A growing division 

Dressed in a white T-shirt and blue pajama pants, Tim Moriarty -- licensed massage therapist, natural healer and reiki master -- is standing at his 1,200-square-foot wheat-grass garden. "This is how it's supposed to be done," he says in a reflective tone.

He scoops up a handful of jet-black dirt and thoughtfully explains how the dark soil he holds is the true breeding ground of nutrients. Any other way of growing food, he says, is insufficient for the human body.

Moriarty's patch outside his Altamonte Springs home makes him one of a growing number of organic farmers. Indeed, the organic industry itself is booming, now upwards of $6 billion a year. At health-food stores in Central Florida and across America, consumers buy organic foods -- despite the premium price -- because they're perceived as more tasty, healthy and environment-friendly.

But Moriarty's also a purist, and that puts him at odds with many in the industry. He feels that his is the best way -- the only way -- to organically farm. This, despite new industry trends toward growing crops using a cheaper, less-time-consuming and, he argues, less nutritious method that grows crops not in the ground but in the nursery. That's not right, Moriarty insists. Worse, it's putting "real" organic farmers out of business.

When shoppers look for organic products here, they often rely on an organic seal, which is essentially Florida's assurance that the product has met the growing standards of a 1990 law. Much to Moriarty's dismay, the state's only organic certification agency, Florida Certified Organic Growers and Consumers Inc. (FOG), makes no distinction between crops grown in a soilless medium and those grown like his wheat grass.

And consumers, Moriarty says, never know the difference, despite his assertion that potted, nursery-grown crops should not be considered organic at all. "`In potted crops` 90 percent of the root system's sucking on air," he says. "The growth media they're using doesn't meet any organic standards. It's an insult to the spirit of the law."

The quest to define "organic" is nothing new. In 1990, Congress -- under pressure from the new breed of organic farmers -- directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set guidelines for organic marketing. The USDA, in turn, tapped the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to make recommendations.

Ten years later, there's still no national standard. A good deal of that blame belongs to the USDA, whose first attempt at rule-making in 1997 simply ignored the recommendations, resulting in a rule that was widely criticized as an opening for agribusiness to dominate the market.

In fact, a record 275,603 complaint calls poured into the USDA, and the rule was scrapped. In March of this year, the USDA tried again; since the second proposed rule largely followed the NOSB's recommendations and the organic industry's wishes, it's been received optimistically.

All in all, the rule -- which should be adopted by the end of the year -- will pretty much mirror the law Florida enacted in 1990. For soil-based crops, that means the soil must be "organically maintained" for three years before the first organic harvest in order to build soil fertility. Thereafter, crops must be grown without inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, additives or preservatives. Nursery crops, meanwhile, have no such time restraints; as long as the potting soil and nutrients used come from "acceptable sources," says FOG certification standards committee chairman Chris Stettner, the crops will be certified as organic.

Each year, FOG inspectors conduct audits of organic farmers to ensure that they are abiding by the rules -- but that's really the extent of FOG's regulatory power. The nonprofit organization, according to director Marty Mesh, relies mostly on self-regulation. It's prohibitively expensive, he says, to test the soil and water that a farmer is using, except in cases where farmers pay for their own tests (which FOG suggests) or there's reason to be suspicious. FOG receives no state money to pay for those tests, though it is, for all intents and purposes, the only enforcement agency behind the state law.

Still, Mesh says, the current system isn't totally ineffective: Just last year, an organic farmer was decertified after an investigation revealed "serious violation" of organic growing standards. That happens, he adds, once every few years.

"I don't believe it's very widespread," he says. "I do believe that there are bad apples in the applecart." He believes the extensive application process goes a long way toward eliminating the abusers.

Mesh hopes, however, that the new USDA rule will include a strong enforcement provision, although there's no indication -- as least right now -- that it will. While the USDA's proposed rule allows for stiffer penalties for violations, including fines and expulsion from the certification program, it's not quite clear how the rules will be enforced.

"They need to provide a consistent standard for enforcement," Mesh says. "I have advocated that that proposed rule should not be published until `enforcement issues are settled`. You can't have the program without enforcement."

"I'm not sure how their budget allocates for that," says Organic Trade Association spokeswoman Holly Givins, "until we see the final regulation."

Mesh would like to see money taken from the retail end to fund enforcement programs. In a $6 billion industry, even one-half of 1 percent would generate $30 million for enforcement. If people are willing to pay a bit extra, he says, then they'll know for sure what they're eating.

Moriarty complains about FOG's enforcement problems almost as an aside. He actually thinks it behooves FOG financially to certify as many operations as possible, whether they meet organic standards or not. That's because FOG is funded via certification fees -- peaking at $225 annually -- and by taking one-half of 1 percent of all the organic farmers' gross.

Mesh turns that logic on its head. Because the majority of organic farmers make less than $30,000 a year, FOG actually loses money due to inspection costs and licensing fees from the state Depart-ment of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Indeed, almost everything Moriarty says on the subject must be taken with a grain of salt. For more than two years, Moriarty has waged a battle against another wheat-grass grower in town, and in his thinking, anyone who disagrees with him is a liar -- including Mesh.

His competitor is a nursery grower, and as such can produce wheat grass cheaper and in higher volumes. FOG had no problem certifying the competitor, to which Moriarty took exception. In September 1999, he let his FOG certification expire in protest, meaning he can no longer market his wheat grass as organic, though it is in every detail.

Because of that, many local health-food stores now sell his competitors' wheat grass instead of his, which has hurt him financially.

Begrudgingly, however, FOG's Stettner thinks Moriarty may have a point.

"As far as which system is better than the other," he says, "I'd probably agree with Tim `that soil-based produce is nutritionally better` -- but there's no way to say definitively. Things grown in the soil tend to do better."

Moriarty cites the late wheat-grass guru Ann Wigmore, who wrote that, in essence, nursery-grown wheat grass contains less than half the nutritional value of soil-based wheat grass. Still, Moriarty's assertion is less than proven fact.

And, say FOG officials, even if it was, it wouldn't matter. Certification, they point out, is less an approval of the actual crop than of how the crop was grown. How good a product is, Stettner says, still depends on the farmer. But that's not really something the industry can regulate. "There's no absolutes in it," Stettner says. "Agriculture by its very nature is so variable."

In Moriarty's case, Stetter says, both farmers' wheat grasses are grown organically, at least by the current standards, so it's pretty much a nonissue.

But not everyone's satisfied with that answer. "What does organic mean?" asks an exasperated Ken Rohla, an acquaintance of Moriarty's and an organic enthusiast. Given both the enforcement issues and the debate over nursery-grown crops, he says, "I don't feel confident in the certification."

The only way to gain that confidence, Rohla says, is to grow his own food.


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