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Organic community must face its challenges

By Heather Thorstensen

Date Modified: 03/17/2011 7:57 AM

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LA CROSSE, Wis.— A keynote speaker at the Organic Farming Conference encouraged farmers to address their community's challenges to maintain consumer confidence in their products.

Urvashi Rangan, director of technical policy for Consumers Union, said Feb. 25 in La Crosse that she and her employer view organic farming as an achievable, credible way for consumers to choose healthy food in the marketplace.

"That is what organic represents and why it's so important that we all really carefully guard it," she said.

It is common sense for agriculture to move away from chemical inputs to prevent adverse affects on human health, she said. Meanwhile, the scientific community's understanding about harmful environmental factors to human health are growing.

Organic products should be cultivated so they can take more market share but this growth must not hurt the integrity of the organic standards, she said.

She called on the organic community to make stronger standards for poultry outdoor access so farmers who follow the rules aren't undermined by those who don't.

The National Organic Standards Board's material reviews must be based on science, not philosophy, and organic farmers must get involved in discussions surrounding their recommendations, she said.

The board is comprised of organic farmers, handlers/processors, a retailer, environmentalists, certifying agent, public interest advocates and a scientist. They serve five-year terms and make recommendations to USDA on whether a substance should be allowed or prohibited in organic production and handling. Their materials classification system uses a list of criteria that includes possible impacts on humans and the environment. The classification system is under review.

Their role is not a call to expand the list of synthetics that are allowed in organic production, Rangan said.

"We have a serious breaking down where we have an NOSB that frankly right now doesn't even know what a synthetic is," she said. 

The inability to enforce a five-year limit of approved synthetic materials for organic production is also problematic, said Rangan. Synthetic materials should be on the approved list for a limited time to push innovation of organic alternatives, she said.

National Organic Program spokesperson Soo Kim told Agri News that the National List is a public process, open to comments about what should be taken on and off.

Rangan also said the organic community must address the fact that consumers are confused about the difference between natural and organic labels. Consumers Union created, a website with information to help people understand the meaning behind eco-labels.

She asked the audience to contact the Federal Trade Commission and tell them to address misleading or deceptive advertising in the marketplace, including the misuse of the organic label. 

She asked conference participants to start organizing against deceptive uses of the label.

"It's your business, and all of your business, to get involved," she said.

Rangan also called out USDA's Biopreferred program. It certifies and awards the "USDA Certified Biobased Product" label to qualifying products and these products get preference when federal agencies make purchasing decisions. By helping more consumers and agencies buy biobased products, the program aims to reduce petroleum consumption, increase the use of renewable materials and help manage the carbon cycle.

Rangan targeted the program because it exempts some biobased products, such as cotton, for being a mature market product, meaning it had significant market share in 1972. USDA has stated it exempts these materials because the program is designed to foster markets for new biobased products.

The conference is hosted by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service. 

Consumers Union, publisher of "Consumer Reports", is an independent, non-profit organization that conducts assessments and gives advice to consumers on a range of topics such as products, services, health and nutrition.