Hygeia Analytics has featured news and blogs on organic integrity the last two weeks, beginning with our August 27th coverage of the cover story “Produce Without Pesticides” in the October 2020 issue of Consumer Reports. On that same day Hygeia was proud to share an excellent guest blog by Larry Jacobs, founder and President of DelCabo.
Larry focused on his very personal, and decades-long quest to keep pesticides out of organic food. His successes in doing just that are widely acknowledged in the industry, and appreciated by consumers and farmworkers in several countries. His struggles along the way, his hard and costly knocks, and lessons learned are valuable grist for anyone looking for solutions or asking what can they do to help.
The presence of pesticides not allowed for use on organic farms in organic fruit and vegetables gets more attention than almost all other aspects of organic integrity. But the reality is that the occasional, usually very low levels of synthetic pesticides in organic produce pose very low risks to consumers, especially compared to the multiple pesticide residues found in nearly all conventionally grown fresh produce, as the chart below shows.
While the vast majority of organic produce delivers on its promise to nearly eliminate exposures to pesticides, whether grown in the U.S. or imported from Canada or Mexico, there is a growing problem with outright fraud. To be specific, some conventional fresh or frozen produce loaded with pesticides is being sold as organic.
As Consumer Reports highlighted in their recent cover story, by far the most worrisome crop is organic spinach in terms of pesticide residues and risk. And, a significant share of the frozen cherries imported from Turkey are also clearly just conventional fruit bearing the USDA certified organic label.
It’s time to fix lingering pesticide problems in organic produce. The solutions are obvious and affordable. Larry Jacobs describes several commonsense initiatives and the Consumer Reports story also recommends a number of long-overdue “action items.”
But the 800-pound gorilla eating organic integrity for lunch is fraudulent imports of organic feed grains and specialty crops from a few dozen countries who have recognized — and exploited — huge gaps in the “tools” the U.S. National Organic Program deploys in its efforts to detect and deter organic fraud.
For years, true blue believers and the pioneers who earned their calluses and scars building what has become a $50 billion-plus industry have discouraged public discussion and “airing” of breaks in the chain supporting organic integrity. “We don’t want to reinforce critics of organic that claim organic farming and food are just marketing hype,” or variations on the theme, are widely shared sentiments among the fully committed.
But over the last weeks, my friend Lynn Clarkson sent me a pile of information that drives home an uncomfortable reality. I finally made it through the pile, and did not enjoy the process.
The problem with fraudulent organic feed grain imports is big, pervasive, growing worse, and out in the open. It is damaging legitimate U.S. organic crop farmers and livestock producers, and eroding the promise embedded in the organic seal.
It is time for everyone in the organic community to admit there is now a mammoth problem that has got to be addressed in order to preserve consumer, and international market confidence in the USDA Certified Organic Seal. Both Lynn Clarkson’s guest blog and Brian Baker’s blog contain a number of constructive ideas.
The list of reasons to get real in dealing with this problem will continue to grow. Two off-the-radar-screen reasons deserve special focus now.
#1. Lots of people yearn for market-driven solutions to serious and costly national problems. Take climate change for example. The lowest of the low-hanging fruit to help the U.S. reach net-zero carbon emissions in the next two to three decades is incentivizing (i.e. paying) farmers and ranches to tweak their operations in ways that will steadily build soil organic matter levels.
Almost everyone in agriculture knows there are many other reasons to do just exactly that — increase crop yields, reduce the need for pesticides and fertilizer, improve water quality, increase net farm income, enhance the quality of life in rural communities, and reduce public health threats arising from how crops and animals are raised.
So, we can use tax revenue to pay farmers to make the essential changes in their operations, or we can grow demand for legitimate organic food, animal feed, and fiber-based products. The higher prices organic products command in the marketplace will help finance the conversion of land from conventional farming to organic.
But as long as relatively cheap, fraudulent organic grain flows into the U.S. by the boatload, the market will deter rather than drive positive change. It’s coming now from countries that take national pride in exploiting the lack of U.S. focus, or concern, or ability to detect and deter the fraud that enriches them. The market is not going to provide much support for the many farmers that would strongly prefer to adopt organic practices, while also reducing the current, unsustainable degree of dependence on USDA subsidy checks.
Maybe, just maybe, Congressional interest and support for green-new-deal-inspired changes in farming systems, designed to enhance soil health and lock up carbon in the soil, will create a critical mass of thoughtful inquiry and policy innovation, so that a meaningful campaign and new investments will trigger much more rapid growth in the acreage in the U.S. devoted to organic feed grain production.
#2. The European Union takes organic food integrity seriously. It has followed the science. Many countries have adopted ambitious goals to convert land and animals to organic production, because doing so is clearly the most affordable and sustainable way to dramatically reduce agriculture’s environmental footprint, while also enhancing food safety and nutritional quality.
Unfortunately, our USDA does not read the same science journals as their European counterparts, and still contends, as a matter of policy, that organic farming delivers no proven pesticide risk nor nutritional benefits. Perhaps if there is a Biden Administration, and the anti-science spell caste across the federal bureaucracy lifts, the USDA will get around to acknowledging these and other obvious benefits of organic food and farming.
In 2012, the US and EU entered into an organic certification equivalency agreement that fostered substantial growth in two-way trade in organic food products. This agreement was a major and positive breakthrough, and has served both countries well.
But the EU has tightened a number of rules and regulations governing organic food and farming since the 2012 US-EU organic equivalency agreement. Many of the changes have been triggered by growing concerns over slipping organic integrity. The EU has alerted US trade officials that the 2012 equivalency agreement must be reopened and updated, with a specific focus on aspects of organic certification and organic food integrity in the U.S. that is failing to keep up with the much more concerted, systematic and rigorous approach the EU is pursuing.
And just to make things even more complicated on the trade front, the US and the UK have started negotiations that will hopefully lead to a bilateral trade agreement. But alas, food and agricultural policy issues have already turned red hot in that process, and issues impacting US-UK trade in organic food will certainly be among those for which common ground may be as elusive and slippery as soil organic matter under the plow.