Organics Industry: Led Astray

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Editor’s Note: Mischa Popoff is an advanced organic inspector based in Canada, and has been outraged over the hijacking of the organic industry by big corporations. In his new book, Is It Organic?, Popoff provides insight into how the organics movement became an industry that lost its focus and is in danger of losing its identity.

Fifteen percent.

That’s a generous estimate of the sum total of the organic industry that could be considered “legitimate.”

No, I’m not someone with an interest in the chemical or biotech industries. I’m someone with a vested interest in the organic industry. Fifteen percent is the paltry market share left over for American and Canadian organic farmers after cheap imports fill the shelves.

Did you think, like so many Americans, that the organic industry supported local family farms? Silly … that’s what’s referred to as propaganda, or rather, public relations.

Way back when this industry was still a movement, almost all organic food was domestic. But then something interesting happened on the way to Washington. Ambitious corner health-food store owners realized they could make more money if they imported “organic” food from China, Mexico and Indonesia. Is that stuff really organic? Well, the paperwork says it is. But what do the field tests say? Ahh … now you’re asking the right question.

Failing The Test

Asking if organic farms and processing facilities are tested should be akin to asking if Olympic athletes are tested. “Well of course they are!” Or so you’d assume. Well, it turns out they’re not.

Back in 1998, President Bill Clinton listened to the American Consumers Union and required that organic farms and processing facilities be tested at least once a year. Honest organic farmers rejoiced, firm in the belief that the main role of government is to keep things fair for everyone. But the corner health-food store owners lobbied to eliminate field testing from USDA organic standards. Can you say free-for-all?

Activists love to blame this on Bush, but it all happened under Clinton. Anything can now be sold as organic as long as the paperwork is completed and exorbitant fees are paid to private certifying companies that only make money when they give their approval. Conveniently, these certifiers all have branch offices over in China. Corner health-food stores quickly grew into huge box stores and ceased doing business domestically 85% of the time.

Without testing for the very things the organic industry claimed to exclude from food, the industry leaders realized they desperately needed some credibility. They weren’t quite sure where to turn until they made the collective decision in 1999 to ‘go hard’ against a new enemy, an enemy which Clinton had thought might actually be an ally: biotechnology.

This is why you never see the words chemical-free or synthetic-fertilizer-free on organic foods. Sure, organic crops aren’t supposed to be grown with the aid of chemicals or synthetic fertilizer. But it turns out the best you can do is hope there are no residues in your organic food. There’s no guarantee; not even the suggestion that chemical residues are reduced to some sort of an acceptable level.

But you do see bold statements like “100% GMO free” proudly displayed on organic labels because genetic engineering has replaced crop protection chemicals and synthetic fertilizer as the arch-nemesis of organics.

All About Biotech

Now when you read in the news that the CEO’s of “organic” corporations like Whole Foods Market, Organic Valley, and Stonyfield Farm are “fuming” over the Obama administration’s decision to approve the use of genetically engineered alfalfa, you’ll know it has absolutely nothing to do with bringing purer, more nutritious food to market. It’s all just PR.

These CEOs claim to be concerned about the environment, but they’re really just worried because of their own self-imposed, zero tolerance for biotechnology. They made the “100% GMO free” labeling claim their sole raison d’être, and now have to stick with it no matter what.

There’s no proof that biotechnology leads to more chemical use on farms (quite the opposite actually) or that it will “threaten the rights of farmers and consumers,” or “damage the environment.” But from a marketing perspective, the prospect of minute quantities of biotech alfalfa cross-pollinating with organic alfalfa undermines the bold claim — the only bold claim — that premium-priced organic foods are always “100% GMO free.”

The only way organic farmers will suffer is if an organic certifier makes their lives hell when their organic alfalfa fields are within a five-mile radius of a crop of biotech alfalfa. This is why hardly anyone grows organic canola anymore in North America: the for-profit organic certifiers forced organic farmers to stop growing canola so the leaders of the organic industry could then launch legal action against the makers of Roundup Ready, biotech canola; legal action that, ironically enough, organic farmers were then forced to fund through their exorbitant certification fees. Feeling all warm and fuzzy yet?

In the meantime, if an organic farmer’s crop becomes contaminated by a sprayed chemical, whether through negligence or fraud, or if an “organic” crop over in the People’s Republic of China is fraudulently treated every step of the way with synthetic fertilizer, prohibited herbicides, pesticides and fungicides, well … everything’s just fine as long as the paperwork’s all in order, the fees are paid, and no one blows the whistle. But for gosh-sake, don’t let genes from a genetically engineered crop get anywhere near an organic crop! It’d wreak havoc with the industry’s image.

The organic industry claims to provide purer, more nutritious food — for a price — but it doesn’t do anything to ensure that’s what consumers get. Nothing that is, except for a stupid, self-imposed zero-tolerance on GMO.

Painted In A Corner

I worked the land with my family back when the organic industry was still just a movement. I then had the honor of working across the U.S. and Canada as an Advanced Organic Farm and Process Inspector and met with hundreds of honest organic farmers who want nothing to do with any of the political activism we’re seeing. Never once did I ever see proof that organic food was harmed in any way by biotechnology. On the contrary I met many people who believe, as Bill Clinton did, that organic farming could very well benefit from biotechnology.

But millionaire organic activists have painted themselves into a tight corner and have no choice but to continue scaring the crap out of the public when it comes to biotechnology. Now that they’re firmly committed to cheap overseas supply, being anti-GMO is all they’ve got left to hang their hats on.

Popoff is an IOIA Advanced Organic Inspector and is the author of "Is it Organic?"

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