The Organic Watergate: Advocates Condemn USDA's Relationship with Corporate Agribusiness
The nation's leading organic farming watchdog, The Cornucopia Institute, is challenging what it calls a "conspiracy" between corporate agribusiness interests and the U.S. Department of Agrciulture (USDA) that has increasingly facilitated the use of questionable synthetic additives and even dangerous chemicals in organic foods. In its new white paper, The Organic Watergate, Cornucopia details violations of federal law, ignoring congressional intent, that has created a climate of regulatory abuse and corporate exploitation.
When Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 it set up an independent advisory panel, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) that, uniquely, has statutory power. Any synthetic input or ingredient used in organic farming or food production must be reviewed by the NOSB to assure that it is not a threat to human health or the environment.
The Cornucopia report charges the USDA with "stacking" the NOSB with agribusiness executives that all too often have "sold out" the interests of organic farmers and consumers.
"The organic community came together and actually asked the government, in order to maintain a level playing field and organic integrity, to regulate our industry," said Mark A. Kastel, codirector of The Cornucopia Institute. "How many other industries have ever asked the federal government for tough regulations and enforcement?"
In order to placate concerns of federal involvement in the nascent organic industry, Congress specifically earmarked the majority of the 15 seats on the NOSB for farmers, consumers, scientists and environmentalists as a way to balance the power of commercial interests involved in organic food manufacturing, marketing and retail sales.
"Many in the industry generally thought this system of shared power, with regard to synthetics in organics, was working until we received a wake-up call at the NOSB's meeting late last year in Savannah, Georgia," Kastel noted.
At the Savannah meeting a giant Dutch-based multi-national conglomerate, Royal DSM N.V./Martek Biosciences, partnered with the nation's largest dairy processor, Dean Foods, to muscle through approval of DHA/ARA synthetic nutrient oils. The additives, derived from genetically mutated algae and soil fungus, are processed with petrochemical solvents, grown in genetically engineered corn, and formulated for use in infant formula, dairy and other products with a myriad of other unreviewed synthetic ingredients.
"All these elements of the Martek Biosciences products, along with outstanding safety and efficacy concerns, made them inappropriate and illegal in organics,” said Charlotte Vallaeys, director of Food and Farm Policy for Cornucopia. "So after witnessing this travesty, we decided to take a closer look at how other synthetic additives have been approved for use in organic foods in the past."
What The Cornucopia Institute investigation found is disturbing to many organic industry stakeholders.
Since the NOSB was not constituted by Congress to be a scientific body, it relies on legally mandated technical reviews, by impartial scientists, of any synthetic materials that are petitioned for use in organics.
Cornucopia found that a small handful of scientists, working for corporate agribusiness, supplied the "independent" analyses to the board. In one example, an executive for Ralston Purina/Beech Nut, Dr. Richard Theuer, authored 45 of 50 technical reviews during a two-year period in the 1990s.
As a case study Cornucopia used the food ingredient carrageenan, a stabilizer and thickening agent that was initially approved for use in organic food in the mid-1990s. Theuer, and two other agribusiness-related food scientists, reviewed carrageenan without emphasizing its impacts on human health and the environment. Carrageenan, derived from seaweed, has been widely used in conventional foods for decades.
"Carrageenan is a well-documented inflammatory agent that has been found, in thousands of experiments in human cells and animals, to cause harmful effects and low molecular weight. Carrageenan has been recognized by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Research Council of the United States as a possible human carcinogen," said Dr. Joanne Tobacman, a leading researcher on carrageenan and its human health impacts at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Low molecular weight, or "degraded," carrageenan has been found, by industry research, to contaminate food-grade carrageenan. Other research has indicated that digestion, heating, bacterial action and mechanical processing can increase the amount of degraded carrageenan obtained from higher molecular weight carrageenan. "Due to its unique chemical characteristics, there is no safe form of carrageenan," Dr. Tobacman added.
"Those of us in the industry, who are committed to the value of wholesome, nutritious foods that have been the hallmark of the organic industry, need the NOSB and the USDA to carefully and impartially review synthetic ingredients like carrageenan,” said Michael Potter, president of Eden Foods, a Clinton, Michigan based manufacturer long viewed as an organic leader.
In an effort to remediate this ongoing scandal, in a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, Cornucopia demanded that one of the newest appointees to the board, an executive at the giant California berry producer, Driscolls, be removed since she was placed in a slot Congress reserved for an individual who “owns or operates an organic farming operation.”
