Do you buy “certified organic” products? CNBC recently published an investigative story questioning whether “organic” really means organic. According to their reporting, the general consensus among members of the agricultural industry is, generally, products carrying the “organic” label due meet the standards outlined in the government’s National Organic Program. However, there are HUGE issues with the way in which the industry is regulated that leaves me concerned and questioning whether that is in fact true.

The USDA’s National Organic Program specifies the criteria and standards a farm must meet to be certified as an organic grower. For example, farmers are not permitted to use genetically modified seeds or synthetic pesticides or herbicides (although the USDA still permits a few); and, if a farmer wants to start growing organic produce on a portion of their land, the land must not have grown anything conventionally for three years, meaning the land would lay fallow for three years — a costly proposition to any farmer. In fact, overall, for a farm to meet all of the standards set forth in the National Organic Program is very time-consuming and expensive.

What I find to be most concerning are not the organic standards outlined by the USDA, but the oversight of these standards. Not only are resources lacking to regulate the industry, but the entire system for enforcement is structurally flawed.

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Organic farms must be annually audited to ensure growing operations are in compliance with the National Organic Program. Currently, these audits are being conducted by third-party certification inspectors, not directly by the USDA. With an estimated 24,000 organic farms in the US and only about 80 accredited third-party inspectors to perform the audits, it’s hard to believe a thorough audit of the farms is being conducted. The audits primarily consist of reviewing receipts and other paperwork as well as an inspection of the farm itself, but only a small fraction of actual soil samples and products are tested for chemical residue — 5% according to the president of the California Certified Organic Farmers. So, as everyone in the industry readily admits, the system is largely based upon trust.

Plus, the current system allows for a major conflict of interest related to the third-party inspectors — the farmers pay the inspectors to be certified. As one former inspector said, “You’re essentially paying your policing body to certify you. You can see if they decertify you, well, they’re not going to get their $3,000 out of you next year, and by the way, that could be $30,000 upfront. It depends on the size of your operation.” This arrangement is clearly flawed.

Approximately 100 countries also export food labeled “certified organic” to the US. The food imported must meet the same set of standards as the food organically grown in the US. However, the certification is conducted by foreign agents. Unfortunately, I find difficulty in believing a foreign country would be willing to enforce US agricultural policies at the expense of it’s own economy. As one farmer said, “Will a foreign judge sentence a farmer who violated a U.S. law in their own judicial system? That’s just not plausible.”

I do believe most farmers and inspectors to be honest, but as organic food continues to represent a larger and larger percentage of the foods we consume, I think it only makes sense to properly enforce the industry. Right now, I believe the current organic certification system leaves a lot of room for skepticism. What do you think?

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