Albion Monitor /News

Debate Over What Qualifies as "Organic" Food

by Stephen Dale

Will the word 'organic' go the same way as 'pure,' 'light' and 'low-fat?'

(IPS) OTTAWA -- Organic food producers are in danger of losing their credibility because of a glut of goods that improperly use the "organic" label, experts say.

And a loss of credibility, they add, would damage the burgeoning global market for organic food, which is widely promoted for the potential it holds for Third World farmers.

The warning came as the U.N. agency which sets international standards for food production and labelling -- the Codex Alimentarus Commission -- met in Ottawa last week to decide how processed foods would qualify to be certified as organic.

"My concern is that the word will become prostituted by being used in an inappropriate way," said Jon Grant of the International Development Research Center (IDRC), speaking at a conference his organization held to coincide with the Codex meetings.

Because there is vast public concern with food safety and the effect of agricultural chemicals on the environment, stringent regulation is needed on the use of the organic label, Grant argued.

Consumers, he said, must be able to have confidence that the more costly organic products are helping the environment.

"The question is 'who's kidding whom?' The words 'pure', 'light' and 'low-fat' mean nothing to consumers because they have been compromised," Grant contended. "My fear is that the word 'organic' will go the same way."

The United States and Canada are pushing for lower standards on 'organic' labelling

Grant's comments came in response to a disagreement at the Codex meeting over what percentage of a processed food's ingredients should be organic for the finished product to qualify for the "organic" certification.

While the European Union already requires at least 70 percent organic content before the word "organic" could be mentioned in the ingredients list, the United States and Canada are pushing for lower percentages.

As a result of the dispute, Codex delayed action on organic product certification until its spring 1997 meeting, according to Ann Millar, a spokesperson for Canada's agriculture ministry.

The lack of standards for international trade in organic food is seen as a major impediment to growth in what many believe is a market that holds great potential for Third World producers, particularly small farmers who lack access to credit for pesticides and other agricultural chemicals.

Joseph Smillie, president of the California-based Organic Trade Association of North America, told those attending the IDRC meeting that "the consumer response to 'organic' products is very dynamic," with sales growing consistently since 1989.

So many consumers in North America and Europe have been attracted to organic food by concerns over the health effects of chemical residues, Smillie said, that major supermarket chains now stock organic products.

Smillie, however, believes organic food should not be marketed on a basis of food safety but rather for the minimal impact its production has on the environment.

While producers can limit their use of chemicals, he notes, they often cannot control contamination from outside sources, such as air pollution and run-off from rain.

"Organic is based on ecological harmony," he said. "It's an agricultural system of growing. It is not a food safety claim. It is not a nutritional claim."

In fact, most organic certification programs, including the one Codex is developing, do not monitor chemical levels in the food. They determine whether environmentally sound farming practices -- such as crop rotation, composting, and the non-use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides -- are used in its production.

History of heavy ag chemical use in developing nations

Changing traditional production methods to meet organic growing requirements has been a challenge for producers in developing countries, according to Oscar Cruz Salazar, founder of Ecos del Agro A.A., a Costa Rican organic banana company.

"After 25 years working in the banana sector, where every sin in the world is committed, I decided I would not contract anyone who had any experience in the banana sector. It was a difficult decision, but the results have been good," Cruz told those attending the IDRC meeting.

Cruz said his company has been able to take "the first steps towards what we hope will be a 100-percent organic banana" because a researcher has developed a new strain of banana -- the Goldfinger -- which is resistant to the two most common pests.

The research was undertaken in Honduras with support from the IDRC, after Chiquita and United Brands -- two of the world's largest banana producers -- withdrew funding after supporting the project for 15 years.

Production of bananas -- the world's most popular fruit -- normally requires heavy use of chemicals but the development of new pest and disease-resistant varieties will allow for more "organic" farming.

Bio-engineered foods, however, raise another dilemma. Many people argue that altering food genetically, regardless of the objective, violates the basic concept of organic production.

Cruz, however, seemed prepared to accept genetically engineered foods, if it meant using fewer pesticides and fertilizers on the land. He pointed out that former banana-growing area of southeast Costa Rica have been so contaminated by agricultural chemicals they can no longer be cultivated.

"This is what could happen everywhere -- we could create a permanent imbalance in the land upon which we depend," said Cruz. "If we want to leave anything to our children, we have to act now because we are in a crisis."

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Albion Monitor May 27, 1996 (

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