No value in paper-based organics

Par Mischa Popoff le 6 août 2009

I’m the first and only organic inspector to blow the whistle on  the organic industry. My story was first covered by The Western Producer and then picked up by the CBC, CTV, Maclean’s and Barron’s. I paid a high price for going public, but it was the right thing to do.

Now comes news about a study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine saying organic food is no more nutritious than regular food. The immediate response from top representatives of the organic industry has been that they never said organic food was more nutritious, only that it contains fewer harmful chemicals.

First of all, countless organic marketing campaigns have indeed implied or stated outright that organic food is more nutritious. But second, and of far greater importance, to claim we should pay more for organic food because it’s produced without harmful synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is just wishful thinking given that organic fields are not tested.

I saw many questionable claims while working for North America’s largest organic certifying bodies in Canada and the United States. But without field testing I was powerless to do anything about it.

Imagine if they quit testing athletes at the Olympics. Imagine if, instead, athletes signed affidavits swearing they were clean. Imagine if Olympic inspectors called ahead to see if it was all right to drop by to collect a sample and allowed their schedule to be dictated by the athlete. That’s how the multi-billion-dollar organic industry runs. It’s an honour-based free-for-all.

There’s no way to know if any of this industry’s advertised claims (many of which you subsidize with your taxes) are true. There are many honest organic farmers who work hard to bring high-quality, pure organic food to market. But, unless all organic farmers are forced to comply with the standards through routine organic testing during surprise inspections, these honest organic farmers go unrewarded for their hard work. Many of them are leaving the industry, unable to compete with cheap, untested “organic” imports which account for a whopping NINETY PERCENT of the organic market.

Industry defenders say organic food is the most highly regulated food in the world. But so what? Regulation is useless unless it’s backed up with surprise field visits and lab tests. This is 2009, not the 1960s. Why aren’t we testing organic farms?

I’ve campaigned for this since I became an inspector in 1998 and most organic farmers agree with me. But those running the industry vehemently disagree and attack my integrity instead of responding to the issue. It’s no surprise that a British study found organic food to be no more nutritious than regular food: no one’s minding the store. We can’t even begin to assess the value of organic methods if an unknown number of players are cheating. And where’s the incentive for honest organic farmers to even bother trying harder?

I always thought organic food was supposed to be purer AND more nutritious. Am I missing something here? It’s also supposed to be easier on the environment, but we’re miles away from even considering whether that’s true.

I appreciate there’s no way to guarantee absolute purity. The world is, sadly, a much polluted place. But why can’t we test organic farms to at least make sure farmers follow the rules? Isn’t that the place to start?

Governments tried to implement organic field testing but were beaten back by the industry and a mere paper-based honour system was implemented instead. So tell me, do you think that, maybe, there’s a much larger problem here than just a lack of nutrition?

Full Disclosure: Mischa Popoff is a former organic inspector with a bachelor’s degree in history. He has been paid by some organic farmers to get their crops tested on a not-for-profit basis. You can visit his website at www.isitorganic.ca 

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