CHICAGO - What's a food activist to do? Hold your nose and sign up with the evil empire, or huddle with ideologically pure rebels on the fringes and risk being shut out of the battle? At the annual conference here of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, a panel on Friday addressed that dilemma: Should sustainable farming advocates embrace the Department of Agriculture's watered-down organic standards or trash them in favor of the movement known as Beyond Organic? Farmer and author Michael Ableman gave a ringing endorsement for Beyond Organic at a plenary session on Thursday. Organic has been fatally co-opted, Ableman argued, and only a new movement, untainted by compromise with Big Agro lobbyists, can restore the public's confidence in the word "organic."
But panelist Marion Nestle, NYU professor and author of What to Eat, came down on the side of compromise. "Organics has many enemies," she said, "both large corporate agriculture and people who think the standards are too weak." In 2002 - after twelve years of deliberation - the USDA reluctantly adopted rules defining organic.
Surprise, surprise: The official Organic Standards contain loopholes you could drive a combine through, especially for meats and dairy. "So change the legislation," Nestle told a questioner in the audience who complained that the paperwork to apply for organic certification is too much of a burden for small growers. "Complain to the Department of Agriculture in huge numbers to get the standards fixed."