Part One of this series highlighted the major rules for organic farming. In order to earn a USDA Certification (and thus display the USDA organics sticker), farmers must follow these rules.
Before I get into the scientific benefits (or lack thereof) of organics, I’d like to cover the issue of enforcement. Obviously, all the rules in the world are meaningless if no one makes sure they are followed. Furthermore, if regulations are not worded precisely, it is easy for an unscrupulous company to meet bare standards while ignoring the intent of the rules.
Shortcomings in Enforcement
The Dallas Morning News investigated, and “found that the United States Department of Agriculture does not know how often organic rules are broken and has not consistently taken action when potential violations were pointed out.” The former chairman of the National Organics Standards Board decried the USDA’s lack of action and the lack of prosecution.
The USDA National Organics Program receives little funding and has fewer than a dozen employees, so they rely on Accredited Certifying Agencies (ACAs) to perform inspections. This August, 50% of the accredited certifiers under an agency investigation failed their certification audits and were placed on probation. They were given 12 months to make corrections.
Inspectors hired by the USDA sometimes granted approval despite evidence that banned chemicals were used, and sometimes without conducting investigations at all!
Even inspectors who properly perform their duties may not be able to effect change. A review of 216 internal USDA audits shows several examples of violations at organic farms and production plants. Unfortunately, the USDA adheres to a policy of “due process,” instead of immediately removing certification from suspect farms.
There are numerous examples given in the article, so it’s definitely worth a look. Of course, the article was written in 2006, so maybe we’re getting better?
Except for AlterNet’s article from this August, asking “Is Your Organic Food Really Organic?” (This is a pro-organic alternative news website, lest we think I am using biased sources.) Much organic food is produced overseas, where there is even less oversight than in the US, and this article specifically focuses on organic produce from China. (This is the same China that brought us contaminated pet food and lead painted toys.) China does not allow foreigners to inspect farms, so the ACA subcontracts with Chinese companies. Recently, ginger from China (sold at Whole Foods) was found to contain levels of aldicard (a pesticide that can cause nausea, blurriness of vision, and headache even at low levels) that exceed even the levels allowed for conventional ginger.
Except for the fact that standard are being weakened. The Organic Consumers Association has many many posts on their website about this. The rules, while they sound good, are vague. “Access to the outdoors” can sometimes mean a hole in the wall that leads out to a tiny enclosed pen that holds only a handful of animals; most animals with “access” will never make it outside. Many pro-organics websites call for a Peer Review Panel to evaluate the NOP¹s adherence to its accreditation procedures and its accreditation decisions.
Most organic farmers are playing by the rules. I’m not suggesting that there are no sources that can be trusted. The problem is finding out which suppliers are honest, and which are not. If a consumer cannot be confident when shelling out extra money, if there is no guarantee that they are getting what they pay for, then I see little point in doing so.