Purity of federal 'organic' label at risk

The purity of federal 'Organic' label is questioned in a Washington Post article by Kimberly Kindy and Lyndsey Layton.

Three years ago, U.S. Department of Agriculture employees determined that synthetic additives in organic baby formula violated federal standards and should be banned from a product carrying the federal organic label. Today the same additives, purported to boost brainpower and vision, can be found in 90 percent of organic baby formula.

The government's turnaround, from prohibition to permission, came after a USDA program manager was lobbied by the formula makers and overruled her staff. That decision and others by a handful of USDA employees, along with an advisory board's approval of a growing list of non-organic ingredients, have helped numerous companies win a coveted green-and-white "USDA Organic" seal on an array of products.

Learn more about USDA Organic Standards

This kind of big business manipulation, if unchecked, will result in the 'organic' label losing its credibility. The organic industry was built on integrity and relies on credibility with consumers, if the label says 'organic' then it should be organic. The USDA organic program was launched and supported by the industry in order to get federal government oversight to prevent a patchwork of different rules in different states and to ensure the integrity of the term 'organic'. Unfortunately, the downside of the USDA control over the label is what we are seeing here, the ability of big business and government officials to water down the meaning and integrity of organic. This is a major concern for us, and an issue we take seriously.

Mark Fergusson

Celebrity Testimony Highlights the Problems of Industrial Agriculture

Comedian Stephen Colbert made news when he testified last Friday before a Congressional subcommittee in support of migrant farm workers rights. Some representatives took issue with his choice to appear in character as the blustering conservative commentator he plays on his Comedy Central show The Colbert Report, but it was also noted that his appearance gave the hearing much more exposure than it would have had otherwise.

On his show, Colbert assumes a persona patterned after commentators such as Bill O’Reilly in order to skewer the illogical and excessive rhetoric that often takes the place of balanced inquiry and analysis on news shows. Although much of his testimony was meant as satire, he did finish on a sincere note. When asked why he had taken up this cause he stated bluntly, “Because migrant workers suffer and have no rights.”

Check out a video of his opening statement

He mentions the United Farm Worker’s “Take our Jobs” campaign, which he participated in for a day, working alongside migrant workers in Iowa packing beans and corn. UFW initiated the “Take Our Jobs” campaign in response to accusations that undocumented migrant field workers are exacerbating the unemployment rate in America. They distributed applications and invited any legal, unemployed American citizen to replace them in the fields. Arturo Rodriguez, the president of UFW, reported to Congress that while he convinced 8,000 people to apply, only 7 actually completed the process and accepted the job. After describing the difficult working conditions he witnessed, Colbert declared, with a note of sarcasm, “this brief experience gave me some small understanding why so few Americans are clamoring to begin an exciting career as seasonal migrant field worker.”

Colbert went on to note that 84,000 acres of production and 22,000 farm jobs have moved to Mexico, leaving a million acres of US farmland barren due to lack of available labor. It’s clear that even with the unemployment rate approaching 10%, most people aren’t eager to start picking their own produce.

This trend is disturbing, but not unexpected to anyone who’s been paying attention to the degradation of agriculture in America. In 1900, over 50% of Americans were involved in agriculture. In 2000, that number was less than 1%, and the average age of a farmer was approaching 60. This decline is caused partly by the outsourcing of food production to other countries, and partly by the increased use of technology in the field, which allows one farmer to produce more food with less labor.

Producing more food with less labor might seem like a good thing. However, as a result of increased mechanization, modern industrial farm work isn’t just hard; it’s dangerous. A study by Texas A&M University found that the rate of fatalities in agriculture is 22.7 per 100,000, greater than construction and transportation, and second only to mining. The study also noted that these figures only take into account workers 16 and older, leaving out over 650,000 minors who work in agriculture. Also, since an estimated 50% of farm workers are undocumented immigrants, it’s likely that many deaths go unreported.

The rate of injury in agriculture is also commonly believed to be higher than most other sectors, however various factors make it difficult to collect accurate data. One study noted that “This problem of incomplete reporting is further complicated by the reluctance of many hired farm workers, especially those not authorized to work in the U.S., to report injuries to anyone in authority.” (http://www.donvillarejo.com/fulltext/injuryrate.pdf) The study noted that many undocumented workers calculate the risk of lost income against the potential health hazard of not reporting an injury and continuing to work untreated.

