ad info
In-Depth Specials - Organic Foods
Message Board
Organic Farming Organizations
Organic Restaurants
Consumers Advocates
Related Stories

USDA's organic standards raise questions

(CNN) -- Even those who support the idea of national standards governing organic produce and livestock see potential problems that only time and continued effort will solve.

"It will be very interesting," said Brian Leahy, executive director of California Certified Organic Farmers, a 27-year-old membership organization that certifies organic farmers across the country. "We don't know what's going to happen."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture "has gathered a really strong crew of knowledgeable individuals, and they wrote a really good set of standards," Leahy continued. But his group worries about possible conflicts of interest between some certifiers and farmers.

"A lot of processes are not certified by a third party agent yet," he said. "The larger farms are, but a lot of the smaller farms aren't."


And while the market for organic goods is growing, it is still a small portion of total U.S. food production.

'A good niche market'

Organic "is a good niche market," countered Dean Boyer, director of public relations for the Washington State Farm Bureau. "But people have got to realize that organic farming is not going to feed the world. To do that organically, millions of acres of forest would need to be cleared."

Joe Fink, corporate purchasing manager for a major California grower, said the point could probably be argued either way.

"Everything used to be organic," he said. "What's driven it the other way what people will buy. We have just gotten used to perfect produce."

Organic "has a tough time producing perfect produce," continued Fink, whose company, Tanimura and Antle of Salinas, California, runs both organic and conventional farms. "The question is, at what scale can you do that?"

What drives the market is as simple as supply and demand. And more and more, organic supporters say, the market is demanding organic.

"The need for these standards rose out of the exponential growth of organic agriculture," U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman said. "It is a sector that is here to stay -- growing from $78 million in 1980 to about $6 billion today, with continuing growth of 20 percent a year."

Consumers have shown themselves willing to pay a higher price for organically grown produce and livestock as well, noted Fink.

"People are trading off the perfect pieces of produce for (another form)," he said. "How far that's going to go -- that's a good question."

While Tanimura and Antle's organic business has grown, it still represents just 10 or 15 percent of the company's total output, Fink said.

In the long term, it will be up to the National Organic Safety Board to be a watchdog over the rules, warned Leahy.

Others also will be keeping an eye on the USDA.

"USDA oversight of the certifying agents needs to be clearly stated," said Cynthia Cory, marketing and labor policy director for the California Farm Bureau Federation, also calling for mechanisms "to sanction or remove parties that do not meet the set requirements."

Such mechanisms are in place within the rule, said Keith Jones, manager of the USDA's national organic program.