Two news stories jumped out at me this week on Monday morning. The first, from the New York Times, was a story on organic cotton production in India and the likelihood that much of it is fradulent. The second was the news that the USDA just banned the importation of all Mexican avocados (including organic ones) due to U.S. safety inspectors receiving death threats — the industry is largely controlled by drug cartels now.
Both stories are relevant to the fact that an increasing percentage of the organic food you, I and other Americans eat, is grown in countries where the rule of law is mostly non-existent. Organic certification is based on an American law and overseen by the federal government, but it is mostly carried out by non-governmental organizations who follow the general principle of “Trust but Verify”. Violating the law can result in fines and felony prosecution.
What organic certifiers do is conduct annual inspections and audits of farmers’ growing practices, primarily by looking at their expenses and income. What they do not do is regularly test crops for contamination with chemicals or GMOs, monitor through hidden cameras, or any other type of surveillance that some people might imagine.
The system worked pretty well in the U.S. and other places where pesticide use is well-regulated, businesses operate on a system of invoices and receipts that allows for tracing of sales of product and purchase of inputs, and corrupt and criminal players are rare in agriculture. While it is possible for farmers to fraudulently produce organic crops in the U.S., the potential financial gain really doesn’t justify the possible risks. The biggest cases of organic fraud here and in Europe have involved distributors who pass off conventionally grown food as organic. Most of the organic certifiers in the U.S. have cracked down on this type of activity by requiring handlers like wholesalers to get certified and require them to submit to fairly rigorous audits.
Pandora’s Box was opened when the entire organic certification system — from the federal Department of Agriculture down through the various certifiers — gave in to pressure from large companies like Costco, Walmart, Krogers and the companies that supply them to push the price of organic crops lower by allowing farms and distributors anywhere in the world to apply for certification. While this did allow the expansion of the organic marketplace, it has come at the cost of what we call “organic integrity”.
It is certainly possible for a farmer in India to grow organic cotton, or a farmer in Mexico to grow an organic tomato. But the more times that a crop changes hands on its way to market, the more opportunities exist for fraud. This is how it is possible, as the NYT article details, for more organic cotton to be sold than is known to be produced in the world. Start with one truckload of organic cotton, pay off some inspectors, add a truckload of non-organic cotton and falsify the documents, etc. If these bad actors were caught, the likelihood of them being extradited to the U.S. for prosecution is zero.
Mexico obviously has a much more serious problem: the country is more or less controlled by drug cartels, especially in the farming areas. The cartels have embraced agriculture as a massive form of money laundering. They now own, through legal or illegal means, most of the avocado orchards in certain areas as well as most of the limes. Every year, a larger percentage of all the vegetables that Americans eat comes from Mexico. Is any of this production actually organic? Who knows? One thing we do know is that if the cartels decide they want to take over, they will. Does anyone imagine that a drug cartel will get caught for passing off conventionally grown avocados as organic? The idea is laughable.
Faced with competing against low-priced Mexican imports, many farms in California — both organic and conventional — have simply decided to contract their production out to Mexican farms. They bring the products into California, and then re-pack them here and sell them as their own product. While the produce boxes may have the words “Grown in Mexico” in tiny letters somewhere on the box, they are often sold as California grown. There are no laws against this practice, unless the products are being sold at state-regulated Farmers Markets.
I have been an organic farmer now for 30 years, and I still have faith that organic agriculture in the United States is a powerful way for conscientious shoppers to effect change. It saddens me to see the organic standard weakened. So I find myself making the following strong recommendation to you: Don’t pay extra for organic products from countries like India, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala or others with a history of corruption or repression. The exception would be for food grown, marketed and branded by grower cooperatives that maintain control of their products through the entire supply chain. These are few and far between.
The farmers who started Organic Certification 50 years wanted a way to give shoppers a way to directly support growers who were doing extra to produce food in a more environmentally sustainable way. They now watch with horror as the system they created is being used to exploit their fellow farmers, line the pockets of criminals, and dupe trusting consumers. While I am concerned that the media attention will turn people off from buying organic food entirely, it’s way past time for the industry be called out for the weakening of the organic standard that has occurred due to the rush to expand the market. My sincere hope is that the New York Times stories this week will be the first of many that will force the organic industry to address the issue instead of looking the other way.