Organic Trade Meets in D.C. as Battle Brews Over Standards

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This article originally appeared in Huffington Post

It’s “Organic Week” again in Washington, D.C., and attendees of the “signature policymaking event” for the Organic Trade Association (OTA) have much to celebrate. Last week, the OTA, the leading voice for the organic industry, announced that the sector posted its largest-ever annual dollar gain in 2015, with total organic retail sales growing by $4.2 billion, or 11 percent, to a record of $43.3 billion.

“Fueled by consumer choice, organic is the future of farming,” the OTA said in a statement touting the conference, which runs May 23-May 27.

Still, the industry acknowledges that future is clouded by persistent supply shortages in the face of what OTA calls the “seemingly unquenchable consumer demand for organic.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is slated to address the OTA Wednesday, to tell organic leaders that the U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to make it easier for new farmers to become certified organic and to help the organic sector with its demand problem.

But across the country, in a federal courtroom in California, a group of consumer and environmental lawyers and nonprofit groups are raising a red flag in the face of the USDA push to grow the organic sector. Corners are being cut, they allege. Standards are being shirked, and consumers are being short-changed by USDA National Organic Program standard changes.

A hearing is scheduled Thursday in one key case involving synthetic chemicals in compost in organic production. The Center for Environmental Health, the Center for Food Safety and Beyond Pesticides sued Vilsack and other USDA officials last year for issuing a guidance document in 2010 that “radically changed organic requirements.” Under the new provision, organic producers can use compost materials that have been treated with synthetic pesticides that otherwise are banned from organic use.

Under the changes introduced by USDA, organic producers can use materials such as lawn trimmings that have been contaminated with synthetic pesticides as compost feedstocks for their crops. Compost contaminated with an insecticide known as bifenthrin and other pesticides are now allowed, the lawsuit alleges.

This flouts a key appeal of organics – the idea that synthetic pesticides have little to no place in production, the groups argue. And the agency violated the law by failing to give public notice or allow for public comment as they created this “loophole,” the groups allege.

“Organic consumers are being misled, and can no longer rely on the organic label to ensure the food they purchase is produced without synthetic pesticides in agricultural inputs,” the lawsuit states.

The Center for Food Safety and other plaintiffs describe themselves in court pleadings as working to protect the environment and public health and to act as a watchdog on the integrity of organic production. They expected the OTA to back up their bid for organic integrity, or at least not to try to get in their way. But on May 2, OTA asked to participate in the case not on the side of the consumer advocates but against them.

In its filing, OTA, along with California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) have joined with Western Growers Association (WG), which represents farmers responsible for roughly a third of fresh U.S. organic produce, to oppose the consumer protection groups over the compost issue. The OTA and other industry groups are arguing that if the USDA provision allowing for synthetic pesticides in compost is thrown out by the court, organic practices would be “severely unsettled.”

The groups say in court filings that it would be analytically and economically impossible to demonstrate all compost is free of each synthetic chemical substance prohibited in organic crop production. They say a sudden elimination of the compost provision could lead to costly civil litigation and many growers’ organic certifications would be directly at risk. Unwinding the USDA’s “professional and responsible approach to a complex subject” would be “extremely disruptive,” the organic groups say.

The plaintiffs counter that such claims of disruptive consequences are a “red herring.” An erosion of organic standards may help expand production and meet consumer demands, but such a path could make for a slippery slope and an ultimate demise of the draw organics hold. “These environmental values, and specifically not supporting pesticide-dependent agriculture, are a major driver to why consumers pay the premium to buy organic foods,” their filing states.

Thursday’s hearing in San Francisco will take up pending cross motions for summary judgment in the case. Meanwhile back in Washington, the OTA will be marking “advocacy day,” fanning out through Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers and push for policies that support continued organic industry growth.

Consumers would do well to keep an eye on both.

Carey Gillam is a veteran former Reuters journalist and now research director for U.S. Right to Know, a food industry research group.  Follow Carey Gillam on Twitter: www.twitter.com/careygillam 

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Conflict of Interest Concerns Cloud Glyphosate Review

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By Carey Gillam

It’s been a little more than a year since the World Health Organization’s (WHO) cancer research experts upended the agrichemical industry’s favorite child. The group, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declared the globe’s most widely used herbicide – glyphosate – to be a probable human carcinogen.

