With organic foods raking in $16 billion and more annually, some are concerned that Department of Agriculture standards and independent third-party verification may be insufficient to prevent fraud.
Science to the rescue.
In a recent study published in Journal of Environmental Quality, Spanish scientists describe how they use “nitrogen isotopic discrimination” to determine if non-organic, synthetic fertilizers were used on sweet pepper plants. Because organic fertilizers derived from manure have compositions of nitrogen isotopes that differ from synthetic fertilizers, produce grown with different methods can be distinguished.
Organic foods are grown without the use of chemical fertilizers, which are often derived from natural gas and/or phosphates minded from the Earth; without the use of chemical pesticides designed to kill weeds, insects or diseases, and without the use of genetically engineered seeds.
The technique developed by Francisco del Amor would only work to identify fraud in the use of fertilizers, and if the cost of testing is comparable to the cost of testing for pesticide residue, it is unlikely to be instituted on a large scale anytime soon; still, it could be used to test for fraud when it is suspected for other reasons.
In the meantime, the USDA organic standards are widely considered to be trustworthy, given that independent third-party assessors check on farm practices, and the USDA has also recently cracked down on at least one large dairy that had received organic certification for its milk before its standards lapsed.