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IS ORGANIC FOOD REALLY BETTER?

By: Dave Gordon



You walk into the supermarket produce section, and see two aisles with different choices: To the right, “regular” fruits and vegetables. To the left, organic. Which ones are better, and why?

Is everything labeled “organic”healthier, locally grown, and free of nasty chemical pesticides?

One might assume so. But that assumption just may not be justified.

Consumer Perceptions

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the government agency that oversees organic certification. It tripled its organic foods budget over the last ten years from $1.5 million to nearly ten million dollars. During that time the staff increased from eight to forty-three.

The government has been pushing lately for improved quality standards. In 1998 the American Consumers Union (ACU) performed random tests on a cross-section of organic foods. Twenty five percent were discovered to contain dangerous substances. That spurred the ACU to urge the USDA to require rigorous testing in the American organic program. Since that time, the term “organic” is tightly regulated in North America, as a legal term.

Organic food in North America is “certified” bythe Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and the USDA, both highly respected around the world.

Researchers at Cornell University observed that people perceived organic foods quite favorably. They asked study subjects which of two identical items they would prefer, the one labeled “organic” or the one that was “regular.” Not only did subjects say they believed the “organic” was more nutritious, but also proclaimed they’d pay 16 to 23 percent more to buy it. One might conclude that organic food must be inherently good if so many believe it is better than non-organic food products.

Bamboozled?

For one industry scientist, however, the organics movement – and the organics regulatory system – are steeped in what he calls
a “bamboozle.”

Mischa Popoff was a former organics farming and facilities tester from 1998 - 2004, certified by the USDA and CIFA. He claims to have inspected more than five hundred organic farms and processing facilities. He reports that after he discovered widespread fraud and negligence, hedecided to stop inspecting altogether.

Today he is a policy advisor for the Heartland Institute, a member of the American Agricultural Law Association, and a research associate for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. He is also an outspoken critic of the organic food industry’s bureaucracy.

He was one of about 270 organic inspectors globally, and says that the US government’s guidelines “were a pretty good standard.” However, Popoff claims, “They’re just being ignored. It’s not so much the testing. It’sthe lack
of testing.”

It might come as a surprise to many, but up until recently, the government demanded no official direct oversight of organically produced foods. That changed when Obama-appointed Miles McEvoy of USDA’s National Organic Program made testing mandatory in 2017.

So does that mean organic farms are scrutinized and examined to ensure they abide by government standards? Not necessarily. McEvoy required inspectors to test organic farms only five percent of the time.

“That’s a huge bamboozle,” claims Popoff. “If they only tested Olympic athletes (for doping) five percent of the time, that would just be a joke.”

What’s worse, Popoff asserts, those organics tests are covering only pesticides, never looking for dangerous pathogens from uncomposted manure. Uncomposted manure can contain high levels of pathogens and pesticide residues. Composting manure kills pathogens and degrades some chemical contaminants.

“The USDA does not require field testing for possible fecal contaminants on the organic crops it certifies, even though such testing costs less than $25 per episode,” explains Popoff.

According to two separate studies by two separate divisions of the USDA, conducted in 2010-2011 and 2015 on organic pesticide testing, 43 percent of samples contained prohibited pesticides, as well as fecal matter.

The “Honor System”

The organics bureaucracy relies heavily on the honor system – that is, on files from farmers themselves.

“You keep records of everything from seeds to harvest, and as long as your records don’t indicate that you’ve broken the rules, then that’s it. You are organic. It’s really that crazy,” Popoff claims. Popoff is also troubled that testing is not done routinely in the fields; rather, it is most often done on produce that has already been picked. He notes that additives or chemical treatments dissipate after the produce has been picked. “That’s like testing an Olympic athlete a month after the games, after they fly home to their home country,” Popoff claims. “Testing is all in the way you do it.”

Popoff adds, “In the old days, there were some really horrible chemicals used on farms and they didn’t dissipate, or didn’t dissipate rapidly. Now, there’s Round-up, the most horrible herbicide used according to organic activists, and it only dissipates in twenty-eight days.”

Even the USDA, in two separate studies, found forbidden pesticides in forty percent of crops using end-product testing.

“So, you can just imagine how bad it would be if they were testing in the fields. That’s a bamboozle,” Popoff says.

Popoff concludes that the USDA, “doesn’t have a scientific process” that guarantees safe organic food.

Are “Natural” Pesticides Safer?

