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Daily News Blog

12
Nov

Organic Takes on Existential Health and Environmental Crises, While Some Critics Lack Context (Response to New Yorker piece)

(Beyond Pesticides, November 12, 2021) Omnivorous readers may have encountered an article, in the November 15 issue of The New Yorker magazine, titled — at best misleadingly, and certainly sensationally — “The Great Organic-Food Fraud.” The subhead comports with the tone of the headline: “There’s no way to confirm that a crop was grown organically. Randy Constant exploited our trust in the labels — and made a fortune.” The piece, by Ian Parker, tells a complex tale of the machinations of dishonest and greedy people who saw, in the commerce in organic grains, an opportunity to misrepresent nonorganic crops as organic and make a boatload of money in doing so. What the article fails to do is render any comprehensive picture of how National Organic Program certification and inspection work, and the underlying principles, values, and standards in federal law (the Organic Foods Production Act), nor does it review either the benefits of organic agriculture broadly or the massive harmful impacts of conventional, chemical-intensive agriculture in the U.S. Beyond Pesticides provides ballast, in this Daily News Blog article, to the failings of the New Yorker article and the damage it might do to the organic movement.

It is worth noting that Mr. Parker seems to cast a slightly jaundiced eye on the whole organic enterprise, as evidenced by his comment: “In 2000, organic sales in ordinary supermarkets exceeded, for the first time, sales in patchouli-scented health-food stores. During the next five years, domestic sales of organic food nearly doubled, to $13.8 billion annually. The figure is now around sixty billion dollars, and the industry is defined as much by large industrial dairy farms, and by frozen organic lasagna, as it is by the environmentalism and the irregularly shaped vegetables of the organic movement’s pioneers.”

The development of modern organic agriculture in the U.S. was, until late in the 20th century, genuinely (warning: pun ahead) “organic.” Practiced by a relatively small cadre of interested farmers across the country, it was pursued according to a variety of definitions and practices, and evolved, in a highly diffuse fashion, as an alternative to the growing post–World War II emphasis on chemical “pest control” in agriculture. Organic and its scientific principles, although practiced as a matter of course before that time, was brought to the mainstream in the U.S. by J.I. Rodale, Rodale Press and Organic Farming and Gardening Magazine (1942), followed by Robert Rodale, and the Rodale Institute. In England, Sir Albert Howard, a botanist, wrote the 1940 book An Agricultural Testament, and Lady Balfour, a farmer and educator, popularized organic with the publication of The Living Soil in 1943. The National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides (NCAMP), now Beyond Pesticides, formed in 1981 (after field hearings in the late 1970s) and advanced organic to eliminate hazardous chemical exposure for farmers and farmworkers, in addition to addressing the food safety and environmental protection concerns.

Organic in the marketplace began with support from a loyal group of consumers who sought out organic through farm stands and farmers markets, community-supported agriculture (CSAs), food cooperatives, and buying clubs. As the nonprofit SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) writes, “Although there was general agreement on philosophical approaches, no standards or regulations existed defining organic agriculture. The first certification programs were decentralized, meaning that each state or certifying agent could determine standards based on production practices and constraints in their region.” Even prior to state involvement, voluntary standards were organized by producers under the Organic Foods Production Association of North America (OFPANA) and nonprofit certifiers. 

The lack of a unified definition of “organic” across the states moved Congress to pass, in 1990, the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), which called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to create organic standards and regulations for producers, processors, and certifiers — what came to be the National Organic Standards (NOS). The legislation also created the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board), an advisory entity that evaluates and recommends substances that may and may not be used in organic production. These elements comprise the National Organic Program (NOP), rules that were finalized in 2002.

Only those food and fiber products grown and processed within the rules of the NOS can bear the USDA Certified Organic label. The NOS rules codify organic principles into regulations for what is allowed, not allowed, and required for certification. The Certified Organic label is the symbol of a system that is well defined, based on verifications, and critically, trusted by stakeholders in the food system — consumers, producers, processors, and retailers. Mr. Parker astutely notes, “More than in most retail transactions, the organic consumer is buying both a thing and an assurance about a thing.”

Now, the reality is that a stalk of organic broccoli and a stalk of conventionally grown broccoli cannot be assayed to say which is organic. It is actually the production land itself, and the management of it (or in the case of livestock, the facility where they are raised), that is certified organic. Food grown on that land (or animals raised at that facility), according to the NOS rules, can be labeled “organic.” Thus, the organic sector relies on the integrity of the regulations, but also that of the certifiers and inspectors, and to some extent, the producers, to ensure the accuracy, reliability, and trustworthiness of the organic label.

This is how the NOP certification and inspection processes do work: producers and handlers of organic products are required to be certified by a USDA accredited certifying agent in order to make the claim that their products are USDA Certified Organic. Certifying agents make annual visits to farms and processing plants, and can make unannounced visits to ensure that a farm, ranch, or other facility is in compliance with the NOS.