The high rate of injury and fatality is due primarily to untrained and overworked laborers working with heavy machinery they are ill equipped to operate. According to the National Ag Safety Database, the three leading causes of death on farms are machinery, motor vehicles and electrocution. In addition, farm workers are regularly subjected to heavy doses of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which have dangerous and potentially fatal side effects

It’s undoubtedly important to protect the rights of migrant farm workers. Their work feeds this country, and they deserve at least fair treatment and a living wage. However, it’s not enough to protect the rights of workers in an industry that is fundamentally flawed. We need to look deeper. The places where we grow our food shouldn’t be epicenters of disease and death. Farms shouldn’t be places we avoid for fear of getting poisoned, run over or electrocuted. Farms should be places we gather to nurture the best in our communities and ourselves.

We need to understand that just because we can grow food bigger, faster and cheaper than ever before, it doesn’t mean we should. By treating food like any other commodity, we ignore the relationship between food and health, food and family, food and community.

This transition back to community and home-based food production may take place whether we like it or not. Industrial agriculture depends on a steady supply of fossil fuel, which, at the rate we’re currently burning it, won’t last forever. Richard Heinberg, in an address to the E. F. Schumacher society, estimated that when fossil fuel reserves decline, it will take 50 million farmers to supply the food needs of this country. So if we want to eat, we need to make farming a more attractive career, and we need to teach farmers how to grow food without chemical fertilizers, pesticides and massive combines.

Industrial food isn’t good for the people who grow it or the people who eat it, and in the long run we won’t be able to sustain it. Buying organic food is one way to encourage an alternative, sustainable industry. When we buy organic we’re not just supporting our health and the health of our family. We’re supporting the health of the soil, the health of the ecosystem and the health of the farmers.

Organic Food: Good for Your Health, Good for the Environment

Photo: Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

What is organic food and how does it help you improve your health and the environment?

The goal of organic agriculture is to produce foods using a natural and sustainable food production system that sustains our health and the health of soils and ecosystems. It does this by avoiding the use of harmful chemicals such as toxic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and by prohibiting the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), toxic sludge, irradiation, or other production methods that are harmful for the environment.

The definition of organic food varies from country to country, as hundreds of organic standards have been developed worldwide since the 1940s. Some form of organic standard is included in regulations of more than 60 governments. In most countries, falsely labeling non-organic foods as organic can result in significant fines and other penalties. The resulting "Organic" label gives us the opportunity and the choice to eat foods that are better for our bodies, for our families, and for the environment.

Food with an Organic label means it was grown naturally the way nature intended it. When you buy organic foods, you don’t have to question it because organic farmers follow strict standards to grow the most natural fruits and vegetables possible. In the United States, for example, organic farmers don’t use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, hormones, antibiotics, sewage sludge, irradiation, or any genetically modified organisms. Consumers just look for the Organic label, and they are confident that stringent guidelines have been followed to bring to market wholesome natural products.

When you choose organic food, you help conserve the environment. For example, pesticides used in non-organic farming are wiping out entire species of beneficial insects, butterflies, and birds. On agricultural farms in the United States alone, it is estimated that about 672 million birds are affected by large amounts of pesticides, and about 10% of them die as a result of it. Meanwhile, the excessive use of chemical fertilizers on farms is contaminating the water supply through seepage into the water table and runoff from rainstorms.

The loss of soil fertility has also become a matter of concern due to chemical farming. In contrast, organic farming involves production methods that help conserve soil fertility and biodiversity. The use of organic fertilizers, compost, mulches, and other organic matter preserves healthy soil by supporting microorganisms in the soil as well as earthworms and red worms that aerate the soil. Mulches and organic matter also minimize weed growth. Multi-cropping, trap crops, and companion planting helps pest control.

Also, the low-till practice of organic farming helps prevent soil erosion by disturbing less soil. Since this practice reduces the amount of soil that needs to be cultivated, it is less energy intensive because it uses less oil.

In summary, organic farming uses ecological and biologically safe means to raise crops. By choosing organic food, you show that you prefer these environmental and sustainable systems while at the same time help improve your health.

A Day at Ko Farms

Photo: Daniel Ko

For our second Talk Story with the Love Life! Team newsletter feature, we are thrilled to share the story of Ko Farms, a local grower that has been providing organic produce for Down to Earth for almost 30 years.

