The Organic Bureaucracy Fails—Naturally
Government-certified “organic” food costs more and may come with pesticides and fecal contamination
Summary: Think you’re getting a good value when you buy organic food? Probably not. Bureaucrats at the USDA run an organics program that leads consumers to pay more for organic food than regular food—and take home a product more likely to make them sick.
This is the sad story of the decline and fall of organic farming brought about by the machinations of bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. American farmers lead the world in the production of affordable, safe, nutritious food, but those farmers are paying a heavy price for the damage politicians have done to organics.
The industry doesn’t just advertise how good, pure, and natural it is, but also how bad, dirty, and unnatural non-organic food is supposed to be by comparison. Yet organic food in America tests positive for synthetic pesticides a shocking 4 times out of 10, and food-borne illnesses caused by organic food occur at double the rate for conventional food.
Are American organic farmers to blame? No—as much as 80 percent of organic food is imported from abroad, right under the watchful eye of your very own U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The USDA tripled its organic budget and staffing under President Obama, and it currently requires no field testing of supposedly organic food, whether imported or domestic. The Obama administration also gave tens of millions of dollars in subsidies to the organic sector, all to preserve less than 1 percent of American farmland as organic. Indeed, the portion of domestic farmland devoted to organics flatlined during the Obama years.
Here’s a pertinent if sobering analogy: The price tag for America’s new F-35 fighter jet is believed by many, including President Trump, to be a typical example of Washington’s incompetence and waste. As everyone knows, the F-35 performed poorly during R&D; but had it turned out that the jet always exploded upon take off and the previous Administration kept this fatal flaw a secret for the last eight years but continued to fund the project, it would surely have qualified as political fraud of the worst sort.
The following table illustrates how regulatory oversight of America’s organic program grew needlessly during the Obama Administration. Was this just more typical incompetence and waste in the swamp? Or something worse?
Yes, $9.1 million a-year might seem like a rounding error for Washington. But what these 43 organic staffers actually did will amaze and sadden you. Did they weed out fraud, make organic food better, and encourage more domestic organic production? Absolutely not, on all counts.
Yet organic imports from countries like China and Turkey grew steadily during Obama’s years, a trend that, perhaps not surprisingly, coincided with increased incidents of organic food-borne illness. How could this be? Simple: Obama tripled the budget and staffing at the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), but somehow failed to require field testing.
Roughly 40 percent of the organic food sold in America tested positive for prohibited pesticide residue during Obama’s years, in two separate studies by two separate divisions of the USDA, conducted in 2010-2011 and 2015.
Meanwhile, organic farming’s growth has stalled; just 0.7 percent of American farmland is organic, a rise of only 2 percent over the last eight years. This means organic farming in America actually grew at a slower rate than the American economy as a whole—a statistic that really hits home when you consider the anemic economic growth President Obama fostered during his tenure in office. Organic sales account for 4 percent of total food sales, more than five times the amount of land under organic management across America, revealing that American grocery retailers have come to rely on imported organic food 80 percent of the time.
In short, President Obama’s tripling of budget and staff at the National Organic Program and his failure to require field testing to keep everyone honest resulted in another make-work program, little more than progressive theater that did absolutely nothing to help American organic farmers. In fact, it hurt them. Meanwhile the leadership of the American organic industry continued its aggressive smear campaign on modern, science-based farming in America, pushing the radical viewpoint that such farming poisons the planet, farmers, and consumers.
It gets worse. Organic groceries accounted for 7 percent of all food recalls in America last year (per the New York Times), almost double what one would expect from organic sales, ten times what one would expect from America’s organic acreage.
USDA organic inspections and certifications all occur independently of this $9.1 million-a-year office, the NOP. Of course, no NOP staffer performs the duties of organic inspectors or certifiers; they merely keep an eye on those who do, by randomly auditing files generated by USDA-accredited for-profit and cooperative certifying agencies. There exists a mere 79 such agencies, employing just 160 independent organic inspectors on contract across America, and only 264 organic inspectors worldwide. Combined, this small, over-worked corps of contract inspectors account for all oversight of every American organic farm, processor, distributor, and broker/trader—including all importation of USDA certified-organic goods from abroad. And the 79 agencies, for which these inspectors work actually pay the USDA for the privilege of being audited, thereby putting zero drain on the Treasury.
