“Representatives of consumer organizations have just as much right to influence policy as agricultural scientists. The policymaking process, in fact, is enriched by our involvement.” –Excerpt R. Blobaum
By Roger Blobaum, National Director of Americans for Safe Food, Center for Science in the Public Interest
During a recent session with a national livestock research committee, I was challenged by a dairy scientist who seemed a little sensitive about my comments about drug residues in milk. “What are you gadflies going to do to keep your organizations going,” he demanded, “if we solve all the problems you are complaining about?”
“My participation in decision-making in the food system is just as legitimate as yours,” I replied. “Representatives of consumer organizations have just as much right to influence policy as agricultural scientists. The policymaking process, in fact, is enriched by our involvement.”
The idea that consumer, environmental, and other non-farm organizations should stay on the sidelines, offering unwelcome suggestions while “industry” representatives make the decisions, is a relic of the past. As a recent National Council of State Legislatures report concluded, “Agriculture is no longer the dominant interest group influencing farm policy . . . (it) now must compete with more powerful constituencies of consumers, environmentalists, urban interests, and others over what traditionally has been agricultural policymaking.”
Agriculture’s organic sector, by contrast, has been ahead of its time in cementing a mutually beneficial relationship with consumer, environmental, and other farm groups. The strength of this relationship was demonstrated during enactment of national organic standards legislation. A coalition of consumer and other organizations joined grower and industry representatives in pushing this legislation through. In educating members of Congress and heading off USDA attempts to scuttle the legislation, representatives of these non-farm groups developed an understanding of organic food and farming issues.
Coalition members helped dispel the impression that organic food is residue-free, that synthetic and toxic inputs are never used, and that food safety and nutrition claims are fully documented. They became familiar with audit trails, permitted and prohibited inputs, certification, and the difference between a content claim and a production claim.
This effort was viewed by coalition members as an opportunity to develop a relationship built on trust and mutual interest with organic growers and the organic food industry. Congress acknowledged this unusual relationship in legislating a representative standards board, rather than an industry-based standards board, to move the standard-setting process forward.
The process written into law underscores Congressional concern that USDA and industry forces might undermine its intent and develop watered-down standards. The normal process is for an agency to work closely with industry in writing rules and to delay consideration of consumer concerns until the comment period. This forces anyone who disagrees into the nearly impossible position of trying to overturn proposed regulations. Here, in contrast, Congress gave the National Organic Standards Board, a broadly representative entity, the leading role in establishing standards and writing the rules.
There has been some concern that some in the organic food industry might try to short-circuit this process. This concern may reappear as multinational food companies that consumers often fight with over additives and labels enter the organic food marketplace. We want them in so organic food becomes much more available. But we also are uneasy because companies with significant marketplace clout usually have political clout as well.
Coalition members maintain a warm relationship with grower groups. But this, too, could change as large corporate growers begin organic production.
It is important now to renew our commitment to this unusual relationship and keep communications open between all of us involved in the standard-setting process. The bottom line is that a participatory approach is the only way to ensure the integrity of this process. I would strongly suggest it is impossible to have one without the other.
From 1989 to 1992, Mr. Roger Blobabum was the national director of Americans for Safe Food, a project of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (a 230,000-member health and nutrition advocacy organization.) His work included organizing annual national organic/sustainable agricultural conferences in Washington, organic and sustainable agricultural initiatives in 12 states, and helping shape the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act and push it thorough Congress.