Ko Farms, hidden deep in Palolo Valley (Oahu), is a world away from busy Honolulu city life. Though many of us think of farming as an activity that takes place far away from the city, Ko Farms has settled into the urban farm life easily. And it’s no wonder: Ko Farms is very nearly magical. Butterflies and birds hover about, sun streams through the large trees onto the kale plants, and the ocean is still and deep blue in the distance. Built on the hilly terrain in the back of the valley, Daniel Ko has carved out multiple terraces in which to grow his greens. Thousands of kale plants, collard greens and dandelion greens fill the terraces and beds with bright, living green energy. Other crops dot the landscape– a few peppers in one field, some banana trees in another, a few avocado trees or citrus trees here and there. The soil deep in the valley is rich and healthy and the weather is perfect for the greens– provided there are not too many rainstorms.

Daniel Ko has been farming for most of his life. He began with a small goat dairy with his brother, where he worked for years. His brother had a passion for raising the animals, but Daniel said he was always much more interested in vegetables. Over the years he has farmed properties in Waimanalo and other locations in Palolo. They have been farming the current property for just 10 years.

Ko Farms has long been certified organic; Daniel says that he was never interested in using the chemicals anyway, and the certification ensures a good price for his greens. He uses organic seeds and compost made in the neighborhood from local garden waste and tree clippings. His organic management includes bird netting, mulch, green manures and occasional use of organic pest controls for the persistent cabbage moths.

Currently, Ko Farms sells certified organic herbs, lacinato and curly kale (in bunches and bags), collard greens and dandelion greens to all four Oahu stores.

All of these greens are deeply nutritious and versatile in the kitchen. Juice them, blend them into smoothies, or find hundreds of salad, soup and entrée recipes on our website that feature kale, collards and dandelion greens.


Photo: Curly Kale Plants

Go Organic, Don’t Panic!

Photo: Cooking Demo Participants Share a Meal

Eating organic is essential to a healthy future for ourselves and our environment. Last month our Love Life! team gave a cooking demo to Hawaii Famers Union, Patricia Bragg, and a group of young people on a cultural exchange with Native American Indians and Hawaiians. It was a pretty epic evening in the back roads of Waimanalo on Green Rows Farm. This demo was so special because we had young people -- our future -- visiting and connecting with organic farmers from across the Islands. They were able to see a sustainable organic farm and see how to make food that they can grow themselves. It was an opportune time to share that food should be our medicine and show this from a farm-to-table experience.

When we choose organic foods we are not only helping our own health but the health of our environment and all living things. Chemical-laden foods and produce also affect all living things. Chemicals get into our soil, water, air and bodies and it is not a sustainable practice for long-term health. We were able to teach that organic farming methods and practices can be very productive today without using harmful pesticides. 

Patricia Bragg engaged the group as well, and everyone just loved her stories, and she began chanting "Go Organic, Don't Panic", and everyone joined her. Paul Izak, a local musician and farmer, sang a song called “Water is Life” and the youth all sang along with him. It truly was a beautiful organic evening full of love, laughter, and hope for a future where organic reigns.

Unfortunately, sometimes families have limited budgets that make it difficult to buy all their food organic all the time. For those days when you have to make a choice, there are options. To determine which vegetables and fruits have the most pesticide residue and should be bought organic, and which have lesser amounts that make it less concerning to buy conventional, check out the Environmental Working Group’s list of the “Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen”.

I encourage you to choose organics as often as you can. Supporting local organic farming here in Hawaii and everywhere is how we can ensure the safety of our environment, and the health of our loved ones and the farmers who grow our food… "Go Organic, Don't panic!"

Ma'o: Turning Adversity into Advantage in Wai'anae

Photo: Staff at Ma’o Organic Farms

The heavy, clay-filled soil is so rich I almost want to taste it. It’s called Lualualei vertisol, named after the Lualualei valley on the leeward side of Oahu where Gerry and Kukui Maunakea-Forth first founded Ma’o Organic Farms.

The soil is packed with nutrients deposited from a river that once flowed through the valley. The density of the soil allows it to retain what little rain falls here. Then, as the sharp-toothed sun of Wai’anae bakes the earth, the soil cracks and the circulating air allows the nutrients to recycle and renew.

I’m spreading this dark black soil in the newly created chef’s garden during a volunteer day that takes place on the last Saturday of every month. We’re helping to build garden beds that will be planted with herbs and fresh greens for visiting chefs, who Uncle Gerry hopes will highlight the importance (and deliciousness) of locally grown produce.  

