Els Cooperrider

(WOMENSENEWS)–When Suzan Steinberg pushes her shopping cart down the aisles of the produce section in her neighborhood health food store, she’s not only looking for the sweetest strawberries or the greenest lettuce.

She’s checking packages and containers for an “organic” seal of approval. The 46-year-old San Francisco Bay Area fabric-store owner trusts the seal because it means the food is grown in rich soil without pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or toxic fertilizers. Steinberg ismost familiar with the USDA label but trusts organic farmers to do right by their customers. She said she buys organic fruits and vegetables to support the smaller farmer and because she thinks doing so will reduce the toxins she puts in her body.

“I try to buy organic and I shop at places that support organic,” Steinberg said. “I have a better feeling about the food I’m eating. I feel I am supporting a whole chain of consciousness; the grower, the person who is selling it, and me feeding it to my family.”

Steinberg is not alone.

The U.S. organic food industry reported $12.7 billion in sales in 2004 and has seen sales grow by a steady annual rate of around 20 percent over the past 12 years, according to the Organic Trade Association, a 1,600-member trade organization based in Greenfield, Mass., that promotes and protects the diverse organic industry.

Women Leading Demand for Organic

Although the Organic Trade Association does not keep specific data on how many organic buyers, retailers and farmers are women, many organic farming and cooking enthusiasts say women are leading the demand.

“No matter how modern the world gets, no matter how progressive the world gets, I still think women are at the front lines of feeding,” said Mollie Katzen, the Berkeley, Calif., author of seven vegetarian, organic and healthy eating cookbooks and a natural-foods expert.

Jackie Graff, a chef, the owner of Sprout Raw Food, a line of raw foods in Atlanta, and a nurse who educates people about the benefits of organic food, agrees.

“I believe women see themselves as the nurturer, they want to be the healer of their own families,” said Graff. “Many times women are going to lead their families into a healthier diet.”

Graff, who says eating organic and raw foods has special health benefits for women because women have an extra layer of fat, which means their bodies can retain more of the fat-soluble chemicals found in fertilizers and pesticides.

Because 8 of every 10 women worldwide are their household’s primary shoppers and cooks, they are “either going to hurt the health of their family or they are going to help it,” Graff said.

Finding the Real Organic

As demand for organic products has risen, so has the need to separate organic food from counterparts often grown with the use of pesticides and fertilizers or made with artificial ingredients or preservatives.

Many shoppers look for the label the U.S. Department of Agriculture has placed on foods since late 2002 to certify that they contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients.

The procedure can cost a grower or producer thousands of dollars and require a stack of paperwork more than an inch thick. Detailed record keeping, inspections and soil and water testing are required.

Some organic farmers and their advocates, however, question the strictness of the criteria and are beginning to produce their own “peer review” seals of approvals.

An ‘Eco-Label’ Alternative

In Northern California’s Mendocino County, for instance, a group called the Mendocino Renegade started their own peer-certified organic “eco-label” for Mendocino and Lake Counties.

Calling themselves an affordable alternative to USDA certification, the Renegade label was formed for the benefit of farmers and ranchers, retailers, wholesalers, restaurants and consumers.

“The eco-label phenomena is somewhat commonsense, everyone tries to define a market niche for themselves,” said Katherine DiMatteo, the executive director of the Organic Trade Association.

Members of the volunteer Renegade group say they have strict organic standards without the involvement of the government or political pressure.

“We all decided it was too easy to cheat,” said Renegade member and advocate Els Cooperrider. “If you are selling your organic carrots for $1 a pound and you run out and you have non-organic carrots that you are selling for 50 cents a pound, it’s too easy to mix them.”

To create uniform guidelines, Mendocino Renegade grants the label to those farmers and ranchers who pledge to grow or process food using sustainable, non-polluting methods. An applicant must submit a short description of the operation to be certified, a checklist of prohibited practices–such as spraying with pesticides–and a signed affidavit that they are telling the truth about both. There’s a $200 administrative fee and an inspection by “peers” with extensive knowledge of the organic industry.

“Grassroots agriculture is moving toward the local labels,” said Rose Koenig, a Florida organic farmer and a member of the National Organic Standards Board, which advises the USDA. “Local is really important to communities.”

Lawsuit Over National Organic Standards

The Renegade group is putting its stamp of approval on organic produce at a time when Arthur Harvey, a Maine organic blueberry farmer, is battling with the government in a lawsuit about “technical inconsistencies” between the national organic standards implemented in 2002 and the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.

Harvey alleged that he suffered because “the challenged regulations weakened the integrity of the organic program and the standards it sets forth.”

In January, a U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston sided with Harvey in ruling that three clauses in the national organics program deviate from legal standards of the earlier Organic Foods Production Act.

The USDA, for instance, allows 38 synthetic ingredients, such as baking powder, to be used in foods that contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients. Synthetic substances, however, were prohibited by the earlier Organic Foods Protection Act. In its ruling the court called for most of the synthetic that have been approved up to now to be outlawed.

The court ruled that some clauses in the national organics program are not valid, which leaves organic-food growers and consumers expecting stricter regulations from the USDA to emerge. To that end, the Organic Trade Association has pledged to work with the government.

The court decision may hamper the organic growth rate in the short term, but the Organic Trade Association is optimistic that its members and others in the organic community can pull together to maintain the momentum for organic agriculture, DiMatteo said in a statement.

Kristin Bender is an Oakland-based freelance writer.

For more information:

Women Pioneer Biofuel to Save Mother Earth:

The Environment Is a Women’s Issue:

Mendocino Renegade:

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