Is the Opposition to USDA's New Organic Food Standards on the Wrong Track?



(Published by Access magazine in March 1998)



In a society so saturated by corporate culture, it is difficult to imagine what it might look like if We The People started reclaiming our Constitutionally-mandated authority over all of our institutions, be they corporate or government. The very small percentage of people who actively participate in the democratic process (and I don't just mean party political) still act more like oppressed people than people acting with genuine authority over their own lives. The best current example that comes to mind is the way people are responding to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) outrageous attempt to redefine organic foods so as to make them indistinguishable from corporate foods. The USDA's proposed new definition would allow foods that are genetically engineered, irradiated, factory-farmed, and grown on top of toxic sewage sludge to all be labeled as organic. In addition, it would become illegal for existing state or non-governmental organic certification bodies to uphold standards stricter than federal standards.


I think it's important for all of us who care about our society and the planet 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, author of the article on this subject in a recent Arcata Coop newsletter, stated, "The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and the USDA have been staunch defenders of genetically engineered foods and high-chemical input agriculture." I could list many other examples. The clear message is: The Government is the enemy. There's only one problem with this analysis: It's wrong.


We need to dig deeper and ask ourselves: Why would the USDA even contemplate including toxic food-growing and production practices under the label of organic? And why would the USDA and FDA staunchly defend farming practices that destroy soil fertility? Are there actually private citizens out there lobbying independently for an unsafe food supply? Of course not, the public is solidly opposed! Then why is our government ignoring the almost unanimous rallying cry in support of safer food? Perhaps there are other more powerful players which have a greater influence over these government agencies. You bet there are! They are giant food growing and processing corporations, as well as giant agricultural chemical corporations, with names like Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Dole, Monsanto, Merck, Upjohn, Rhone Poulenc (French), Novartis (Swiss, formed from the merger of Ciba-Geigy and Sandoz), Glaxo-Wellcome (UK, formed from the merger of Glaxo and Burroughs-Wellcome), ICI (UK), Hoechst (German), and many others.



"[I]t is necessary to go back to some fundamentals in our history to understand how the modern corporation, initially a creature of the state, has managed to turn things around so that today, the state is a creature of the corporation." - Molly Rush



In 1998, we take for granted corporations' rights to participate as fully in every aspect of society as do human beings. We may not like it, but we still assume these rights have always existed, and are as natural as the air we breathe. And we're wrong. It used to be against the law in this country for corporations to participate in the political process at any level of government (lobbying, election financing, etc.). 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 (i.e. criminally) liable for all harms caused.


Citizens understood that they had a civic responsibility to avoid creating entities that could harm the body politic, interfere with the mechanisms of self-governance, and assault their sovereignty. Contrast this awareness with 1998 when corporations have almost entirely taken control of most levels of American government, and yet citizen activist organizations continue to urge us merely to write to our elected representatives (or in this case, to the USDA and our representatives), and to demand that the USDA "respect consumers' right-to-choose and maintain strict organic standards by explicitly prohibiting the unacceptable practices" listed above. As if they are even listening! Where does the real power lie? What institutions are shaping the greater political/cultural environment in this country? Giant corporations!


Our minds have become so colonized by these corporate entities that we end up focusing all of our outrage and activism at the symptoms of the problem (i.e. that our political leaders generally ignore and are frequently contemptuous of the public's wishes). A few current examples include: the USDA is proposing ridiculous new organics standards opposed by all organic food buyers, the California Dept. of Forestry continues to allow Maxxam corporation to clear-cut the redwood forests of Headwaters, California Governor Wilson recently vetoed a package of health care protection bills with widespread public support, etc. And we end up utterly ignoring the actual cause of the problem (i.e. that corporations have seized Constitutional rights from the people and now run the show).


What if we started asking 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 good for them, 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 seeing ourselves as citizens again, there is no question that we could protect our supply of genuine organic food. We could reclaim our authority over all of the subordinate legal entities we refer to as corporations, and start acting like we're in charge again. No longer would we be working in thousands of tiny underfunded understaffed single-issue organizations fighting mostly losing battles (one challenge to our food supply at a time, one clear-cut at a time, one toxic dump at a time). Our work would require real and sustained effort, and have widespread and long-term relevance.


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 USDA by April 30th and let them know how outraged you are that your government is allowing giant corporations like Monsanto to participate in any way in the defining of organic food. And tell them that you recently learned that for over 100 years, corporations were prohibited from ANY participation in the political process (writing laws, lobbying, financing campaigns). (And of course, tell them you want the organic food definitions protected or strengthened.) Send copies to your local newspaper. Contact: USDA, AMS, Room 4007-S, AgStop 0275, POB 96456, Washington DC 20090, fax 202-690-4632, email via: (refer to National Organic Standards, Docket #TMD-94-00-2).


* Contact the organizations running the campaigns and let them know that their strategy to protect organic food is missing the critical point: that as long as we focus on the symptoms we will never get around to fundamentally questioning the supposed rights of giant corporations to write our laws and elect our representatives. And request that they take leadership in reframing this issue so that the general public begins to understand that for over 100 years, corporations were prohibited from ANY participation in the political process, and that this is the real solution to protecting our food supply. The leading organizations are: Pure Food Campaign, 860 Hwy 61, Little Marais, MN 55614, contact Ronnie Cummins, 218-226-4164,, website; and Organic Farmers Marketing Association, 8364 So. SR39, Clayton, IN 46118, contact Cissy Bowman, 317-539-6935,


* Join the growing movement of citizens across the country challenging corporate rule. For more info, contact my organization, Democracy Unlimited. We have an active study group which has been meeting since June '97 and many new projects looking for volunteers (research, tabling, postering, etc). We have an info packet of articles and mini-posters ready for easy copying and sharing in your community, and a substantial list of further resources available,..





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