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The paper of record and the organic urban legend

An editorial in the New York Times on November 4th expressed concern about the appointment of Dr. Islam Siddiqui (currently a VP at Crop Life America) as chief agricultural negotiator for the office of the United States trade representative.  It was gratifying to see the NYT have a position supporting organic and sustainable agriculture, and their concern is well placed. With all the positive changes at USDA, it is time to bring agricultural trade policy in line with the momentum towards responsible, sustainable agriculture.

It is also time to retire the “urban legend” about the ill-fated first draft of the organic regulations, in which Dr. Siddiqui had a role. As a staff member of the National Organic Program from 1994-1999, I helped write that draft rule, which the NYT (and just about everyone else) characterizes as “notoriously loose about allowing genetically engineered crops and the use of sewage-sludge fertilizers to be labeled as ‘organic.’”

The actual first draft of that rule, which gained approval all the way up the USDA hierarchy, including by Dr. Siddiqui, explicitly prohibited genetic engineering and irradiation. These prohibitions were subsequently deleted by OMB (Office of Management and Budget), which cited Administration policy supporting both genetic engineering and irradiation. Dr. Siddiqui was fully aware of the importance the NOP staff and the organic community attached to keeping the prohibitions in the rule, but did not include us in negotiations with OMB.

In desperation, the staff added a request for comments on genetic engineering and irradiation to the Preamble when the proposed rule was finally published, knowing what the comments would be, and expecting to use those comments as ammunition to restore the prohibitions in the final rule. EPA, which was lobbying hard to allow “biosolids” (aka sewage sludge) in organic production then insisted that a similar request for comments be included for their pet issue – but at no time was any of the “big three” of sewage sludge, genetically engineered organisms or irradiation ever proposed to be permitted.

Just another installment in the story of how the vision of organic has been subverted by those who claim to defend “organic integrity.”


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