"By the end of the comment
period, the number of comments was increasing exponentially. I've never seen anything like it."
by Jenny Coyle
To many of us it's obvious: Food that is genetically engineered, irradiated, or grown in soil fertilized with toxic sludge is not "organic."
But it wasn't so obvious to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose proposed organic standards released in December 1997 would have labeled these very methods as "organic."
But four months and more than 200,000 public comments later, USDA Secretary Dan Glickman announced that the proposal will be rewritten and reissued for another round of public review - this time excluding "the big three" offensive practices.
Club volunteers say a well-organized coalition led by organic farming groups used the Internet and other resources to bombard the USDA with objections to the new rules.
"Club members testified at hearings in Texas, Washington, New Jersey and Iowa, and we had letter-writing parties in New Mexico, California, Ohio and New York City," said Debbie Neustadt, a member of the Club's Agricultural Committee.
Lone Star Chapter activist Neil Carman worked with the Texas Organic Growers Association to hold a press conference in front of a health-food restaurant the day before the hearing in Austin. A Greenpeace activist dressed as a "fishberry" - a fictional, genetically engineered cross between a fish and a strawberry - made the television and newspaper coverage of the event.
"The Organic Farmers Marketing Association posted an electronic comment sheet, and people working on this issue sent it by snail mail or e-mail to everyone we knew," said Carman. "By the end of the comment period, the number of comments was increasing exponentially. I've never seen anything like it."
Diane Bowen, a former Club chapter leader who is now executive director of California Certified Organic Farmers, said, "Having a big environmental organization on board added clout to our coalition. The USDA was subjected to congressional letters signed by 31 senators and 48 representatives urging the agency to rewrite the rules, and I'm sure that many of those lawmakers were inclined to sign on when they saw the Sierra Club among the organizations that objected to the rules."
But all is not rosy down on the farm: The new proposal is far from perfect.
"Those big issues served to heighten the public outrage factor, but they also diverted attention away from the other serious problems with the proposal," said Terry Shistar, a member of the Club's Community Health Committee.
For instance, the standards should require organic livestock to have organic feed, limit the use of antibiotics, and prohibit factory farming. Also, said Bowen, "There are loopholes that would allow for the application of substances now prohibited in organic farming, and for practices we've never considered organic."
When the USDA reissues the proposed standards - possibly by the the end of the year - activists should be prepared to bounce back into the fray.
In the meantime, Neustadt suggests creating a demand for mainstream stores to carry organic food. "If I can get my store in a blue-collar section of Des Moines, Iowa, to carry it, anyone can," she said.
For more information: Contact Debbie Neustadt at (515) 265-2018 or firstname.lastname@example.org
To read the text of the proposed rule and comments by the public, check out
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