Farms have to talk with the agent, answer questions, and provide to the certifier a comprehensive plan that covers the land history of all production fields; pest, weed, and disease management; fertility and nutrient-management; and origins of, and feed and healthcare for, any livestock. A grower must report all products/inputs used on the farm (such as fertilizers and pesticides), as well as rates and dates of their application. Failure to report a product used puts the grower out of compliance, and results in a reprimand and/or revocation of certification. (For a complete explanation of these standards see the NOS.)

The independent Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) is an additional organization engaged with certification. It reviews products used in organic production to assess their compliance with the NOS. The OMRI list is used widely as the most comprehensive list of products approved for organic production, but not all products approved for organic production by the NOS are listed with OMRI.

The New Yorker article is written as an intriguing story about an episode of gross malfeasance that unfolded in the organic grain sector from roughly 2001 through 2018. The story centers on Randy Constant, who managed, over the course of those years, to engage a half-dozen other men in his multiple shady business ventures — nearly all of which involved deception and/or outright fraud. The scheme for which he was ultimately convicted, according to the article, “had led to more than a hundred and forty-two million dollars in sales of fake organic grain between 2010 and 2017.”

Mr. Constant’s schemes were enacted largely through (1) his purchases of truckloads or rail cars of conventional corn and soybeans (sometimes at remote locations so as to escape notice), and then passing them off as organic, and (2) exploiting the certification process by getting his primary business entity, “Organic Land Management,” certified on the basis of one or two of its farms, but then buying up additional, nonorganic grain and claiming it as “organic.” The article reports, “The scheme . . . is the largest-known fraud in the history of American organic agriculture: prosecutors accused him of causing customers to spend at least a quarter of a billion dollars on products falsely labelled with organic seals.”

In 2001, a purchaser of Mr. Constant’s “organic” grain tested the shipment for evidence of genetic modification (GM). (Foods can be tested to determine whether they come from genetically modified seeds and plants.) Non–genetically modified crops might be organic or nonorganic, but no GM crop can legitimately be organic. The shipment was, in fact, genetically modified. That moment is when some people stopped dealing with Mr. Constant; yet his deceptive dealings continued for some years.

Although Mr. Parker’s article seems to imply that the nefarious activity of Randy Constant, the primary “bad guy” in his story, is somehow a function of the organic sector itself, this is a claim without context. There are plenty of examples of greed, malfeasance, and shady business dealings to go around; these are hardly confined to the organic food system.

As Beyond Pesticides Executive Director Jay Feldman points out, “This [article] is a piece about scammers and greedy people who knew they were violating the law. But is that any different than in conventional agriculture, or in other areas of society? Yes, we can strengthen inspections, recordkeeping, and enforcement, but as with all law and policy, there will be people who care more about their profits than about the intention and purposes of the laws they are violating. For perspective, the author should have given readers a true sense of the conventional chemical-intensive side of agriculture — all the contamination and poisoning that go on, and the undercurrent of fraud and abuse. Were we to consider just litigation that Beyond Pesticides has brought, which is only a tip of the iceberg — against General Mills, TruGreen, Sargento, and others — we would find companies that have been forced to change their fraudulent misrepresentation of their products as safe or natural. And those are just about corporate advertising!”

The damaging impacts of chemical-intensive agriculture — and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) failures to act protectively on these chemicals — are legion. Impacts on human health, ecosystems and vulnerable species, soils, wildlife, pollinators and biodiversity, and climate are evidence that, as Mr. Feldman says, “we live in a polluted world, a toxic soup, that has been foisted on us by the agrichemical industry and other industrial groups.” Witness, for example:

Organic regenerative agriculture (and organic land management broadly) are pivotal in solving many of the environmental and public health crises we face — biodiversity and pollinator decline; chemical pesticides that cause disease; pollution of water bodies, waterways, and drinking water sources (by tens of thousands of chemicals deployed into the environment); increasing resistance to medically critical antibiotics (caused to great extent by their use in livestock industries); a food system rife with pesticide residues and compromised nutritional value (because of soil maltreatment with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers); and harm to critical ecosystems that provide environmental services that support all life.

That organic agriculture is a viable, protective, and better approach — for health, for environment and economy, and for climate, is unassailable. So, when Mr. Parker writes that “the real difference . . . between a ton of organic soybeans and a ton of conventional soybeans is the story you can tell about them,” Beyond Pesticides strongly objects. Ironically, Beyond Pesticides encountered Mr. Parker’s article on the same day it published the Daily News Blog article, “Unless You Go Organic, Switching to ‘Healthier’ Mediterranean Diet Increases Pesticide Exposure Threefold.” So much for the difference being “the story you can tell.”

