By Mischa Poppof
Meet the most powerful figure in the global organic industrial complex. No, it’s not President Obama. It’s Miles McEvoy, Obama’s Deputy Administrator of the National Organic Program (NOP) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As the DA of all things organic in the largest organic market in the world, McEvoy promises to start doing something unprecedented at a national level: to begin unannounced field testing to ensure prohibited substances are not being used.
That was back in March of 2010.
Maybe you assumed that field testing was already in place to ensure the integrity of certified organic crops and livestock? Well, it’s not. Organic certification is granted under a complicated bureaucratic system of record-keeping in conjunction with…well… that’s it. This leaves the door wide-open to fraud, as well as to misleading marketing campaigns that claim organic foods are a safer, more nutritious alternative for concerned consumers.
Until McEvoy makes good on field testing, it remains impossible to know who’s actually following the rules and avoiding all the synthetic crop amendments that are supposed to be excluded from organic production. And since every dollar reeled in by the purveyors of organic foods comes at the expense of their competition, this lack of basic testing affects everyone who produces food. So it clearly behooves McEvoy to finally begin doing what President Clinton and the American Consumers Union (ACU) wanted all the way back in 1997, when the NOP was launched.
One need only look to the Chinese agricultural system to get an idea of the potential for organic fraud. At one point the Food and Drug Administration’s rate of rejection for all Chinese food imports was 25 times the average. This was for non-organic food imports. But with premiums of 100 percent or more for products labeled “organic,” how confident are you that no one in China has ever exploited the USDA’s honor-based organic certification system? As it is, in the U.S. itself, the ACU found that 25 percent of the food designated as “organic,” which they tested in 1998, “contained traces of pesticide not sanctioned for use by any private or state organic certification program.” No wonder the ACU joined Clinton in demanding field testing.
China ships nearly 100 percent of its allegedly organic produce to the United States. And until they develop their own corrupt organic-certification bureaucracy, they piggyback on the American certification system with the USDA’s full approval — all without a single field test or surprise inspection, just paperwork. This means everything labeled “organic” from China carries the USDA’s good name.
Even without all the alarming statistics about tainted “organic” imports, field-testing is obviously overdue. If the Chinese can cheat, anyone can cheat. And yet, McEvoy is three years into his term and has yet to implement organic field-testing. And so we wait, and wait… and wait. And meanwhile, unsubstantiated organic standards provide a platform from which urban organic activists spread misinformation about conventional (sometimes referred to as “industrial”) food production.
EWG’S “DIRTY DOZEN” LIST
A particularly conspicuous example of this misinformation is the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) “Dirty Dozen” list, a list of foods that organic activists say you should only buy in a certified-organic form. You might very well wonder how EWG could promote such a list when there’s no testing to distinguish between what is and is not genuinely organic. And, as it happens, you’d be right.
In fact, the people at EWG helped write the USDA’s toothless organic standards, which omitted field testing — against President Clinton’s and the ACU’s better judgment. A tiny bit of a conflict of interest, perhaps? Well, it gets worse. In addition to opposing field testing, EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” list suffers from several fundamental scientific flaws as outlined in a peer-reviewed scientific paper published back in March in the Journal of Toxicology, a paper to which the well-funded EWG has yet to respond. And still their “Dirty Dozen” list is continually parroted by gullible reporters who willingly advance the completely unfounded marketing claim that organic food is cleaner, purer, and more nutritious than the food produced by the conventional industry, an industry which, surely even the people at EWG will admit, has safely and nutritiously fed billions upon
billions of people over the decades.
As an organic farmer, inspector, and author, I happen to believe there are many provable, quantifiable benefits to eating organic food (examples are outlined in Chapter 19 of my book, Is it Organic? ). But under the current organic-certification system, which requires only paperwork and hefty fees (paid to private certifying agencies that, by the way, have strong ties to groups like EWG) I am forced to admit that the organic industry is a mere shadow of what it should be. Are you actually getting those higher levels of anti-carcinogenic compounds you’ve read about when you pay a premium for certified-organic wine? There’s no possible way to know.
It’s no wonder, then, that political lobby groups like EWG stir emotions rather than responding to substantive academic criticism. Anyone who reads the USDA’s organic standards will see immediately that there’s no way to know whether organic farmers use only approved organic sprays and natural fertilizer. Without field testing and surprise inspections, how are we to know?
When activists assure us that “Organic growers are, in general, better stewards of soil health, water quality, and public health than industrial farmers who are reliant on synthetic chemicals,”  they’re leaving out the most important part: the fact that there isn’t any scientific assurance that this is actually the case. Intentions are nice, but proof is better, surely, especially when a premium price is being charged.
WHAT EXACTLY DO ORGANIC INSPECTORS DO DURING “INSPECTIONS”?
I am, sadly, very much alone within the ranks of organic inspectors in my desire to see proof of organic authenticity in the form of a simple, inexpensive lab test on a sample collected from the field. My fellow inspectors, for some strange reason, with few exceptions, embrace paperwork and the perfunctory look-see around a facility when performing “inspections.” Organic farmers, on the other hand (the real ones here in North America —not the pretend ones in China) hate paperwork, and would like unannounced organic field testing to be implemented immediately. It’s a difference of opinion which can be explained by the fact that most organic inspectors have never worked a day on a farm in their life, much like urban organic activists. In other words, they’re seriously out of touch with the people who live on the land and drive the whole organic movement.
Most organic inspectors do double duty as urban organic activists. They take marching orders from — yes — the people who run the Environmental Working Group, along with other like-minded organic activist groups. And now you know what organic inspectors do — or don’t do. Scientific objectivity be damned.
McEvoy was on the right track when he tested crop samples from 5 percent of applicants back when he was with the Washington State Dept. Organic Program. His problem back then was his failure to replace paperwork with field testing; he basically ran out of money by running two parallel inspection systems. But given that the cost of field testing is a tenth the cost of paperwork, the challenge for the most powerful person in the organic industry is to hurry up and use the power of the USDA to cut down on all the self-reporting and begin testing 100 percent of the crops, livestock, and handling facilities anywhere in the world where someone grows, handles, or processes food that bears the USDA NOP, certified-organic label.
Otherwise, the organic industry remains a free-for-all.
1. This doesn’t stop organic activists and business people from claiming organic field testing already occurs. In recent back-to-back articles in The Packer, Christine Bushway (executive director and chief executive officer of the Organic Trade Association) and Charles Sweat (CEO of Earthbound Farm) both claim that fraud is already kept in check with organic field testing. But then, after describing the regulatory aspects of organic “inspecting,” they conclude by assuring us that the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) will, any day now, begin testing 5% of organic farms and processing facilities. This reveals what I’ve been saying for years: that organic farms and processing facilities are not being field tested.
2. Popoff. Is it Organic? Polyphase Communication, 2009. p. 498 – 523.
3. Mark, Jason. (2011). “Myths: Busted — Clearing up the misunderstandings about organic farming.” ScientificAmerican.com guest blog. [http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2011/08/14/myths-busted-clearing-up-the-misunderstandings-about-organic-farming/]
Mischa Popoff is the author of Is it Organic? He earned a B.A. from the University of Saskatchewan, where he specialized in the history of nitrogen for fertilizer and warfare. He then worked as an organic farm and processing inspector, inspecting over 500 organic farms and processing facilities on both sides of the Canadian-American border. He eventually stopped inspecting, out of frustration with the fraud and negligence he experienced in the industry. He now works as a writer, political columnist, and radio host.