Hook, line and sticker
by Beck Ireland
The higher prices levied on food and drink carrying an organic label can cause sticker shock in many consumers. However, an increasing appetite for fruits and vegetables free of toxic pesticides and synthetic fertilizer has recently transformed organic farming into a $30-billion-dollar-a-year industry. Yet, for the last 14 years, no organic farm in the United States or Canada has been subjected to systematic and unannounced field testing.
"You're flipping a coin every time you pay a premium for organic food at a store," says Mischa Popoff, an advanced organic inspector with the International Organic Inspectors Association and author of Is It Organic?: The Inside Story of Who Destroyed the Organic Industry, Turned It into a Socialist Movement and Made Millions in the Process.
According to Popoff, many of the foods labeled organic could contain substances prohibited by the Organic Materials Review Institute, such as toxic pesticides and fungicides.
"Even the most educated consumer has no idea what's really going on with any of their food," he says.
Although spot testing for pesticides has been required by law since 1990, it hasn’t been systematically carried out. In 1997, according to Popoff, President Bill Clinton and the America Consumers Union considered adding a more stringent field test requirement to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program. However, lobbying interests "watered down" the wording.
"They turned it into a glorified marketing system," Popoff says. "It's based on the honor of all the people involved—all the people on the farm all the way up to the retail. If they're all honorable, it works, but then why do you even need a certification system if it's just going to be honor-based?"
Turns out some of the certified farmers may not be that honorable. A recent audit conducted by the USDA's inspector general revealed that the National Organic Program took delayed and sometimes inadequate action to enforce standards, as well as a lack of standard enforcement practices. In response, Miles McEvoy, head of the National Organic Program, says the agency will begin enforcing testing rules, including requiring unannounced inspections of organic producers and processors and regular reviews of organic products in stores. Additionally, the National Organic Program plans to begin testing 10 percent of the operations the agency certifies this fall.
This should come as good news to organic proponents such as Popoff. However, only domestic organic farmers, who make up just 15 percent of the domestic market for organic food in the US and Canada, will be subjected to tests on their crops. Foreign organic operations, which provide 85 percent of the organic produce to the market in the US and Canada, will remain untested.
"The United States and Canada have no problem producing food," Popoff says. "In fact, we export food to the rest of the world—except for the organic industry. But if you ask any organic farmer if he's having trouble keeping up with demand, he'll say he could produce way more but retailers don't want it because it's too expensive. They want to buy it from China."
To make sure you get what you pay for, Popoff says, skip the stickers at the store and go straight to the source.
"Meet the farmer, but especially go visit the farm," he advises. "If you meet the farmer and are a good judge of character, that's one step closer to the truth. But nothing is better than just going to the farm. And you don't have to go to the farm every time you buy groceries. You only need to go once a year."
Still, that piece of advice may prove difficult. According to Popoff, local, accessible farmers account for less than one percent of the total $30 billion organic food industry.
This wasn't always so. In the early 1990s, when the organic market hit the $1 billion mark for North America, 100 percent of it came from domestic farming operations.
"It was all domestic, and for the most part, local," Popoff says. "But then it became big business."
Many domestic organic farmers dropped the expensive certification. Therefore, not all organic farms are certified organic farms, yet they still follow organic practices.
"The certified farms are paying for bureaucracy, and it's subsidized by your taxes," Popoff says. "It's like the farmer turns to the taxpayer, takes a handful of money, and just turns right around and hands it to the certifier. None of the money stays with the farmer to help him with the extra expenses that are involved in organic farming, such as using more fuel because you're working the fields more because you can't use spray. None of the money stays with the farmer. It all goes into the hands of the certifiers, and they use it to build their bureaucracy and lobbying."
Of the organic farmers who now produce 15 percent of domestic sales, most have been certified for less than five years.
"The old-timers have found other ways of marketing. They have turned their backs on this system that was supposedly devised to help local family American and Canadian farmers stay in business,” Popoff says.
“Seriously, how many farmers want to sit through a meeting to look over their paperwork?"
More information about Is it Organic?: The Inside Story of Who Destroyed the Organic Industry, Turned It into a Socialist Movement and Made Millions in the Process can be found at www.isitorganic.ca.
Beck Ireland can be contacted at Beck.Ireland@gmail.com