Since then, Monsanto Co., which draws roughly a third of its $15 billion in annual revenues from its Roundup branded glyphosate-based herbicide products, (and much of the rest from glyphosate-tolerant crop technology) has been on a mission to invalidate the IARC finding. Through an army of foot soldiers that include industry executives, public relation professionals and public university scientists, the company has called for a rebuke of IARC’s work on glyphosate.

How successful those efforts will or will not be is still an open question. But some answers are expected following a meeting being held this week in Geneva, Switzerland. An “international expert scientific group” known as JMPR is reviewing IARC’s work on glyphosate, and the results are expected to offer regulators around the world a guide for how to view glyphosate.

The group, officially known as the Joint FAO-WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR), is administered jointly by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and WHO. JMPR meets regularly to review residues and analytical aspects of pesticides, to estimate maximum residue levels, and to review toxicological data and estimate acceptable daily intakes (ADIs) for humans.

After this week’s meeting, set to run from May 9-13, JMPR is expected to issue a series of recommendations that will then go to the FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission. The Codex Alimentarius was established by FAO and the World Health Organization develops harmonized international food standards as a means to protect consumer health and promote fair practices in food trade.

The meeting comes as both European and U.S. regulators are wrestling with their own assessments and how to react to the IARC classification. It also comes as Monsanto looks for backing for its claims of glyphosate safety.

Glyphosate is not just a lynchpin for sales of the company’s herbicides but also for its genetically modified seeds designed to tolerate being sprayed with glyphosate. The company also is currently defending itself against several lawsuits in which farmworkers and others allege they contracted cancer linked to glyphosate and that Monsanto knew of, but hid, the risks. And, a rebuke of IARC’s glyphosate classification could help the company in its lawsuit against the state of California, which aims to stop the state from following the IARC classification with a similar designation.

Depending on the result of the JMPR, the Codex will decide on any actions necessary regarding glyphosate, said WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic.

“It is the JMPR’s function to conduct risk assessment for agricultural use and assessing the health risks to consumers from residues found in food,” said Jasarevic

The outcome of the JMPR meeting is being watched closely by a number of environmental and consumer groups that want to see new safety standards for glyphosate. And not without some worry. The coalition, which includes the Natural Resources Defense Council and Friends of the Earth, has expressed concern about apparent conflicts of interest on the expert advisory panel. Some individuals appear to have financial and professional ties to Monsanto and the chemical industry, according to the coalition.

The coalition specifically cited concerns with member ties to the nonprofit International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), which is funded by Monsanto and other chemical, food and drug companies. The Institute’s board of trustees includes executives from Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, Nestle and others, while its list of member and supporting companies includes those and many more global food and chemical concerns.

Internal ILSI documents, obtained by a state public records request, suggest that ILSI has been generously funded by the agrichemical industry. One document that appears to be ILSI’s 2012 major donor list shows total contributions of $2.4 million, with more than $500,000 each from CropLife International and from Monsanto.

“We have significant concerns that the committee will be unduly influenced by the overall pesticide industry and particularly Monsanto- the largest producer of glyphosate in the world,” the coalition told WHO in a letter last year.

One such JMPR experts is Alan Boobis, professor of biochemical pharmacology and director of the toxicology unit in the faculty of medicine at Imperial College London. He is a member and a past chairman of the board of trustees of ILSI, vice-president of ILSI Europe and chair of ILSI.

Another member is Angelo Moretto, Director of the International Centre for Pesticides and Health Risks Prevention at “Luigi Sacco” Hospital of the ASST Fatebenefratelli Sacco, in Milan, Italy. The coalition said that Moretto has been involved in various projects with ILSI and has served as a member of the steering team for an ILSI project on risks of chemical exposures financed by agrichemical companies that included Monsanto.

Another is Aldert Piersma, a senior scientist at the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands and an advisor to projects of ILSI’s Health and Environmental Sciences Institute.

