Is Your Definition of Organic the Same as the USDA’s? Cornucopia Institute Declares an Organic Watergate


The Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute is one of the country’s leading preservers of the organic flame–a think tank and advocacy group that benefits the small, family owned farms that were once in the vanguard of the organic movement. Of course, big agribusiness has long since infiltrated (some might say taken over) the movement, so you’re never sure of the purity of products labeled “organic” or whether the animals used in dairy products or meats were actually humanely raised. Cornucopia’s latest snipes are aimed at the USDA.

Congress passed the Organic Food Production Act in 1990. One function of the bill was to establish a reference group called the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) that would decide which substances could be used in organic agriculture and which could not. The intent of the bill was for the majority of the members on the 15-seat board to be organic farmers and those who distribute their output. The members would be selected by the USDA.

During the intervening years, the intent of the original framers of the bill has been seriously diddled with. First off, the NOSB has been stacked with members that represent big agribusiness rather than organic farmers, Cornucopia charges. In a report provocatively called “The Organic Watergate,” the institute asserts that all sorts of additives are now permitted in supposedly organic products, and more are on the way.

Late last year in Savannah, Georgia, for example, Dutch agribusiness giant Royal DSM N.V./Martek Biosciences teamed up with Dean Foods to get permission to use synthetic nutrient oils made from mutated fungus and algae in organic agriculture. Petroleum products are used in the manufacture of these oils, and so is genetically engineered corn.

Another additive that has been green-lighted by the NOSB is carrageenan, a seaweed extract often used in conventionally processed food that is now thought to be a causative agent in various inflammatory diseases. The chemical was permitted in the mid-’90s after a positive report on its effects commissioned by the NOSB. It turned out the report the bureau solicited was authored by Dr. Richard Theuer, a Ralston Purina executive.

When the fox is in the organic henhouse, how can the chickens be kept safe?

Read the full Cornucopia report here.