Organic guarantee still a myth – Opinion

Popoff is an organic inspector and consultant based in Osoyoos, B.C.

“If they’re not randomly testing, how do we know for sure?”

This candid question from an organic consumer goes to the heart of what it should mean to be organic.

Six years after The Western Producer broke the story that I had found fraud, negligence and indifference while inspecting organic farms, there’s finally a debate about the direction organic certification should take. But, “don’t rock the boat!” is still the message I hear.

Some contend I’m lining my own pockets because I promote organic crop and livestock testing while offering third-party testing services to organic farmers, brokers and retailers who favour change. But sensible people know I’m no different from the certifying bodies who, also for profit, promote bureaucratic third-party certification. The only difference is they take more money.

The bureaucracy within organic certifying bodies, trade associations and lobby groups has reached sprawling proportions. And with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency setting up a fully staffed office in Ottawa to oversee the certifiers, it promises to get worse. The consumer must feed all of these bureaucrats in addition to her family.

I’m reminded of the story my father told me about the Soviet bridge guard just before the Second World War.

A village wanted to be part of Stalin’s defence apparatus, and requested a Red Army guard for their small bridge. Moscow agreed, and once the guard arrived the villagers created these paid positions for themselves:

  • Payroll Accountant.
  • Food, Lodging and Payroll Supervisor.
  • Executive Manager of the Bridge Protection Committee.
  • Executive Assistant to the Manager of the Bridge Protection Committee.
  • Chief-Executive Overseer for the Protection of Mother Russia.
  • Executive Assistant to the Chief-Executive Overseer for the Protection of Mother Russia.

When Stalin’s accountants saw the bill they demanded immediate cutbacks.

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So the villagers fired the guard.

This parable illustrates what’s happened in the organic sector. Offices are run by people who usually have significant business interests elsewhere in the organic industry, and are often staffed by people who’ve never set foot on a farm.

They’ve all lost sight of their original purpose and have become an end in themselves. They no longer listen to farmers or inspectors who hate paperwork because they know it can be fabricated, and listen only to farmers who’re leading the “battle” against Monsanto and Bayer, a couple of bogeymen if ever there were any.

The United States should have at least 10 times more organic farms than we do. But due to the regulation of its industry in 2001 there are now fewer than four times as many. That’s the “power” of bureaucracy.

Here’s another startling statistic. The Organic Production System Task Force of Canada projected 2005 sales of $3.1 billion. Sadly, it took three more years just to hit the $1 billion mark, and 80 percent of what sold was imported.

Think there might be a correlation? At the end of March the CBC reported that Canadian organic farmers are watching prices plummet, and many are dropping their certifications.

Activists blame big corporations, but there’s no law against being big. Besides, old money food conglomerates like Kraft and Heinz had nothing to do with drawing up the standards for organic certification. They merely took advantage of the lax rules and are now importing cheap “organic” ingredients from places like California, China and Mexico.

The conglomerates readily accept the organic imprimatur, although it’s based solely on the written word of those producing and brokering the ingredients. Executives at Kraft and Heinz must think they died and went to heaven.

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It’s up to Canadian farmers, inspectors and consumers to demand a scientific guarantee of organic crop purity and nutrition to make the organic market in Canada fair once again.

While many farmers, inspectors and consumers want laboratory testing of organic farms, there’s total resistance from almost everyone in between. It seems to stem from an extreme unwillingness to explain what organic actually means.

Groups with the wherewithal to scientifically elaborate on organics do little work in the laboratory, or even on farms. They don’t test to prevent fraud and negligence or to ensure proper ecological and fertility management.

You can tell the organic industry is out of ideas when you see publicly funded research into basic concepts my grandfather understood like, “More seeds help control weeds” and “Oats will tolerate harrowing” (WP, Feb. 28.) Indolence of this sort, scheduled to continue for another three years, is going to kill this industry.

Of the 200 tables at the 2008 Organic Conference in Guelph, only two were concerned with the scientific basis of producing wholesome organic food. One was my table, concerned with what is NOT supposed to be in organic crops and livestock, i.e. herbicides, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, growth hormones and such.

The other was a new soil testing company in Alberta concerned with what IS supposed to be in organic crops, i.e. increased microbiological activity. These two factors alone sum up why people are willing to pay more for organic food.

Every other table was concerned with either promoting the industry, or a certain product line within it, or with fighting the bogeymen. Scientific testing services remain completely voluntary, and measuring up in the organic industry remains officially simplistic and undemanding, except for the paperwork. Sure, many Canadian organic farmers demand more of themselves year after year, but their efforts are not being recognized.

The complete lack of elaboration is leading to a situation that will not be pretty. As it plays out over the next few years, a once proud, home-grown, grassroots industry will revert to being a mere movement looking for headlines and public funding to continue a manufactured battle against an indifferent enemy, and many family farms will get left behind in the bureaucratic dust.

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Maybe at that stage someone in an organic office somewhere will say, “Maybe we shouldn’t have fired the guard.”

About the author

Mischa Popoff — Mischa Popoff is a former organic farmer and Advanced Organic Farm and Process Inspector. He’s the author of Is it Organic?, which can be previewed at www.isitorganic.ca.

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