wrote many letters and made phone calls. You made a difference. Thank you!

We also all owe thanks to Sen. Patty Murray, who has continued to press for full support for organic and sustainable farming research in this state. Let her know that you recognize her support.

WSU organic research
Organic research at WSU is administered through the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, which oversees the Biological Intensive Agriculture program. The federal funding will help further research in organic seed production, weed management, tree fruit and dry land wheat production, cover cropping and more. The new level of funding will also greatly assist the CSANR in developing a comprehensive educational program.

Washington State's organic industry has grown steadily for decades. The number of organic farms in Washington doubled from 1995 to more than 500 today with 33,000 acres certified organic or "in transition" status. The value of this state's organic food industry topped $200 million in 2002, and the demand keeps growing, both for domestic consumption and export.

Still, there are great opportunities for organic growth in many sectors, but none more so than in commodity grains such as wheat.

For instance, Washington is the largest producer of soft white wheat in the nation, and does produce some certified organic. But none is currently transitioning to organic. At an organic grains production workshop in Spokane in January, many Pacific Northwest wheat buyers confirmed they are sourcing soft white organic wheat from the Midwest. That's money that should be flowing to organic family farms in this state, providing jobs and supporting Eastern Washington's rural economy. We hope this will change, especially as the economic importance of supporting organic wheat research and production methods becomes more and more evident.

Genetic Engineering at WSU
Nevertheless, WSU is actively pursuing the development and release of various strains of genetically engineered wheat. This could begin next year. It's a major part of WSU's vision to position the university as a world leader in biotechnology. In fact, WSU already has received more than $1 million from the cash-strapped state legislature toward a major facility that's expected to cost $64 million. WSU also already has commenced readying the Pullman campus site for construction.

At a recent Network meeting, we discussed these issues at some length with Dr. James Cook, interim dean of WSU's (recently re-named) College of Agriculture, Human and Natural Resource Sciences. Dr. Cook elaborated on a vision where the future economic success of agriculture is based on what is called "bio-pharming." It means major resources will go toward research and development of genetically engineered seeds, especially corn and barley, with transgenic DNA that will make the plants produce pharmaceutical and industrial substances rather than food.

We pointed out to Dr. Cook that groups as mainstream as the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the Food Processors Association, and numerous consumer groups and scientists, including the venerable Union of Concerned Scientists ( have expressed major concerns about this. These groups all agree that common food crops should not be engineered to carry pharmaceutical or industrial traits. The likelihood of cross-pollination in the field and co-mingling in storage or transportation is extremely high.

Dr. Cook's perspective (prevalent in many quarters) is that working with the most commonly domesticated crops gives a greater likelihood of quicker results. He says barley is a likely candidate for bio-pharming.

We — all of us — should celebrate our advances, but we still have much work to do. You can be sure we will continue to work on these issues and we hope you'll continue to care and support organic and sustainable agriculture. We believe it is the only viable future.