Yet, with all of that said, the NOP certainly is not perfect; enforcement and accountability of the program, and the organic sector broadly, have flaws that should be remedied. Indeed, Mr. Parker notes several incidents and perspectives related to the Constant case that underscore some of those flaws. He writes:

  • “The N.O.P. never penalized Constant for noncompliance. And in 2018, when the U.S. Department of Justice finally indicted Constant for his crimes, the announcement didn’t prompt those who had helped to bring his grain to market — certifiers, grain buyers, food manufacturers, retailers — to inform organic consumers about his deceit. Though the government’s case went back only as far as 2010, my conversations with grain dealers and others suggest that Constant’s fraud had probably begun by 2001. Any American who regularly bought supermarket organic products while Constant pursued his scheme likely bought mislabelled goods, but the organic industry — however alarmed its internal discussions — seemed disposed to leave the public in the dark. This impulse has survived: the N.O.P. declined to discuss any aspect of Constant’s career for this article.”

  • “In the trader’s complaint to the N.O.P., he wrote, ‘I strongly feel that there is a major fraud occurring in the Organic Grain industry. Please do not take this lightly.’ He described — astutely — what he suspected was happening: Constant was buying non-organic grain, attaching organic certifications to it, and selling it through Jericho Solutions, which provided another ‘layer to protect’ him. A few weeks later . . . the N.O.P. compliance official e-mailed the trader: ‘Our investigation did not find any apparent violations of U.S.D.A. organic regulations. The investigation is hereby closed.’ The trader lost his mind. He told me, ‘I call this . . . guy and left him a . . . voice mail, saying, “My next call’s to the newspapers! This is BS. How can you guys not look into this?’” ([The NOP individual], who remains a U.S.D.A. official, did not respond to a request for comment.)”

  • “I recently spoke with Chris Barnier, who, between 2004 and 2007, oversaw Organic Land Management’s [Constant’s company’s] finances and records. . . . He said, ‘It’s a huge flaw in the organic industry that the farmers pay the certifier — sometimes many thousands of dollars. The certifier has a conflict of interest, because they [sic] really don’t want to blow the whistle on a fraud. . . . An established grain trader recently told me that the certification industry is essentially toothless, adding, ‘If you saw my operation, then came and saw what they do on an inspection, your mind would be blown. I do thousands of transactions a year. They look at three.’”

  • “It’s unusual for a farm to lose an organic certification. If a certifier sees evidence of bad practices, the consequences come slowly. The farmer is nudged to reform, and, if then still found noncompliant, may be invited to a mediation. Only after those efforts fail is a revocation proposed. Actual suspension can take another year.”

  • “The National Organic Program accepts complaints from the public, and from interested parties. But, as . . . the founder of OneCert, a long-established certification company, told me, ‘It seems like when you report things, they’re looking for reasons not to have to investigate.’ As Lynn Clarkson, of Clarkson Grain [the company that tested a Constant shipment for GM grain], sees it, the system was set up in such a way that ‘as long as someone is covered with paper documentation you don’t go after them.’ He argued that, across the industry, there’s a fear of breaking something fragile. ‘It’s: Do I stand up and talk about the fraud that’s happening? Is that going to do more good or more harm? Am I going to kill the movement? Am I going to destroy the market that I’m trying to perfect?’”

Underscoring the importance of accountability, enforcement of NOP regulations, and a role for the judicial system, the article notes: “Jacob Schunk, an Assistant U.S. Attorney from Cedar Rapids, [Iowa,] pressed for a prison sentence [for one of the six men involved in the scheme]. Misrepresenting a product as organic should not be considered a crime with no victims, Schunk said: harm had been done not only to consumers — who paid for something that they didn’t get — but also to honest organic farmers who had been forced to compete against cheats. . . . More virtuous farmers ‘may not be in the courtroom. . . . But they’re going to figure out whether it matters to do the right thing.’”

Beyond Pesticides’ Jay Feldman responds to Mr. Parker’s chronicling of an imperfect system. “Yes, we believe in continuous improvement, but articles like this, written without any context about the goals of the transition to organic, do a real disservice. Fortunately, organic consumers understand that, overall, organic producers and advocates are eliminating petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers, fighting for people’s health, and addressing the climate and biodiversity crises. Yet, articles such as this one could have the unfortunate effect, for those who are less knowledgeable about organics, of planting doubt and slowing the sector’s growth. Currently, organic agriculture is only about 5-6% of agriculture globally, but we must — urgently — make the transition to an organic agricultural system, worldwide. This must include clear timetables for meeting benchmarks, and might look similar to Europe’s Farm to Fork program, though far more ambitious.”

“Yes, there are scammers. We need to strengthen the NOP to disable and catch them; such initiatives could include stronger enforcement mechanisms, better and more-frequent inspections, and higher penalties for violations — we need all of that strengthened. But the point is that we have a clear and protective system in place. Chemical-intensive agriculture has no system, save for the ineffective and laissez-faire approach of no inspections, no record keeping, and no particular oversight. Our job is to strengthen this organic system, which has a strong foundation in OFPA, and not allow it to be weakened by those who are motivated by pure profit, and who do not respond to, or apparently care about, the existential crises we are facing as a global community. Shame on them for the ill-will that they impose on all of us. Shame on the author for not bringing perspective to the real value of organic, overall, in solving our existential crises.”

Source: The Great Organic-Food Fraud

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

 

 

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