MARION, Md. — The poster on Christine and Dale Johnson's kitchen wall reads, "Our Veggies Don't Do Drugs."
A jar on the kitchen table holds wasp eggs, future natural predators to be used instead of pesticides against the tomato hornworm--"a nasty critter, a voracious eater," Christine Johnson said.
The Johnsons run an organic farm, growing peppers, squash, kale, cherry tomatoes, eggplant, lettuce and other produce on their 65 acres on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay.
Many people tell opinion surveys they are willing to pay more for organic food, grown without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or insecticides.
But growers, retailers, consumer groups and environmentalists say the organic food industry has been handicapped by the lack of consistent national standards to answer the question: What is organic food?
"I think the consumer has the right to the assurance that the organic label means something," Christine Johnson said. "The consumer can often be deceived (and) possibly pay more for a product that's no better than another."
Twenty-two states--including California--have regulations defining organic farming. They all follow the same basic idea, but no two are identical. In other states organic farms are certified by private organizations, applying their own standards.
"Organic agriculture is a funny word. Organic by definition in Webster's would just be carbon-based," said Joseph Dunsmoor, founder of the organic food distributor Organic Farms in Beltsville, Md. "You can say organic agriculture means you don't use farm chemicals. It's a whole lot more than that."
This year Congress is taking a stab at an answer. The House and Senate both approved programs for nationwide organic farming standards as part of the 1990 farm bill.
The conference committee that will resolve differences between the two bills is waiting for approval of the budget deal so it knows how much money has to be cut from farm-support programs, but the organic provisions are expected to survive.
"Organically produced food defies simple definition," the Senate Agriculture Committee said when it adopted its version. So a complicated definition was offered.
"Organic food is food produced using sustainable production methods that rely primarily on natural materials," the committee began. There are exceptions--some synthetic chemicals traditionally accepted in organic farming, and a few natural substances so toxic they are banned.
Those exceptions are to be spelled out in a list drawn up by a National Organic Standards Board, to be made up of organic farmers, wholesalers and retailers, consumer representatives and environmentalists.
Rules for raising organic meat and poultry are even more confusing than for vegetables. It's left to the standards board to figure out what livestock medications, vaccines and parasiticides are to be legal for organic farmers.
Within two years, shoppers should be seeing U.S. government-certified organic chickens, tomatoes and bell peppers in the stores.
The legislation allows for state and private organizations to do the inspection and certification, so long as they follow the national standards. States also would be permitted to enact stricter standards, if they wished, but could not block imports of nationally certified organic food from other states.
The organic-farming provisions were backed vigorously by lobbyists from environmental groups, who say overuse of chemical pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers is polluting streams and endangering farm workers.
Chemical manufacturers reject any suggestion their products are unsafe, but approve the idea of nationwide standards for organic agriculture, said Christopher Klose, spokesman for the National Agricultural Chemicals Assn.
The small but growing organic farm industry also supported the plan for nationwide standards and labeling.
"For both the consumer and the grower, there are going to be multiple benefits. It makes marketing much easier," said Marty Rice, co-director of the Maryland Organic Food and Farming Assn., which was founded last year.
Dale Johnson, driving boxes of organic kale in from his fields in a white pickup, said he hoped the government-approved organic labels will boost the market for organic foods.
"People say they want it and are willing to pay more for it, but that hasn't translated into a bigger market on the East Coast," he said.
Supermarkets, however, report falling interest in organic foods.
"A lot of consumers will buy it one time for the novelty, but the repeat sales don't seem to be there," said Nancy Yanish, director of agricultural relations for the Food Marking Institute in Washington. "If consumers want it, supermarkets will be glad to sell it."
Two major grocery chains in the Washington area, Giant and Safeway, once had organic produce sections in some of their stores. Both dropped the idea in the last year after disappointing sales.
The trade weekly Supermarket News reported similar experiences nationwide, asking in an article last May, "Is organic produce withering on the vine?"
Organic farm organizations, however, report their production up by as much as 40% over last year. Stores specializing in natural and organic foods seem to be doing fairly well, even if organic sales in regular supermarkets are slumping.
"In the last five years we've gone from a fad to a clear market niche," said Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the California Certified Organic Farmers. "The establishment of national standards will allow our growers to compete fairly in all 50 states."