America’s Command Economy

The US government is trying to ban organic farming – on both sides of the Atlantic

By George Monbiot. Published in The Guardian 5th March 1998.

Oprah Winfrey is an unlikely hero of the battle against big business. Yet the case she won last week, in which she established her right to express an opinion about the merits of eating beefburgers, ranks with the McDonalds libel trial as one of the few serious setbacks suffered by the agro-industrial combines seeking to monopolise world food production.

She had been sued, by a syndicate of monster cattle ranchers, under the surreal “food disparagement” laws introduced in 14 American states to prevent people from questioning such practices as feeding bovine offal to cows. These laws are a compelling demonstration of the lengths to which US legislators will go to defend the interests of corporations against the interests of the citizen. We can only be thankful that there’s an ocean between us and American plutocracy.

Our happy state won’t last, however. Winfrey might have won her battle, but the war waged by an industry that can tolerate no dissent has only just begun. Its latest attempt to silence criticism and eliminate good practice is already well-advanced, and this time the consequences for Britain are just as profound as the consequences for America.

On March 16th, the US Department of Agriculture will close its consultations on a new national standard for organic farming. Its proposals have horrified small farmers, consumer groups and animal welfare campaigners. If adopted and implemented as protesters predict, they will outlaw genuine organic production, all over the world.

The USDA would allow fruit and vegetables to be labelled “organic” in the United States which have been genetically engineered, irradiated, treated with additives and raised on contaminated sewage sludge. Under the new proposals, “organic” livestock can be housed in batteries, fed with the offal of other animals and injected with antibiotics. “Organic” produce, in the brave new world of American oligopoly, will be virtually indistinguishable from conventionally toxic food.

The solution would seem to be obvious: genuine organic producers should call their food something else. But the USDA is nothing if not far-sighted. The new proposals prohibit the setting of standards higher than those established by the department. Farmers will, in other words, be forbidden by law from producing and selling good food.

The next step, if these standards are adopted in the United States, is not hard to anticipate. American manufacturers will complain to their government that the European Union is erecting unfair barriers to trade, by refusing to allow them to label the poisonous produce they sell here as organic food. The US government will take the case to the World Trade Organization. The WTO will refer it to Codex Alimentarius, the food standards body dominated by corporate scientists. The Codex panel will decide that they can’t see any difference between American organic produce and European organic produce, and the WTO will threaten Europe with punitive sanctions if it continues to maintain the higher trading standard. This is precisely the means by which European consumers are being forced to eat beef and drink milk contaminated with injectable growth hormones.

There’s no mystery about why US agribusiness wants its Washington subsidiary, the USDA, to set these new standards. The consumption of organic food is rising by 20-30 per cent a year and, in some countries, is likely to become the dominant landuse. Organic farming is labour intensive. It responds best to small scale production, matched to the peculiarities of the land. Big business simply can’t operate in an environment like this. There is no potential for hegemony. What it can’t control, it must destroy.

The United States government claims to be the champion of free trade, but it is, in truth, emphatically opposed to it. It seeks instead to exercise a coercive power of central control and legislative dictat, on a scale which makes the command economies of the old Soviet Union look like a village paper round.

I’ve long believed that we should be allowed to vote in US elections, as their outcome affects us almost as much as it affects the Americans. British people now have a brief opportunity to do the next best thing, and demand of the USDA that it drops this attempt to smother the seeds of rehabilitation. There are no second chances. Once the new standards come into force, our own government will be powerless to protect us from the consequences.