Testimony to the US Senate Agriculture Committee on the Organic Rule 1997

My name is Roger Blobaum and most of my work on organic food and farming has been as a consultant to public interest organizations and institutions.

This process has dragged on a long time. In 1990 the Senate Agriculture Committee was presented with petitions containing 136,000 names of people asking for national organic standards. Most of the signatures were gathered at food co-ops and health food stores.

More than 25 consumer, environmental, and other national public interest organizations joined hands with organic farmers to help shape the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act and push it through Congress despite an all-out USDA campaign to kill it. This attack, plus House Agriculture Committee opposition, helped mobilize public support needed to deliver a stunning defeat to USDA and the agriculture committee in the 234 to 187 House vote on organic standards.

USDA’s opposition led public interest organizations to seek safeguards to keep the agency from lowering standards by adding inputs inconsistent with organic principles to the national list of approved substances.  Congress responded by establishing a National Organic Standards Board empowered to have the final say on the national list and to represent the public in the rulemaking process. Ten of the 15 positions on the board were reserved for organic farmers and representatives of consumer, environmental, and other public interest organizations.

The organic community worked closely with the NOSB for nearly five years and supports its recommendations. It’s easy to see why we felt betrayed when we found out in December that USDA had trivialized the NOSB’s role, challenged its national list authority, and thrown out most of its recommendations.

The Organic Watch analysis of 93,000 of the first 114,000 comments received by USDA shows the public has overwhelmingly rejected the proposed rule. It shows, for example, that more than 75,000 support the NOSB recommendations and only 37 are opposed.   And that more than 83,000 oppose the use of genetically modified organisms in organic production and that only 18 approve. This is by far the worst beating any federal agency has ever taken on a proposed rule.

Although USDA has lost credibility with this failed attempt, the organic community is prepared to give it another chance to get it right. That means rescinding the destructive and legally flawed proposed rule and resubmitting a new one for public comment. It means initiating an open public process with full NOSB participation. It means no more collusion with special interests. And it means proposing a new rule that is consistent with the Organic Foods Production Act, recommendations of the NOSB, and traditional organic principles.

Millions of Americans will rise up again if another bad rule is proposed. I believe they will punish Congress and the Clinton Administration politically if that happens. And I believe they also will do whatever is necessary to repeal USDA’s standard-setting authority and restore to the public and the organic community the right to define organic and guarantee its integrity.

It is often said about threats to the environment that Nature always bats last. In regard to this threat to organic food and farming, I believe this massive rejection of a bad rule make it clear that in the end it will be consumers, and not politicians and bureaucrats, who will bat last and win this struggle.