Posted by: Mahdi Ebrahimi | April 6, 2008

Is it Organic? How would you know?

No one will die or get sick if they eat fraudulently organic food; they’ll just get unwittingly ripped off. Inspections of organic farms occur once a year, never on a surprise basis, and consist basically of a review of the farmer’s paperwork. Organic crops aren’t tested, so how do you know they’re not fraudulent?

For the most part the media is giving the fledgling organic industry a free pass on this important question. But perhaps because he realized we neared the $20-billion mark in the North American market last year, Bill Alpert, a senior financial editor at Barron’s, had the guts to hit the nail square on the head.
Many consumers think organic food has been tested for pesticides. But organic certifiers spend most of their time shuffling papers and auditing the files of farmers for records indicating that forbidden chemicals weren’t used…. Mischa Popoff visited hundreds of farms on behalf of organic certifiers and believes most of the farmers were credibly organic. But Popoff was frustrated when he’d see farms whose “organic” fields were as green and pest free as their conventional fields. One farmer’s garage hid gallons of the herbicide Roundup. When Popoff made a fuss about these suspicious findings, he … was blacklisted by some certification outfits. Conscientious farmers go to a lot of trouble to be organic, so they worry about competing with cheaters who just want the price premiums that an organic label can command. Popoff argues that routine pesticide tests could catch cheaters, the way that drug tests snare doped athletes.

What a lot of consumers are blissfully unaware of is just how the organic system currently “works”. Organic farmers “prove” they’re not using synthetic fertilizer by documenting that they are using composted manure applications, and they “prove” they’re not spraying toxic herbicides by documenting that they are harrowing weeds mechanically, just to give a couple of examples. The inspector’s job, besides having a quick look around the farm, is focused predominantly on examining these records which, for all one knows, were completely fabricated.

It’s like a man trying to prove he wasn’t fooling around on his wife because he was playing poker with his buddies all night and he’s got it all documented in his trusty daytimer, along with a receipt for the pizza he bought. It’s circumstantial, subjective, and open to abuse. But don’t blame organic farmers.

Many organic farmers have long wanted to make the system objective by testing their crops. But the private organic certifiers and their federal regulators show no signs of admitting anything except more paperwork into the system, and the excuses for not testing organic crops abound.

One excuse is the fact that conventional crops can sometimes attain very low, even undetectable chemical levels if they air out long enough. So there’s a reluctance to test final organic product lest it opens up the organic industry to unfair competition from conventional products which could be marketed as chemical free once they hit the store shelf.

But organic farmers want their crops tested in the field. Forget about testing the final product! They point out that organic food isn’t just supposed to be better to eat; it’s also supposed to be better for the environment.

Consumers have every right to get their money’s worth when they pay a premium for organic food. Testing organic crops would provide the assurance of the purity of the entire growing process, and guarantee the natural fertility of the “value-added” crop while it’s still in the field.

But, alas, another excuse given in opposition to testing is the fear of obtaining false positive readings in otherwise completely organic crops. No one’s ever bothered to investigate this mind you; they just claim it’s possible. But as a former organic farmer, and an Advanced Organic Farm and Process Inspector, I’ve tested the crops of many organic farmers who wanted scientific results and I’ve never found any such false positive results.

Honest organic farmers experience a profound disillusionment when they realize that absolutely nothing distinguishes their truly organic crops from bargain-priced “organic” crops which comply only with the letter of the law on paper. Many are dropping their certifications, leaving the growing organic market to be filled by good paper pushers.

Testing organic crops would be the first step to bringing the good farmers back into the fold by curtailing the useless bureaucracy that exists between them and consumers.

They don’t use paper trails at the Olympics to deter athletes from using performance-enhancing drugs. Can you imagine an athlete showing up for the 100-metre dash with receipts for all the approved substances he ate over the last four years in an attempt to demonstrate he had not injected anything illegal?

Scientific laboratory analysis keeps the cheaters out of international sport. Why not use it for value-added, certified organic food? If organic is supposed to be so much better for the environment, and so much better for our health, why not prove it?




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