Hot potatoes

A few key concerns top nearly everybody’s list of gripes about the proposed rules: genetic engineering, irradiation, and sewage sludge, which critics say run counter to the whole spirit of organics.

Right now, the rules neither prohibit nor allow these practices to be used on food labeled “organic.” And USDA officials stress that they’re not endorsing them (at least, not yet) — they’re simply seeking public comment. In fact, senior staffer Michael Hankin suggests that sufficient public outcry could help ensure that these practices won’t be allowed in organic farming.

Nevertheless, the final rules will address these issues, one way or the other — and critics fear this could be a foot in the door for other controversial practices, as well.

The very hottest hot potatoes appear to be:

Genetic engineering: Using various high-tech methods, it’s possible to splice a gene from one organism into another, producing plants resistant to diseases or to highly toxic pesticides. But questions have been raised about the technology’s unanticipated effects on other species. And unlike pesticides, once a genetically engineered organism has been released into the environment, it can’t simply be banned, if it’s later found to be harmful.

Irradiation: Exposing food to gamma rays kills harmful bacteria. Proponents say recent outbreaks of food poisoning show the need for irradiation. Others say strict food-handling practices are better — and safer. There are questions about irradiation’s effects on food, and concerns about worker safety and increased transport of radioactive materials.

Sewage sludge: Also known as “biosolids,” fertilizer made from sewage-treatment-plant wastes often contains heavy metals and a wide variety of synthetic chemicals. But disposing of the sludge is a growing problem, and the EPA is said to be pushing hard for expanded agricultural use.

Other controversial issues: Labeling restrictions that some say could limit consumers’ ability to choose what they eat; proposed fees that critics say could put small farmers out of business; inclusion of potentially toxic inert ingredients in the National List of approved organic materials; variance language that could allow farmers to circumvent the rules; and loopholes that some say could further degrade organic standards.

For details on these and other issues, consult the information station at the French Broad Food Co-op, or the following Web sites:

• Organic Farmers Marketing Association: www.iquest.net/ofma/

• Organic Trade Association: www.ota.com

• USDA: www.ams.usda.gov/nop

— P.G.

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