Issues and Activities

Is it Organic? How would you know?

Is it Organic? How would you know?  

November 2007 - Are you a consumer who assumes organic food is tested at some stage during its production? Silly consumer! Organic food isn’t tested. So how do you know it’s not fraudulent? 

No one will die or get sick if they eat fraudulently organic food; they’ll just get unwittingly ripped off. Inspections of organic farms occur once a year, never on a surprise basis, and consist basically of a review of the farmer’s paperwork. 

The way the system currently “works” is that organic farmers “prove” they’re not using synthetic fertilizer by documenting that they are using composted manure applications, and they “prove” they’re not spraying toxic herbicides by documenting that they are harrowing weeds mechanically, just to give a couple of examples. 

Such honour-based self-auditing, combined with receipts for approved inputs, supposedly guarantees that organic farmers aren’t negligent, and aren’t cheating by using prohibited inputs or by mixing or substituting with non-organic product. 

Critics say it’s like a man trying to prove he wasn’t fooling around on his wife because he was playing poker with his buddies all night and he’s got it all documented in his trusty daytimer, along with a receipt for the pizza he bought. It’s circumstantial, subjective, and open to abuse. But don’t blame organic farmers. 

Many North American organic farmers have long wanted to make the system objective by testing their crops. But the private organic certifiers and their federal regulators show no signs of admitting anything except more paperwork into the system, and the excuses for not testing organic crops abound. 

One excuse is the fact that conventional crops can sometimes attain very low, even undetectable chemical levels if they air out long enough. So there’s a reluctance to test final organic product lest it opens up unfair competition from conventional products which could be marketed as chemical free. 

But organic farmers want their crops tested in the field. Forget about testing the final product! They point out that organic food isn’t just supposed to be better to eat; it’s also supposed to be better for the environment. 

Consumers have every right to get their money’s worth when they pay a premium for organic food. Testing organic crops would provide the assurance of the purity of the entire growing process, and guarantee the natural fertility of the "value-added” crop while it’s still in the field. 

But, alas, another excuse given in opposition to testing is the fear of obtaining false positive readings in otherwise completely organic crops. No one’s ever bothered to investigate this mind you; they just claim it’s possible. But as a former organic farmer, and an Advanced Organic Farm and Process Inspector, I’ve tested the crops of many organic farmers who wanted scientific results and I’ve never found any such false positive results. 

Honest organic farmers experience a profound disillusionment when they realize that absolutely nothing distinguishes their truly organic crops from bargain-priced “organic” crops which comply only with the letter of the law on paper. Many are dropping their certifications, leaving the growing organic market to be filled by good paper pushers. 

Testing organic crops would be the first step to bringing the good farmers back into the fold by curtailing the useless bureaucracy that exists between them and consumers. 

They don’t use paper trails at the Olympics to deter athletes from using performance-enhancing drugs. Can you imagine an athlete showing up for the 100-metre dash with receipts for all the approved substances he ate over the last four years in an attempt to demonstrate he had not injected anything illegal? 

Scientific laboratory analysis keeps the cheaters out of international sport. Why not use it for value-added, certified organic food? If organic is supposed to be so much better for the environment, and so much better for our health, why not prove it?

Mischa Popoff, B.A. (Hon.), IOIA Advanced Farm and Process Inspector
Author of Is it Organic?
Osoyoos BC

Contributed by: 
Mischa Popoff, B.A. (Hon.) U of S, IOIA Advance Process Auditor