Is Imported “Organic” Food really Organic?

When Terra Firma Farm started back in the late 20th century, we were the 17th organic farm to become certified organic in the Solano-Yolo counties region.  Back then, organic farms certified each other, banding together to create standards and check over the inspections of other farms.  Organic food was sold primarily in natural foods stores and farmers markets.
There are now hundreds of certified organic farms in our area, and the entire certification process is governed by federal law and implemented by third-party certifying agencies. Organic is now a multi-billion dollar international business, and products are available just about anywhere where you can buy food.
From one perspective, this is what success looks like — in particular, the success of consumers and producers working together to create and build an alternative food system based on a set of qualitative principles:  no harmful pesticides; sustainable farming practices;  healthier food products.
The farmers and consumers who started the movement towards certified organic imagined transforming the way farmers farmed and people ate by building demand for organic food.  But now, 25 years later, the reality is a little more complicated.
It’s true that millions of acres of land in the U.S. have been converted to organic farming.  But much of the new demand for organic food is being met by  imports from other countries, which is exposing weaknesses in the organic certification infrastructure.  A recent story in the Washington Post documented several examples of very large shipments of food labelled as organic with dubious or clearly fradulent origins.  Most of the shipments documented were of animal feed for organic livestock, but the story clearly illustrates that imported foods pose a huge challenge.
The story also documents how difficult it is for any food grown in China to pass muster as organic, since much of the surface and groundwater there is contaminated with pesticides.
Closer to home, as U.S. immigration policies continue to make it harder for farmers in California and other states to find adequate numbers of employees, more and more of the certified organic fresh produce sold in the U.S. is grown in Mexico and other Latin American countries.  Growing organic fruits and vegetables is labor intensive, and it’s simply much cheaper to grow where wages are lower.
Organic certification was originally build on a “trust but verify” model where farmers policed their peers.  Is it really capable of ensuring that food grown thousands of miles away, in corrupt countries, is actually organic.  And should food grown in places with essentially no labor or environmental laws be sold alongside U.S. grown organic crops — often at lower prices?
It pains me to say no, since I have personally invested hundreds of hours of my own time working to support the overall integrity of organic.  But I would caution anyone about buying organic products that seem “Too good to be true”:
1) Too good of a deal. For example, Big-box store organic milk that costs half what it costs from a brand-name dairy.  The Washington Post story clearly illustrates why animal products create unique challenges for organic certification.
2) Generic anything from a country known for corruption, social unrest or a totalitarian government.  I buy free-trade organic coffee from an established farmer cooperative in Mexico, but I don’t buy generic supermarket organic tomatoes grown there.  It’s simply too easy for commodities coming long distances to “lose their integrity”, especially when multiple handlers are involved and the financial rewards are significant.  In general, it’s safe to assume that the unbranded organic products you are buying from countries like Mexico may not really be organic.  Add on top of that labor and environmental issues.
3) Anything from China.  It was never a good idea to allow any product from China to be considered certified organic under U.S. law.  The country’s environment is simply too compromised, and corruption is rampant.  Unfortunately, it’s illegal for certifiers to discriminate against a single country.  And a number of American organic food producers source a large percentage of their products from China.  If you don’t want to eat food grown in China, make sure to check the fine print on your frozen fruit and vegetables.  With processed foods its more difficult to know.
In the end, the only food you can be certain is organic is food you grow yourself.  Beyond that, the further the food travels and the more people that handle it, the harder it becomes to know.  If you’re going to eat food that isn’t organic, you might as well just buy conventional.  At least you know what it is and what you are paying for.
Thanks for supporting locally grown, real certified organic produce.
Pablito

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