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National Organic Coalition Opposes “Sustainable” Label

(Beyond Pesticides, October 2, 2008) Beyond Pesticides and the other members of the National Organic Coalition (NOC) recently sent a letter outlining their concerns over the development of “sustainable” agriculture labeling standards, which are currently under discussion and entering the first phase of draft standards-setting, overseen by the Leonardo Academy under the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) guidelines. The coalition, along with many other organic farming advocates, say they cannot support a “sustainable” label because of what appears the inevitability that it will be “less than organic,” thus reversing progress organic agriculture has made in recent decades and “effectively driving markets to lower standards” that do not protect human health and the environment.

After a long fought battle by organic advocates to maintain organic integrity under a national standard, organic agriculture has emerged not only as the most stringent standard for ensuring environmental and human health, it has also gained widespread consumer acceptance in the market place. The NOC letter states: “With a sustainable standard, whether intentional or unintentional, consumers will undoubtedly be led to believe that, in supporting the standard, they are contributing to improved practices. In fact, they are slowing the growth of standards [organic] that are critical to our future health and environmental protection. There is no good reason to lower the standards at a time when consumers are increasingly drawn to organic.”

Under discussion in the sustainable agriculture draft standards are the use of genetically engineered crops and the role of conventional agriculture, which utilizes synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. While many of the members of the committee are friends of and advocates for organic agriculture, the committee also includes representatives of businesses and organizations that are heavily invested in using genetically engineered seeds, synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. NOC puts forth in its letter that “lengthy negotiations on acceptable synthetic inputs based on standard but flawed risk assessments undercuts the precautionary approach embraced by organic standards.” Hence, any “compromise” reached in negotiations of the draft standards that would allow these synthetic inputs automatically makes the standards less than organic, and therefore not protective of human health and the environment.

An example of a practice surely to be up for discussion is the widespread use of herbicides in no-till conventional agriculture. Although some applaud no-till conventional agriculture because it reduces soil erosion and sequesters more carbon when compared to conventional tillage, it contributes to an enormous increase in herbicide usage and contamination and is far less effective at carbon sequestration than organic, no-till agriculture. Were the standards to allow no-till conventional agriculture, they would legitimize a practice that does not protect the environment or human health.

Other individuals and organizations wrote to members of the standards committee requesting them to withdraw their support of the process because of concerns over whether such a standard is necessary in light of other labels such as organic, whether the standards-setting procedure is suitable for sustainable agriculture, and whether the committee was truly representative and inclusive of important stakeholders.

Overarching in the criticisms of the sustainable standard is the idea, as NOC puts it, that the “word sustainable should continue to characterize the broad concept of a livable future, and not be undermined by a standard with practices that belie that outcome.”

For the full NOC letter, read here.


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