In all the JMPR list of experts totals 18. Jasarevic said that the roster of experts are chosen from a group of individuals who expressed interest in being involved, and all are “independent and are selected based on their scientific excellence, as well as on their experience in the field of pesticide risk assessment.”

Aaron Blair, a scientist emeritus at the National Cancer Institute and the chairman of the IARC group that made the glyphosate classification, has defended IARC’s work as based on a thorough scientific review. He said he had no concerns to discuss regarding the  JMPR review of IARC’s work.

“I am sure the evaluation by the joint FAO/WHO group will make the reasons for their evaluation clear, which is what is critical for the press and public,” he said.

The world is waiting.

Not Just For Corn and Soy: A Look at Glyphosate Use in Food Crops

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By Carey Gillam

As the active ingredient in Monsanto’s branded Roundup weed killer, along with hundreds of other weed-killing products, the chemical called glyphosate spells billions of dollars in sales for Monsanto and other companies each year as farmers around the world use it in their fields and orchards.  Ubiquitous in food production, glyphosate is used not just with row crops like corn, soybeans and wheat but also a range of fruits, nuts and veggies. Even spinach growers use glyphosate.

Though considered for years as among the safest of agrichemicals, concerns about glyphosate have been growing after the World Health Organization’s cancer experts last year classified it as a probable human carcinogen, based on a series of scientific studies.  There are other concerns as well – mounting weed resistance to glyphosate; negative impacts on soil health; and a demise in the monarch butterfly population tied to glyphosate use on forage that young monarchs feed on. The EPA is currently finishing a risk assessment for glyphosate that examines the range of issues.

The EPA is still trying to determine just how worrisome glyphosate is, or isn’t. In the meantime it’s worth a look at how widespread the use of glyphosate is in our food supply. A document released by EPA on April 29 gives us a peek.

In a memorandum dated Oct. 22, 2015, EPA analysts reported an “updated Screening Level Usage Analysis”for glyphosate use on food items. That memo updates estimates of glyphosate use on crops in top agricultural states, and provides annual average use estimates for the decade 2004-2013. Seventy crops are on the EPA list, ranging alphabetically from alfalfa and almonds to watermelons and wheat. And, when compared to a prior analysis that ran through 2011, it shows that glyphosate use has been growing in production of most of the key food crops on the list. Here’s a snapshot:

Glyphosate used on U.S. soybean fields, on an average annual basis, was pegged at 101.2 million pounds; with corn-related use at 63.5 million pounds. Both estimates are up from a prior analysis that ran through 2011, which pegged average annual soybean use at 86.4 million pounds and corn at 54.6 million pounds. Both those crops are genetically engineered so they can be sprayed directly with glyphosate as farmers treat fields for weeds. Use with sugar beets, also genetically engineered as glyphosate-tolerant, was estimated at 1.3 million pounds, compared to 1 million pounds.

Notably, glyphosate use is also seen with a variety of crops not engineered to be sprayed directly. Looking at the period ending in 2013 compared to 2011, glyphosate use in wheat production was pegged at 8.6 million pounds, up from 8.1 million pounds; use in almonds was pegged at 2.1 million pounds, unchanged from the prior analysis;  grape use was pegged at 1.5 million pounds, up from 1.4 million pounds; and rice use was estimated at 800,000 pounds, compared to 700,000 pounds in the prior analysis.

You can check out your own favorite food here, and compare it to the prior analysis here. Some on the list may surprise you, including cherries, avocados, apples, lemons, grapefruit, peanuts, pecans and walnuts.

The growing use of glyphosate on food crops has prompted calls for regulators to start testing levels of such residues on food to determine if they are within levels regulators deem safe. They’ve been doing such testing for years for residues of other agrichemicals. The Food and Drug Administration said in February it would start doing that type of testing for glyphosate residues this year on a limited basis.

In the meantime, the EPA, which sets the “tolerance” levels that deem what is safe regarding pesticide residue,  announced May 3 that it was finalizing a new rule that will expand the numbers of crops that can have tolerances established. The EPA said this will “allow minor use growers a wider choice of pest control tools including lower-risk pesticides, to be used on minor crops, both domestically and in countries that import food to the United States.”

 Yummy.