New England editorial roundup

4/18/2015 5:15 AM
By Associated Press

The Kennebec Journal of Augusta (Maine), April 13, 2015

The organic food industry has tripled in size in the last decade, to an annual take of $35 billion, and it continues to grow at 15 percent to 20 percent per year.

That makes the organic sector, which conjures images of small, local, responsible farming, an attractive target for the kind of large-scale operations that define other forms of agriculture, and it makes it imperative that the U.S. Department of Agriculture safeguards the integrity of its organic label.

Unfortunately, the USDA is headed in the other direction.

Late last year, the department changed the process for approving the use of nonorganic substances in organic farming. In doing so, the USDA not only weakened the standard for what is considered organic, it also did so without the crucial public comment and hearing period that give farmers and other interested parties a voice in the process.

That sets a poor precedent that opens the way for the wrong kinds of influence on organic certification, and ultimately may harm the legitimacy of the valuable USDA label.

The rule in question governs which synthetic materials may be used in organic food production. Under the old rule, a particular substance had to be reviewed by the National Organic Standards Board every five years to see if any new hazards had been discovered, or if there were new, organic alternatives available. A two-thirds majority was needed to continue the use of the material.

Now, the exempted synthetic materials are allowed indefinitely, and a special, two-thirds vote is needed to remove them.

The change makes it easier for producers, eager for a piece of the burgeoning organic market, to use the synthetic ingredients and treatments favored by large agribusiness and still receive the USDA organic certification.

That unfairly puts them on par with farmers whose output more closely resembles what consumers have in mind when they purchase a product with the green organic label.

More than that, the ruling rightfully makes farmers wonder how the USDA might next diminish the organic designation, and whether they'll even have a chance to fight the decision.

People buy organic foods because of the — debatable — health and nutrition advantages, but also because organic farming, when done right, promotes healthy soil, crop diversity, animal welfare, and, often, local agriculture.

That doesn't mean that organic products are better in all instances than products made through traditional farming, or that the standards of many traditional farmers aren't just as high as those of organic farmers.

But it does mean that consumers expect certain standards to be followed if they are going to pay the premium that comes with organic foods. If those standards are diminished, the public eventually will figure it out, and they will no longer pay the premium.

That will leave small organic farms, many of which call Maine home, out of luck, and do harm to a local food industry that has great potential in our state.

Fifteen groups representing organic food producers, including the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, have filed suit against the federal government, seeking to have the ruling overturned.

Their opposition should send a signal to the USDA that standards for organic farming should be strengthened, not slowly dismantled.

The Boston Globe, April 16, 2015

The face of dissent just took on another dimension, quite literally. To protest a new "gag" law aimed at cracking down on demonstrations outside government buildings, Spanish activists last weekend assembled the world's first-ever virtual march, made up of 2,000 rallying holograms in front of the national parliament in Madrid. The event had the energy, images, and sound of a protest but without actual bodies. It was a technological lesson for Spanish politicians. But beyond being a clever stunt to raise awareness of a possibly unconstitutional anti-activism law, the spectacle reinforced the realization that technology will always find ways to outwit government forces trying to silence citizens' voices.

The new Spanish law, which is scheduled to take effect July 1, essentially criminalizes freedom of expression under the guise of "public security." The legislation penalizes and establishes hefty fines for unauthorized protests that turn violent inside or outside parliament buildings or key locations, and for taking or distributing photos of police officers if it endangers their safety or the success of an operation. "From now on, the only way to demonstrate in Spain will be through holograms," said one of the organizers of last week's virtual protest.

Critics say the regulations — beyond standing as an unprecedented attack on civil liberties — are also an attempt by the conservative ruling party to silence the social movement launched four years ago by Spanish youth, the 15-M, or "los indignados." The movement, which rallied against the economic crisis, inequality, political corruption, and rampant unemployment, gave birth to a popular political party: the left-wing, anti-austerity Podemos.

The gag law has been condemned by UN human rights specialists, and may still be challenged nationally or at the European Union level. Indeed, Spain's conservative party is learning that muffling free expression has no place in a democracy, and that repressed voices will ultimately manage to speak at double the volume.

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