Albion Monitor /Commentary
[Editor's note: We are currently in the public comment period for new proposed rules that would dramatically change the meaning of any food labeled as "organic" in the United States. Details on how to contact the USDA can be found near the end of this commentary.

For readers living in Northern California, a a public event regarding the proposed rules will be held at the Santa Rosa Farm Bureau, 970 Piner Road, from 6:30-8:30 PM on Wednesday, February 25, 1998. For more information on the event, contact Leonard Diggs 838-8912 or Bob Schaffer 938-8665.]

Stop The USDA From Redefining "Organic Food" -- But For The Right Reasons

by Paul Cienfuegos

Many groups repeat the same message -- that the Government is the enemy. There's only one problem with this analysis: It's wrong
Our society is saturated by corporate culture. It is even difficult to imagine a society where We The People reclaimed our Constitutionally-mandated authority over all institutions -- both government and corporate. And the very small percentage of us who still actively participate in the democratic process (and I don't just mean party-political) act more like oppressed people than individuals with genuine authority over their own lives.

A current example is the way people are responding to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) outrageous attempt to redefine organic foods as indistinguishable from processed, corporate foods. The USDA's proposed new definition would allow "organic" labels on foods that are genetically engineered, irradiated, factory-farmed, and grown in toxic sewage sludge. In addition, it would become illegal for states or organic certification groups to uphold standards stricter than federal standards.

I think it's important for all of us who care about our society and the earth to be as effective as we possibly can, so let's take a look at how the campaign is shaping up.

First, what is the institution we are being asked to target? It's the USDA, of course. In all of the articles I have surveyed, they are the Big Nasty.

Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Pure Food Campaign, puts it like this: "Time and time again, U.S. government officials have ignored citizens' concerns and interests. ... Unless the USDA and politicians feel the heat, they seem hell-bent on destroying the alternative food system which we have so laboriously built up over the last 30 years." Ben Lilliston, a member of Sustain, an environmental education group, states, "The FDA and the USDA have been staunch defenders of genetically engineered foods and high-chemical input agriculture."

I could list many other groups repeating this same message -- that the Government is the enemy. There's only one problem with this analysis: It's wrong.

We need to ask deeper questions: Why would the USDA even consider awarding an organic label to toxic food-growing? And why would the USDA and FDA staunchly defend farming practices that destroy soil fertility? Are there private citizens out there actually lobbying for an unsafe food supply? Of course not. Then why is our government ignoring the demand for safer food?

It's because powerful players have a greater influence over these government agencies than you or I. Responsible are giant food growing / processing and agricultural chemical corporations with names like Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Dole, Monsanto, Merck, Upjohn, Rhone Poulenc (French), Novartis (Swiss), Glaxo-Wellcome, ICI ( both UK), Hoechst (German), and many others.

In 1998, we take for granted that corporations have rights like human beings, and we assume these rights have always existed. That's wrong. It used to be against the law in this country for corporations to participate in the political process at any level of government -- such as lobbying or election financing. It used to be illegal for corporations to buy stock in other corporations. Major corporate decisions had to be affirmed by unanimous shareholder vote. If corporations did harm or acted beyond the authority vested in them by the state, they could be dissolved by having their charters revoked. And Boards of Directors and shareholders could be held personally (even criminally) liable for all harms caused.

Today, corporations have almost entirely taken control of most levels of American government. Yet citizen activists still urge us to write to our elected representatives and (in this case, the USDA), and to demand respect for consumers' right-to-choose strict organic standards. But the real power doesn't lie with the private citizen -- it's held by the giant corporations shaping our political / cultural environment.

Our minds have become so colonized by the corporate view that we focus our outrage and activism at the symptoms of the problem -- that the USDA is proposing ridiculous new organics standards. We end up utterly ignoring the actual cause of the problem -- that corporations have seized Constitutional rights and now run the show.

What if we started asking the much bigger (and scarier) questions, such as: How has it come to pass that giant corporations gained the right to influence and even write legislation, to elect candidates, to teach our children what foods are healthy, to poison and sterilize rich agricultural soil, to control the public airwaves, and write the news? And what if we stopped conceding giant corporations' claims to legal and cultural authority over our lives and the planet?

If large numbers of us stopped referring to ourselves merely as consumers (literally -- those who consume) and started acting like citizens again, there is no question that we could protect the supply of genuine organic food. Instead of fighting one challenge to our food supply at a time, or one clear-cut at a time, or one toxic dump at a time, our work would have widespread and long-term relevance in challenging all corporate rule in our society. We would be taking the offensive; no longer would we find ourselves working in thousands of tiny, underfunded and understaffed single-issue organizations, fighting mostly losing battles.

There is absolutely no reason in the world (other than peoples' unwillingness to get involved) that we couldn't again start acting like we're in charge. We have enormous rethinking and organizing tasks ahead. Are you ready?

Here are a few suggested first steps in the struggle to protect organic food:

  • Contact the organizations running the campaigns and let them know that their strategy to protect organic food is missing the point, that they're pointing their fingers at the symptom and not the cause of the problem, and that you want them to take leadership in reframing the issue to help the general public understand who's really calling the shots. Send copies to your local newspaper and the Monitor. The leading organizations are:

    Pure Food Campaign
    860 Hwy 61
    Little Marais, MN 55614
    Ronnie Cummins, 800-253-0681

    Organic Farmers Marketing Association
    8364 So. SR39
    Clayton, IN 46118
    Cissy Bowman, 317-539-6935,

    National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides
    701 E St
    Washington DC 20003
    Jay Feldman, 202-543-5450

  • Contact the USDA by the end of April and let them know how outraged you are that your government allows any participation by giant corporations in writing legislation, lobbying and financing campaigns; and that you will do everything in your power to make this sort of act illegal again as it was for over 100 years. Also send copies to your local newspaper. Contact:

    Room 4007-S, AgStop 0275
    POB 96456
    Washington DC 20090
    fax 202-690-4632
    (Refer to National Organic Standards, Docket# TMD-94-00-2).

  • Join Democracy Unlimited. We are part of a growing network of citizens across the country challenging corporate rule, having established the first west coast office in this young movement. We can help you to launch your own local study group; send at least $4 and we'll send you a fascinating packet of articles and mini-posters ready for easy copying and sharing, plus a list of further resources available from us, including dozens of articles, audio tapes, and books. Send $10 or more (please be generous), and we'll also include "Taking Care of Business: Citizenship and the Charter of Incorporation," by Frank Adams and Richard Grossman. Memberships are an additional $25.

Paul Cienfuegos has been active in a variety of social change movements since the late 1970's, including Ancient Forest Protection, Native Sovereignty, Nuclear Disarmament and Ecological Restoration. He is the founding coordinator of Democracy Unlimited, a citizens' group which educates and organizes to challenge corporate rule. Democracy Unlimited can be contacted at POB 27, Arcata, CA 95518.

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Albion Monitor February 16, 1998 (

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