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Organic Standards

by Ann Cleary


It is interesting to note that Argentina will host the next IFOAM conference.

On September 26, I was not surprised to see an article in The Manitoba Co-operator headed "Argentina wants to be the world’s organic grower". Readers of farm magazines, the newspapers of the produce industry and even the releases of government agricultural departments cannot help but feel that the organic movement is gaining more influence and that consumer demand for organics is increasing. (I find the word organics depressing. Although used originally to denote the opposite of artificials - as fertilizers and synthetics were known - lack of labeling of artificials has allowed their true meaning to lapse.)

Argentina has plenty of suitable land available and has not apparently been a heavy user of "artificials" in the past. Feeling that the demand is there worldwide but is at present under-supplied, Argentina plans to go all out to capture the organic market, using the IFOAM Conference to boost sales. In Argentina, sales of organic products are not very big and, in fact, fertilizer and chemical sales have increased so they are not looking for a national market. They talk of increasing sales by 28%!

It was also interesting to see in The Packer (Oct. 14/96) that Mycogen Corporation, an agricultural biotechnology company, has acquired Morgan Seeds, the second largest seed company in Argentina. Morgan has annual seed sales of $25 million and is to be combined with Agrigenetics, a subsidiary of Mycogen whose annual sales are less than $10 million. Morgan was acquired by Mycogen for a reputed $24.9 million and an added debt of $2.5 million owed by Morgan. One can only hope that the proposed increases in organic farmers in Argentina will find plentiful sources of organically grown seeds.

The IFOAM Conference in Copenhagen attracted over one thousand participants from 92 countries. The first World Organics Exhibition was held with over 300 exhibitors, attracting over 25,000 visitors. Some 400 papers, posters and workshops made the conference a lively one and perhaps raised the hopes of all concerned that organics is getting out of its niche and into the mainstream. Sweden is two years away from having 10% of its agricultural production organic; Denmark is four years away but projects 15-20% thereafter.

In the U.S., some food has been grown organically but the proliferation of certifying public and private bodies made it necessary to seek an overall national standard first promulgated by Congress in 1989; the Organic Food Production Act (OFPA) was passed in 1990 (part of the Food Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act). This act mandated the Secretary of Agriculture to establish an organic certification program for producers and handlers using organic methods, the responsibility being given to USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. Six years later, the organic certification program is not yet in place but is supposed to be finalized in January, 1997.

The International Codex Alimentarius Guidelines for organic production have not reached the final stage yet. Canada has not yet completed national standards. One problem is the large number of certifying agencies in Canada. The Ontario Farmer recently quoted 43 agencies in all, although there is a move afoot for amalgamation of some of them. However, it may well be that the national standards in the U.S. and Canada are lower than those of most of our certifying agencies, and more than likely that the legal jargon will prevent agencies with standards higher than the national ones from promoting that fact.

There are two thorny issues. One is the transition period from conventional to organic agriculture, usually at least three years, but now it has been suggested in some quarters that one year might be enough. There is also the question of genetically modified seeds, which the certifiers and IFOAM do not allow. Unless labeling of modified seeds is mandatory, it will be difficult for organic growers to know the difference and there may not even be enough organically grown seed (or other propagation means) to meet the demands of organic growers.

Lately an idea has been floated round that "well-managed" conventional farms are just as sound ecologically and that by practising well-monitored IPM programs, they might easily be designated as "organic"!

With all the wrangling and jangling that has been going on for far too many years, complex as the matter is, there is always one thing left out of the discussion of organic agriculture, and that is the holistic outlook of most of its practitioners. I know many organic milk producers who get no credit for their milk because it goes into bulk tanks, but they do it for the satisfaction of knowing they are doing the right thing. Those of us who have seen years of spraying on local farms cannot believe that a one-year transition period would be enough. There are hundreds of devoted organic producers who will continue meticulous methods to preserve the soul and soil of the planet, however lax the national standards may become.

Small is beautiful and so is slow. Nature took millennia to create the abundance we have; don’t let’s destroy it in the next millennium.



Copyright 1997. Ann Cleary.

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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