So, what was $9 million spent on year after year? Seriously, what do these 43 people do?
Miles V. McEvoy, Obama’s top man at the NOP, claimed the staffing increases were necessary to ensure the integrity of the USDA-certified “Organic” label. But with recalls and imports going up, and the number of American organic farmers and acreage basically stagnant at two-percent growth, that claim seems undeniably wrong. Nevertheless, McEvoy’s command at the NOP was never questioned by President Obama.
Only organic finished-product was tested under the McEvoy regime, and at that, only 5 percent of the time. This testing covered pesticides alone; it didn’t cover pathogens from manure which are the likely cause of the organic industry’s shamefully high record of food-borne illness outbreaks. And, as noted, synthetic pesticides show up in almost half of organic food anyway, the integrity of which McEvoy’s NOP was supposedly protecting.
Certified for what?
Roughly 80 percent of Americans who buy organic food believe the term “certified” is based on some sort of objective verification process that ensures the authenticity and safety of the product bearing this lucrative labeling claim. After all, organic food sold in America is “certified” by none other than the U.S. Department of Agriculture so it must be genuine and safe, right?
Well, no again. It turns out that the National Organic Program (NOP)—written, negotiated, rewritten, and then rewritten some more during President Clinton’s second term, and then finally signed into law in 2002 during President Bush’s first term—is regulated by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (USDA AMS).
Note: that’s the Agricultural Marketing Service, not the USDA’s services related to food safety and other consumer-oriented concerns, such as its Research, Inspection, Nutrition, and Risk Management services, or even its Conservation service.
This certification system is supposed to protect farmers and consumers from the excesses, real or imagined, of modern-day industrial agriculture, including synthetic ammonium nitrate, fast-dissolving phosphate, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, antibiotics, growth hormones, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and pathogenic fecal coliforms. That’s a lot of protection from a program which has focused exclusively on marketing since its inception at the federal level, with not so much as a nod to any actual field testing of organic crops and livestock.
McEvoy and his staff were not oblivious to the potential for fraud and gross negligence provided by their failure to require field testing. When they finally decided in 2010 to require privately-owned certifiers to begin testing their clients, just 5 percent of the time, they freely admitted that, “Without such testing, the potential exists that an operation’s products may contain substances that are prohibited for use in organic products.”
And they were clearly aware of the potential for fraud. At that time, their colleagues at the USDA were busily hatching a study, the 2010–2011 Pilot Study: Pesticide Residue Testing of Organic Produce, in which they would reveal that 43 percent of the organic food certified by the USDA contained prohibited pesticide residue.
Consider how people react when they find out they are being lightly supervised, if at all. If there were there no police cars sitting at strategic locations along the highway, no radar guns, no traffic cameras, what’s to stop the average commuter from speeding? And what would happen to sports if athletes weren’t regularly tested for using performance-enhancing drugs? McEvoy’s team required testing of organic production just 5 percent of the time, with no stipulation that this testing be done in the field.
The industry gives a facile excuse for their eight-year delay in coming up with a few meager testing rules: “Although the Organic Foods Production Act [OFPA] of 1990 requires certifying agents to conduct periodic residue testing of organic products,” they said, “we found that NOP officials did not incorporate these provisions into NOP regulations.”
That statement is false.
America’s National Organic Program (NOP, 2002) most assuredly does contain provisions for organic field testing (see USDA NOP § 205.670-205.671). But in an overly ambitious effort to foster rapid growth in the organic sector, these provisions were not enforced for either prohibited pesticides or fecal pathogens! This holds true during the Bush and Obama Administrations on both foreign and domestic organic crops.
