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Kathleen Merrigan talks food regulations at First Chapter event

Executive Director of Sustainability Kathleen Merrigan spoke about the U.S. National Organic Program, as part of GW First Chapter's focus on The Good Food Revolution. Katie Causey | Hatchet Staff Photographer
Executive Director of Sustainability Kathleen Merrigan spoke about the U.S. National Organic Program, as part of GW First Chapter’s focus on The Good Food Revolution. Katie Causey | Hatchet Staff Photographer
This post was written by Hatchet Reporter Clara Lishan Ong.

Executive Director of Sustainability Kathleen Merrigan spoke with a group of freshmen Wednesday, sharing her insights about eating organic.

This presentation was part of the First Chapter program for every incoming class of GW students, where students are given a book to read and discuss, and attend events on topics related to the book. This year’s freshmen read “The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities” by Will Allen, the chief executive officer of the Milwaukee, Wisc.-based farm Growing Power.

Merrigan came to GW last year after spending four years as the deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Here are the key takeaways from the event:

1. What is organic? What is natural?

People often confuse what is organic, natural and what is genetically-modified.

“Organic is many standards built into one,” Merrigan said.

The term organic includes raising crops and livestocks without pesticides, antibiotics, most synthetic fertilizers, hormones or genetic engineering.

“Organic is also about crop rotation, healthy soils, respecting diversity, innovation and constantly upgrading standards,” Merrigan said.

But Merrigan said natural, another usually positive term, isn’t always good. Natural foods could include pesticides, antibiotics or hormones, according to Only Organic, an organic advocacy group.

“There is no standard for ‘Natural’. ‘Natural’ then and now has no meaning. Arsenic is natural but we don’t want it in food production,” she said.

2. Raising awareness

Merrigan said that more research needs to be done on organic foods.

So far, 35 thousand USDA employees have undergone organic literacy training. But to avoid confusion about what a food label means, customers should use resources like the Organic Farming Research Foundation and The Organic Center, Merrigan said.

“It’s not just programs and dollars, but about hearts and minds,” said Merrigan.

3. Challenges

Merrigan said though everyone should have access to organic food, about 70 percent of organic food is about 30 percent more expensive.

“Some people cannot afford organic food because they do not have a livable wage,” she said.

She also said the government should eliminate bureaucracy around regulatory standards. When Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act, which focused on preventing food contamination and was signed into law in 2011, Merrigan said it placed “additional burdens on small to mid-size guys who don’t have the professional staff to do the paperwork.”

“We need a computer-based program to do some of that – and we need to know what is necessary and what is nice,” Merrigan said.

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