Ma’o Organic Farms is known for fresh greens and salad mixes, which are sought out by top chefs across the island. If you spend a day at Ma’o, however, you quickly learn that fresh vegetables are only a side benefit of what they are really working to produce: youth with the leadership abilities, skills and self-confidence necessary to make much-needed change in their community.

Ma’o runs a two-year internship program that allows local students fresh out of high school to complete an associate’s degree at Leeward College while working on the farm three days a week. Ma’o provides the tuition and a monthly stipend, and the interns provide the bulk of the labor, and enthusiasm, needed to keeping the farm running. 

It has been wryly remarked that if you know anything about Wai’anae, you probably read it in the police report section of the paper. However, if Ma’o was all you knew of Wai’anae, your impression would be irrepressibly positive. The students are engaged, excited, and possessed of a practical intelligence born from busy, soil-covered hands. They learn every aspect of the operation, from constructing beds, to planting, harvesting, packing, selling and managing. There are only a handful of adults on staff. “If all of us called in sick one day,” one boasts, “the interns could run this place by themselves.”

Kamu acts as our guide on a tour around the farm. His younger brother was one of the first interns at Ma’o, and he now works for the farm as an education resource specialist, which seems to be a fancy phrase for “farmer-educator-marketer-strategist-mentor.” His goal for the students in his care: “Hands turned to the soil. That’s what keeps them out of trouble.”

He surveys Ma’o’s sixteen abundant and profitable acres and grins. “When we wanted to start Ma’o, everyone laughed. They said it couldn’t be done – the earth wasn’t viable for farming, no one would want to work it, you couldn’t make money. But none of those people lived in this community. All they could see were problems. When you live in a community, you might see the problems, but you know the assets, too. If you have vision and creativity, you can make change.”

Ma’o’s success can be attributed in large part to the local resources and traditions that run deep in Wai’anae. Farming is sacred work in Hawaiian culture, and the people of Lualualei valley have worked the land as long as anyone can remember. All the component parts are there – the rich, volcanic soil, the knowledge of the land, the respect for sustainable techniques, the work ethic – all it takes is a little imagination to assemble them all together.

The staff and students at Ma’o demonstrate the same unique qualities as the earth they work. In this harsh environment, other soils would dry up and blow away, and other people give up and fade away. But not these soils, and not these people. As the soil cracks, it tills itself. In the same way, as social and economic pressures build in Wai’anae, youth reevaluate their future. Dead ends stare them in the face at every turn, except one. Turning hands to soil, nourished by the renewal of the earth, they create advantage from adversity.

The reality is that people all around the world share this same heritage, and this same opportunity. If we can put the pieces of the puzzle back together, we can create a sustainable future for ourselves. Now, the same forces of urbanization, militarization and environmental exploitation that have had such negative consequences in Wai’anae are hard at work turning the rest of the world into a Super Fund cleanup site.

Learning from one’s own experience is intelligence. Learning from the experience of others is wisdom. We shouldn’t have to wait until BP's oil reaches our own backyard to break our dependence on fossil fuel. We shouldn’t have to wait until the food we buy poisons our children to start growing our own. Take a page from Ma’o. Malama ‘aina, malama ola kino – take care of the land, take care of your health. Earth to everybody - wise up!

Sugar beets likely to be the next untested and unregulated GMO crop

GMO sugar beets are likely to be the next untested and unregulated GMO crop. Unless stopped by a pending federal lawsuit. Farmers are planning to plant the Monsanto GMO sugar beets in Boulder Colorado (Boulder is home to many of the nation's organic and natural foods companies). The following is from a Natural Foods Merchandiser June 10, 2009 article:

"I've long been opposed to GMO and this is in my back yard," Boulder resident Mary Rogers said. "When you're talking about GMO, you're talking about something that can have far-reaching consequences. I'm wondering if we're opening a Pandora's Box."

Kevin Golden, staff attorney for the Center for Food Safety — one of several organizations suing the USDA over the Roundup Ready Sugarbeets — says Boulder residents are right to worry.

"Cross pollination is a major danger," he said. "Report after report shows that using genetically engineered seeds and plants results in contamination. We can't stop biology from doing what it does and spreading. It's inevitable."

If Boulder County allows growers to plant Roundup Ready Sugarbeets, Golden said the farmers will likely end up using more Roundup as weeds become resistant to the herbicide. Similar to human viruses that morph to resist the overuse of antibiotics, so shall weeds learn to resist Roundup, some experts have warned.