The American organic sector runs on such dangerous absurdities: rather than simply testing organic crops in the field—consider how local health authorities periodically test restaurants to ensure food safety—exhaustive record-keeping and record-checking is relied upon. This, even as the two studies mentioned above consistently revealed disturbingly high rates of non-compliance.
McEvoy and his many staffers need not have waited for either of the USDA’s studies showing the presence of prohibited pesticides in organic food: the American Consumers Union (ACU) determined nearly two decades ago that one-quarter of American organic food contained prohibited substances (letter of April 10, 1998, from Jean Halloran of ACU to USDA NOP).
These findings prompted the ACU to urge the USDA to include the above-mentioned clauses on testing regulations in the NOP that would eventually pass Congress in 2002; clauses which McEvoy and his staff claimed were not incorporated into NOP regulations.
Keep in mind that the ACU exclusively tested end-product back in 1998, just as the USDA would in its studies in 2010-2011 and 2015. Had organic product been tested in the field, the results in all three cases would have been much worse, as most substances used in modern agriculture, whether herbicides or pesticides, dissipate rapidly. Synthetic fertilizers, for example, become indistinguishable from natural fertilizers once absorbed by a plant. As with professional athletes, accurate testing is all about timing: What’s the use of testing Lance Armstrong for steroids ten years after his victory in the Tour de France?
Which brings us back to the snow job that was the USDA’s 2010–2011 pilot study on organic pesticide-residue testing. In this report, Federal government staffers boasted that 96 percent of samples “were compliant with USDA organic regulations.” Again, we test Olympic athletes during the Games; never after, because performance-enhancing drugs, just like pesticides, dissipate. A closer examination reveals that only a paltry 57 percent of samples “had no detected residues” during Obama’s years; the other 43 percent, as mentioned above, contained disturbing degrees of prohibited pesticides. Disturbing if you happen to be part of the 80 percent of American consumers currently paying a premium for organic foods under the assumption they’re free of synthetic pesticides, as advertised.
Usually, your local health board does not bother testing food that’s been cooked. Health inspectors take raw samples, swab handling surfaces, and test these samples for pathogens. Likewise, organic production should be subjected to unannounced testing in the field for prohibited crop inputs and pathogenic compounds resulting from improperly composted manure. Instead, it’s left to the discretion of for-profit and cooperative certifying agencies to test their clients’ end product, which they do just 5 percent of the time.
Remember that these agencies only make money when they approve a client’s product for organic sale. So, one must ask whom are they choosing to test? Such latitude would not be tolerated in any other business, leading as it inevitably does, to conflicts of interest and favoritism, to say nothing of the potential for corruption and bribery.
The attack on GMOs
As everyone knows, the organic industry is at war with the latest innovation in farming: the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Their offensive is sustained and well-funded. Not only do organic activists seek to forestall and someday eliminate the use of GMOs in food production by scaring consumers with labels warning of GMO content, they also seek to hamstring American farmers in their use of perfectly safe, time-proven technologies such as synthetic fertilizer and pesticides.
It is true that, when used to excess, these substances can in some cases harm humans and the environment. But to propose a full-sweep of organic production as an alternative ignores the much greater harm organic farming does to the environment, most notably that it requires far more land and fuel to produce the same amount of food, and that it results in the erosion of topsoil due to organic farmers being forced to till weeds instead of spraying them. In fact, many of the natural pesticides approved for organic use are more toxic than the synthetic ones used by conventional farmers.
Setting aside the occasional misuse of modern fertilizers and pesticides, GMOs have never been shown to cause harm to anyone. As with any truly innovative technology, they are in a class by themselves, reducing and often eliminating the harm done to the environment by farmers. Sadly, though, the field of GMO research and development is in a holding pattern that can be ascribed to the tax-subsidized push-back from organic activists who claim, falsely, that GMOs might contaminate organic farms.
