The Multinational Monitor


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Clean Food & Water

THERE IS A GROWING movement in the United States for pesticide-free agriculture, and a Vermont community-based environmental organization, Food & Water, is helping lead the way.

Food & Water began campaigning for food safety 10 years ago. Since then, it has discouraged virtually all food irradiation, a form of food processing designed to extend the shelf life of food.

Now Food & Water is turning its attention to promoting pesticide-free agriculture, even as many Washington, D.C.-based environmental groups recently signed off on a plan to gut the Delaney Clause, a provision of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act which banned the use of any cancer-causing pesticide in processed foods. The 1996 Food Quality Protection act sacrificed the Delaney Clause while winning a health-based standard for pesticides in food and requiring that pesticide standards be set to reflect the special vulnerabilities of infants and children. Among the groups supporting the Food Quality Protection Act were the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Environmental Working Group and Citizen Action.

Food & Water is determined to preserve the Delaney principle of zero-risk tolerance to protect consumers against the hazardous effects of pesticides and other chemicals in foods -- even if there are no laws on the books banning pesticide usage.

Food & Water earned its reputation in the food irradiation fight by waging hard-hitting campaigns focused directly on corporate decision makers. With most pesticide groups wrangling over Republican proposals to trash food safety regulations in 1995, Food & Water launched its nationwide media campaign to demand farmers, manufacturers and retailers produce and sell pesticide-free food.

Food & Water kicked off the campaign with a print advertisement published in the December 1995 Supermarket News. The ad depicted an assault rifle and compared its danger to that of eating a salad which includes pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables. The intent of the advertisement was to put supermarket companies on notice that citizens were going to begin protesting for and demanding organic foods.

While the Food Quality Protection Act compromise bill was being worked out this spring and summer, Food & Water began a radio campaign urging consumers to refuse "pesticides for dinner."

Food & Water's one minute radio ad asks consumers to demand pesticide free produce from seven targeted grocers, including Safety, Kroger's and Winn-Dixie. The campaign "became necessary," says Jennifer Ferrera, Food & Water's associate director, when it became apparent that Delaney was going to be dismantled.

"We need to be sending a message to the agricultural community that they can no longer hide behind pesticide laws that allow people to be exposed to an `acceptable risk' because citizens want safer practices," Ferrera says.

Food & Water deems any level of pesticides on food absolutely unacceptable, and thinks the public, when alerted, will agree. Food & Water's safe food campaign targets the supermarket industry with a combination of aggressive radio and glaring print advertisements such as the one depicting the drawing of an assault rifle.

"What if you found out that those fresh fruits and vegetables everyone keeps telling you to eat more of might kill?" says a very stern male voice on the national radio spot. The unidentified voice then proceeds to explain that consumers may have inadvertently put toxic pesticides on their dinner tables by purchasing any fruit or vegetable item, including "peas, peppers, squash, strawberries, apples, pears or even canned baby food."

Resolutely, the voice urges consumers to action. "If you want to stop eating toxic pesticides, tell your supermarket manager you're opposed to pesticides and you don't like shopping in stores that carry then."

Ferrera says the ads have drawn the attention of supermarket corporations and their suppliers.

They have certainly caught the attention of Susan Delay, communications director at the United Fruit and Vegetable Association. She criticizes Food & Water as "very unreasonable and probably extremist."

Delay says most of the Association's grower members practice integrated pest management, a combination of "natural and synthetic methods for pest control."

Delay insists that demanding widespread organic farming "is impractical." Only a fraction of the United Fruit and Vegetable Association's membership -- approximately 2 percent -- grow food organically. Delay maintains that all of the crops produced by members of the Association meet government safety standards. She contends that "the level of pesticide residue on produce is `so trivial'" that it poses "little or no risk of accumulation" to the consumer.

To Food & Water, the "trivial" pesticide residue poses too great a risk. It is safer to ensure that no one takes in "poison when we know already that pesticides cause cancer," says Ferrera. When Delaney was discarded over the summer, "we knew we had to find a different approach to the zero-risk standard of food safety," she says.

Because the legislative options to ensure food safety protection appear untenable, "We've taken the problem to the corporations' doorstep," with the call for a boycott of chemically grown food crops, says Ferrera. "People respond when there's a threat to their pocketbooks," she says.

Susan Delay and Jeff Brown, a spokesperson for Safeway, say that farmers and supermarkets are providing organic produce, but only as an alternative "because it may cost more."

But noting that "farmers have practiced organic agriculture for centuries," Ferrera says that organic produce can be grown affordably if consumers take a stand to force a widespread shift in farming practices.

-- Cece Modupé Fadopé

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