Organic seed producer Frank Morton of Philomath, Ore., claims GMOs can harm not only his crops, but his reputation. Even a small amount of GMO content would cost a batch of seeds its organic certification.

To learn more about GMOs and the dangers they pose please check out our GMO information stands at each of our stores.

Thanks for reading. Mark Fergusson

The Non-GMO Project

Starting this fall, a “Non-GMO Project Verified” logo will begin appearing on products in stores, for the first time giving shoppers an informed choice about whether or not to consume GMOs. The logo is backed by North America’s first consensus-based Standard for GMO avoidance, as well as its only independent, 3rd party Product Verification Program. All of this is the result of years of work by dedicated retailers, producers, farmers, and other stakeholders, collaborating through the Non-GMO Project.

The following material from their website https://www.nongmoproject.org/ gives more information about the Non-GMO Project:

Do Americans want non-GMO foods and supplements?

Polls consistently show that a significant majority of North Americans would like to be able to tell if the food they’re purchasing contains GMOs (a 2008 CBS News Poll found that 87% of consumers wanted GMOs labeled). And, according to a recent CBS/New York Times poll, 53% of consumers said they would not buy food that has been genetically modified. The Non-GMO Project’s seal for verified products will, for the first time, give the public an opportunity to make an informed choice when it comes to GMOs.

How common are GMOs?

According to the USDA, in 2007, 91% of soy, 87% of cotton, and 73% of corn grown in the U.S. were GMO. Starting in 2008, virtually all of the U.S. sugar beet crop is GMO, and it is estimated that over 75% of canola grown is GMO. There are also commercially produced GM varieties of squash and Hawaiian Papaya. As a result, it is estimated that GMOs are now present in more than 80% of packaged products in the average U.S. or Canadian grocery store.

Where does the Non-GMO Project come in?

The Non-GMO Project is an initiative of the North American organic and natural product industry to create a standardized definition of non-GMO and a 3rd party verification program to assess product compliance with this Standard. The Project’s Product Verification Program is entirely voluntary, and participants are companies who see the value of offering their customers a verified non-GMO choice. Many of the individuals and business leading the way with the Project are the same ones responsible for creating the original organic standards.

USDA accepting comments on GE crop regulations

In the waning months of the Bush Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a proposal to completely overhaul its regulation of genetically engineered crops, significantly weakening its oversight. The proposed rules would virtually ensure that contamination of organic and conventional crops will become even more frequent, and even excuses the Agency from taking any action to remedy such contamination. The rules would continue to allow the dangerous practice of producing drugs and industrial chemicals in food crops grown in the open environment, and in many cases even allow the biotechnology industry to decide whether their GE crops are regulated at all.

Over four years ago, USDA promised stricter oversight of genetically engineered crops; unfortunately, improvements considered early on have vanished and the regulations have instead become weaker. The proposed rule now has even more gaping holes than the regulations it is replacing, and creates a few new ones as well, resulting in more public exposure to untested and unlabeled genetically engineered foods. Instead of tightening controls to protect the public and the environment from contamination and harm, what USDA has offered further endangers your right to choose the foods you and your family eat and farmers’ right to their chosen livelihoods.

To make matters worse, USDA published the rules before publishing the full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), as required by law, and in the absence of public review of the data needed to make regulatory recommendations. Clearly, there is something wrong with this picture. We are calling on the Obama Administration to reject the irresponsible Bush “anything goes” biotech policy, and to put in place rules that will create real change in the regulation and oversight of GE crops. And we are requesting a moratorium on commercial planting of any new GE crops until such comprehensive regulations are in place.

The comment period has been extended to June 29, 2009. Please send your comment to USDA today – the Agency is listening, let’s demand better oversight of GE crops to protect citizens, farmers, wildlife, and the environment!

Read the full article

June 29, 2009, is this coming Monday, so please take action now.

GMO trees pose new threat to the environment!

The biotechnology firm ArborGen has asked the USDA for permission to conduct 29 field trials of genetically engineered "cold tolerant" eucalyptus trees in the U.S. For the first time in history, this massive experiment, which is on the verge of being green-lighted, will literally be using nature as the laboratory to test more than 260,000 genetically engineered trees. Scientists across the U.S. are voicing concerns over this proposal.

Learn more about GMO trees