Organic activists who advocate for mandatory GMO labeling pretend they’re merely supporting “informed consumer choice.” They say they’re just trying to provide an alternative for those concerned with the possible side effects of consuming GMO foods and foodstuffs that have been fertilized and sprayed with synthetic compounds. But, in the years prior to the USDA NOP becoming law of the land, the Organic Consumers Association’s National Director Ronnie Cummins let the cat out of the bag:
The challenge over the next months and years will be to see if organic consumers, environmental organizations, farm activists, churches, and public interest groups can build upon this tactical victory and begin making headway in the bigger battle—driving genetically engineered crops off the market all over the world, beginning to phase-out the most dangerous practices of industrial agriculture, and jump-starting the conversion of the majority of the world’s agriculture to organic methods as soon as possible. (BioDemocracy News, February 2000)
Also consider these two revealing quotations from America’s leading organic lobby group, both of which have been scrubbed from the internet: “At the very minimum…There should be mandatory labeling of GMO foods, with the real goal of an outright, worldwide moratorium on GMO use in all agriculture.” “Labeling GE foods is the way to…drive GE foods and crops from our food system.” (Organic Trade Association Press Releases, January 2000 and November 2007)
Mandatory labeling of GMOs isn’t about consumer choice. It’s about ideology, a political ideology that over 99 percent of American farmers consider anathema, given their first-hand experience in growing our food.
Despite the organic industry’s loathing for modern, science-based farming in America, its credibility is practically guaranteed by the federal government. In other words, the lunatics have taken over the asylum.
We’re not talking about another harmless marketing campaign urging people to feed their kids organic veggies. Washington’s complicity in perpetuating the organic food scam fails; it fails through the absence of mandatory field testing to ensure safety rules are obeyed and fecal contamination is kept at a minimum. Capitol Hill also fails to answer baseless attacks against modern farming—itself the very foundation of organic marketing in America—and without so much as a nod to accepted science. No one gets a more convenient free ride than that from the feds: We’ll regulate you and let you use our USDA brand; all we expect in return is paperwork and auditing fees!
What sort of paperwork you ask? Exhaustive, tedious paperwork documenting the production of organic products from seed to the store shelf. And as long as evidence of unapproved methods or inputs cannot be found anywhere in this paperwork, the finished products are deemed “Organic.” In other words, missing paperwork—not a failed lab result or lack of scientific testing—is all that can prevent billions of dollars of food from being labelled “Organic” under USDA’s watch.
As such, organic food isn’t marketed based on its purity, safety, or nutrition. The USDA’s data indicate that that would be impossible. Organic food is marketed by the USDA and by nearly every public and private entity it oversees on the basis that it’s not conventional (that is, not sprayed with man-made compounds and not containing GMO ingredients) at least, according to the easily falsified paperwork. Keep in mind the same USDA is also in charge of watching over conventional food production and the use of GMO technology on American farms.
Much is made of the fact that the USDA insists on an annual onsite inspection of every organic farm and facility it certifies. However, the inspector (regardless of country) needs permission from the farmer or processor whose facilities he intends to inspect, and he makes an appointment weeks in advance. Individual inspectors can be refused contracts to perform inspections by any USDA-certified organic entity, with no reason required. Additionally, organic inspectors working under USDA NOP standards, whether here in the United States or anywhere in the world, will spend the lion’s share of their time filling out forms and reviewing an applicant’s extensive records during this annual, non-surprise inspection.
As long as no one’s looking, organic industry “stakeholders” and federal regulators have no incentive to discourage unscrupulous organic farmers around the world from using synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, growth hormones, or un-composted manure. Nor are they compelled to discourage unscrupulous brokers and traders from comingling non-organic product with organic, or from simply labeling non-organic food as organic. These days, the only ingredient fraudsters need to avoid is GMOs.
Part of a pattern
Many of the 79 certifying agencies that grant USDA organic certification to farmers and processors receive 1.5-3 percent of gross revenue from their clients—this “royalty” from an industry worth roughly $40 billion a year. As noted, certifiers collect these royalties only on shipments they approve.
