Published on Wednesday, March 8, 2000 in the Arizona Daily Star
Organic Food Advocates: New Rules A 'Step In The Right Direction'
by Carla McClain

To almost everyone's surprise, the federal government has set tough new standards for growing organic food - in a move to help people get the clean, chemical-free, natural food they pay for.

Those who grow, sell and buy organic food in Tucson are strongly applauding the government's action.

They describe Tucson as a longtime major market for organic food - a city that demanded it long before it became trendy in the rest of the country.

``There may be some devil in the details, but we're all for what the government seems to be doing on this,'' said Doug Udell, office manager for the Food Conspiracy Co-op, a North Fourth Avenue market that has long specialized in organic produce.

``This is a pleasant surprise,'' said Udell, who called it ``all we've been fighting for.''

``Organic food is a market that's been increasing for years - it's going up by double digits every year. I think by and large it's a plus for both the sellers and the consumers of organic food.''

With sales of organic food now jumping about 20 percent a year, Americans spend well over $6 billion a year on food they believe is grown with natural, toxic-free methods - up from about $1 billion a year in 1990, when Congress first called for organic farming standards.

But it is is perhaps relief more than applause that is greeting the federal government's unexpected action to strongly regulate the industry with uniform standards and rules for the first time.

In an almost total about-face, the U.S. Department of Agriculture - which issued the new rules yesterday - has decided to forbid genetically engineered crops, irradiation, or the use of industrial sludge as fertilizer in organic farming.

Just three years ago, the USDA proposed allowing all three highly controversial methods to be used by so-called ``organic'' farmers. That prompted a huge outcry from organic growers, sellers and consumers, and more than 275,000 written comments from the public - almost all of them protesting such proposals.

``It's great - terrific - that the government had a change of heart on those issues,'' said Dr. Andrew Weil, internationally known physician-author who has been pushing this country's medical system to combine mainstream and alternative therapies.

``The hazard is longtime exposure to multiple toxic agents that are used on conventionally produced food. I have no doubt this poses a real risk to our health over time,'' he said.

Weil, who grows organic produce with water from his own well at his Rincon foothills home, strongly advocates eating organic foods whenever possible for human health.

The new federal standards are intended to replace the hodgepodge of state and private rules that now govern the organic food industry. Some states - notably California and Oregon - have strict regulations and certification systems, while others have virtually none.

Arizona requires certification of organic farming methods but leaves the certification up to private agencies. And those agencies can vary widely in their effectiveness, organic farmers say.

``It can be a farce,'' said Francine Pierce, who owns Harlekin Gardens near Arivaca and supplies organic produce to two Tucson-area organic markets.

``I paid $1,200 to be certified, and they came out, spent 15 minutes, said it looks real nice and sent me a stamp in the mail. That doesn't certify a thing. Maybe this federal ruling will clean that up.''

It does concern Pierce that the federal government plans to leave it to the already-existing state and private certifying agencies to enforce the new standards.

``I'm not ready to say this is a good thing until we see how it works out,'' she said.

The new federal rules also prohibit the use of any antibiotics in organically raised animals, and require the use of 100 percent organic feed and outdoor access for animals.

To earn the ``USDA Certified Organic'' seal on the front of packaging, the food product must be grown and manufactured without added hormones, pesticides or synthetic fertilizers.

The new rules are expected to go into effect late this year - after a 90-day period for public comment.

But the statement by Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman that the new federal standards will be the ``most comprehensive, strictest organic rules in the world'' triggers some skepticism in Tucson's largest organic foods marketer.

``We were hoping for rules that would be at least as stringent as what is required to get the certified organic label now,'' said Harry Day, vice president of Wild Oats, which owns three (formerly Reay's Ranch Market) stores in Tucson, and more than 100 nationwide.

There are concerns, for example, that the USDA has no requirement for how long soil has to be free of all chemicals and pollutants before it can be used to grow organic crops. Most private certifiers require that soil be toxin-free for at least three years before it can be used for organic farming.

``But there is no doubt the federal rules are a step in the right direction,'' Day said. ``We urged all our customers to lobby the government hard on this, and it looks like they listened to them. Let's just hope they've gone far enough.''

Copyright 2000 Arizona Daily Star