"We have seen the USDA, in the past, appoint an executive from General Mills as an example, to a consumer slot on the board. This gross scoffing at the law Congress passed as a safeguard against corporate domination needs to end right now," Kastel said. "We expected better from the Obama administration. Either the USDA will immediately remediate this problem or we will defend the organic law in federal court."
Cornucopia’s white paper documents the long-term abuse of congressional intent, by stacking the board with agribusiness operatives, an illegal practice that has stretched over the past three administrations.
Another request in Cornucopia's letter to Secretary Vilsack was to reform the selection of independent scientists reviewing synthetics in organics, stating that the industry needs an impartial board and the board needs truly impartial expert advisors.
"I wish I was making this up, but one of the newest contractors to fulfill this review function is The Organic Center, the nonprofit offshoot of the Organic Trade Association, an agribusiness lobby group,” Kastel added. "This is the proverbial fox watching the organic chicken coop."
The Organic Center's board is chaired by Mark Retzloff, President of Aurora Dairy, a giant factory farm milk producer bottling private-label organic milk for Walmart, Costco and Target. Aurora was found by the USDA in 2007 to have "willfully" violated 14 tenets of federal organic law—likely the largest scandal in organic industry history.
Other members of the Organic Center’s leadership reads like a who's who of giant corporations involved in organics, including four individuals associated with Dean Foods and their WhiteWave division (Horizon and Silk).
"The Organic Center board members have worked, over the years, for many of the very companies seeking approval for use of synthetics in organic food," noted Cornucopia’s Vallaeys. "Talk about a conflict of interest."
Despite these problems Cornucopia's report is bullish on organics and hopeful that the situation at the USDA can be turned around. There are fewer than 300 mostly benign, non-organic and synthetic compounds that have been approved for use in organics. That number is dwarfed by the many thousands of chemicals used in conventional food production, many of them highly toxic and carcinogenic.
"We implore consumers not to reject organics because a handful of corporations have acted recklessly and the USDA has failed to do their legally mandated job. Organic farmers and their ethical processing partners need your support now more than ever," Kastel added. "And health conscious families deserve authentic organic food."
The Cornucopia Institute is collecting signed proxies, downloadable from their website’s home page, asking organic industry stakeholders, including farmers and consumers, to sign the proxy and join in the demand that the USDA operate the organic program legally.
The growing dispute over synthetic ingredients is likely to be a hot topic at the next meeting of the National Organic Standards Board, set for May 22-25 in Albuquerque, N.M.
"We know that carrageenan is up for review at this meeting and we hope the NOSB will revisit their controversial decision on Martek’s DHA/ARA. We urge the board to take this opportunity to reinforce consumer confidence in the organic label," said Kastel.
For more information, click here.
Maryland will become the first state in the nation Thursday to implement a ban on foam takeout containers.
- New Jersey Legislature Passes 'Most Comprehensive' Plastics Ban ... ›
- Canada to Announce Ban on Single-Use Plastics - EcoWatch ›
- The Complex and Frustrating Reality of Recycling Plastic - EcoWatch ›
- Dunkin' Says Bye to Foam Cups (But Bring Your Own Thermos ... ›
- Maine and Vermont Pass Plastic Bag Bans on the Same Day ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Ajit Niranjan
Leaders from across the world have promised to turn environmental degradation around and put nature on the path to recovery within a decade.
- Destruction of Nature Is Triggering Pandemics, Say Leaders of WWF ... ›
- The UN Wants to Protect 30% of the Planet by 2030 - EcoWatch ›
- New WWF Report Calls for Protecting Nature to Prevent Future ... ›
Just days after a new report detailed the "unequivocal and pervasive role" climate change plays in the increased frequency and intensity of wildfires, new fires burned 10,000 acres on Sunday as a "dome" of hot, dry air over Northern California created ideal fire conditions over the weekend.
- California's Iconic Redwoods Threatened by Wildfires - EcoWatch ›
- California Wildfires Destroy Condor Sanctuary, at Least 4 Birds Still ... ›
- 7 Devastating Photos of Wildfires in California, Oregon and ... ›
- David Attenborough Calls For Ban on Deep-Sea Mining - EcoWatch ›
- Sir David Attenborough Set to Present BBC Documentary on ... ›
- David Attenborough Gives Stark Warning in New BBC Climate ... ›
Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
- Overlooked Flood Risk Endangers Homeowners - EcoWatch ›
- Florida Coastal Flooding Maps: Residents Deny Predicted Risks to ... ›
- Flooding Risk for U.S. Homes: Millions More Are Vulnerable Than ... ›