Also, the cost of the organics program is far more than the $9.1 million a year it takes to run the organics office. Counting subsidies and “research” programs, the cost during the Obama administration came to more than a quarter-billion dollars. This is all thanks to the same special interests, bureaucrats, and politicians who brought you hydro-dam removals and reservoir drainage; outrageous subsidies and mandates for wind, solar, ethanol, and biofuels derived from algae; abuse of the “endangered species” designation; and attempted federal control over every single body of water across the land no matter how small, including ditches, puddles, and damp patches. One could simply ignore these meddlers, were it not for the fact that we’re forced to fund them through our taxes and live with the botched-up results of their meddling and crony capitalism. Always on the attack, they are rarely challenged by politicians of either party.
At this writing, the USDA’s organic office is considering new rules that will outline “stricter” humane treatment of organic livestock. Rest assured, these rules will be exploited to malign non-organic livestock producers by implying they aren’t treating their livestock as humanely as their organic competitors. Needless to say, all livestock in America should be treated humanely by both organic and non-organic farming operations. Indeed, basic principles of animal husbandry have dictated humane treatment of livestock since the dawn of herding and farming for one simple economic reason: abused livestock result in less income for the farmer.
Meanwhile, organic activists are trying to use federal-regulatory oversight to prohibit the use of carrageenan, a natural trace processing ingredient in organic foods which helps make foods like ice cream smoother and hence tastier. They are doing so while lacking any evidence carrageenan is harmful. Organic activists are also considering including hydroponics under organic standards; this impulse flies in the face of the time-honored soil-building basis for organic farming, and is driven by the abject lack of domestic organic production.
As long as consumers believe organic food is worth more (that it is “wholesome,” “natural,” and “authentic,” so certified by the USDA) no one making money in the organic sector will be obligated to prove organic food is worth the extra cost. Meanwhile, the interests of non-organic consumers, conventional and biotech farmers, processors, and wholesalers recede as the organic movement, with its knee-jerk opposition to modern farming, dominates the debate and sets the rules.
Creating Marketable Fear of GMOs
Organic activists make the claim that organic foods are 100 percent GMO free, and federal officials look the other way. The only way being GMO free has any attraction in the marketplace is if consumers fear GMO technology. Therefore, most organic marketing “research” is focused on the singular goal of scaring consumers out of accepting GMO foods, even though two decades of research have produced no credible evidence anywhere in the world that GMOs are unsafe—especially in anti-GMO Europe.
The Author’s Field Study: Fraud is the Culprit
We know the USDA failed to perform field testing in its 2010–2011 pilot study because the authors admit that “organic produce samples were collected during the winter months in the United States,” which is like testing Olympic athletes for steroids long after the Games, a few months after they’ve flown home.
Some defenders of the status quo in America’s organic sector claim that finding synthetic pesticides in organic food is unavoidable due to spray-drift from conventional farms. But after I left the business of inspecting organic farms under contract for the USDA, I launched a first-of-its-kind pilot project testing organic farms myself. The results were astonishing. All the organic farmers who were tested had perfectly clean results. Naturally, I collected samples in the field, never post-harvest. Under USDA standards there exists no such thing as a post-harvest organic farm inspection. The unavoidable conclusion here is that spray drift is a fiction and not what causes prohibited pesticides to be found in organic food. Rather, fraud is the culprit.
Testing for Fecal Contamination or GMOs: What Are the Costs?
Costs of pesticide residue-testing done on just 5 percent of USDA certified-organic applicants are covered entirely by the private sector.
Many farmers make use of manure, but usually NOT on crops for human consumption. Only in the organic industry is manure routinely applied to fields growing crops for humans, a practice which can be detrimental to human health—even deadly, especially when manure is not fully composted. Even so, the USDA does not require field testing for possible fecal contaminants on the organic crops it certifies, even though such testing costs less than $25 per episode.
Testing for GMOs is the only across-the-board organic testing in America’s multibillion dollar organic industry, even though no one anywhere in the world, neither human nor animal, has ever fallen ill from consuming GMO foods. Costs for this useless testing are, again, borne entirely by the private sector.
Mischa Popoff is the author of Is it Organic? (isitorganic.ca).
Read previous articles from the Green Watch series online.