Some “natural” pesticides approved for organic use –for example, copper sulphate and pyrethrin, can actually be more toxic than the synthetic ones.

A 1996 study revealed that copper sulphate resulted in liver disease in vineyard sprayers in France.

With pyrethrin, a 2002 study showed nearly a fourfold increase in leukemia was found among farmers who handled it, relative to those who had not, although pyrethrin is generally considered to have low toxicity for humans.

Popoff is critical of the USDA for how it regulates its organics program. This regulation falls under the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, and according to Popoff, it has no connection to the department’s food safety, research, inspection, nutrition, or risk management services.

“None of its staffers are responsible for finding fraud, field-testing for safety, or recalling unsafe food,” he says.

The USDA itself does not do any inspections; rather, the job is left to private and cooperative certifying agents – all paid for by the organic farms.

Things get a little sketchy, he says, because “you aren’t going to pay them if they upset you. They are going to lose you as a client.”

What’s more, certifiers can benefit financially from the farms
they inspect.

Nearly 80 certifying agents that grant USDA organic certification to farmers and processors can receive up to three percent of gross revenue from their clients. That might not sound like much, but in a $40 billion a year industry, it can add up.

Popoff states that inspectors do not even have to do spot checks. They usually give several weeks’ notice to farmers for visits – giving them enough time to maneuver (or out-maneuver) their chemical use. However, according to Cornucopia Institute, unannounced inspections are performed on certified organic farms. According to USDA regulations, “Additional inspections may be announced or unannounced at the discretion of the certifying agent.”

Despite others’ claiming that proper regulation is in place, Popoff retorts, “What’s happening in the organic industry – no one’s managing it. It’s a free for all.”

Made In China

One may think that by buying organic, at least we are helping domestic farms, some of whom are making sincere attempts to stay true to “clean” farming practices.

The statistics show a different story. In 2012 only 0.7 percent
of US land is organic farms. Yet, organic sales are over four percent of retail.

“You just do the quick math. We must be importing 80 percent of the (organic) food from overseas,” Popoff says.

“Most people will be floored if they found out that those vegetables are from China or Turkey. Fresh fruit, like apples, are coming from China. This is sort of normal in the regular food industry. We know it’s a ‘global market,’ but one of the facets of the organic industry is presumed to be local – if not local, then at least domestic.”

Risks for Consumers

The uptick in imported foods, he adds, not-so-coincidentally aligns with the number of food-borne illnesses from produce.

If there were produce that had particularly high probability of chemical additives, irrespective of certification, Popoff believes they would be organic cherries, peaches,
and strawberries.

“I don’t want to impugn farmers’ integrity, but you have such a high chance that those are fraudulent. Because it’s hard to grow those, even just regularly. It’s next toimpossible for them to be organic,” he notes.

“The Environmental Working Group will advise you to buy organic strawberries because they use so much chemicals on regular strawberries. If it takes that much chemicals to grow a regular strawberry, how am I supposed to believe this farmer did it? How did he pull that off? You can have a one acre crop of strawberries and it’s worth a half a million dollars. You think he’s going to stand there and watch as a microscopic bug burrows its way into the entire crop?”

Popoff’s hope is that inspectors “finally start using science to ensure synthetic nitrates, phosphates, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, antibiotics, and growth hormones” are monitored properly.

Supermarket Regulations – Or Lack Thereof

However, even if farms are inspected to the letter, grocers and supermarkets unfortunately are not beholden to
any standardization.

“Everyone else is inspected – even the warehouses and distributors. Grocers are not inspected the same way restaurants are inspected by health inspectors. There are no unannounced inspections of a grocery store,” he says.

Popoff adds a scathing accusation. “Sadly, any grocery retailer selling organic food is only able to do so thanks to a combination of ineptitude, ignorance, and fraud, aided and abetted by the authority of the federal government, all at taxpayer expense.”

Still, he claims that he is, in fact, pro-organic. What bothers him is that the industry is not regulated strictly enough,
and therefore he believes that the term “organic” is
virtually meaningless.

Popoff noted that a 2012 study conducted at Stanford University's Center for Health Policy. This study did not find strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives, although it did conclude that consumption of organic foods can reduce one’s risk of pesticide exposure.

Buyer Beware

Consumers are advised: caveat emptor, let the buyer beware. Although shoppers seeing an “organically grown” label might assume that the product is free from harmful pesticides and is grown locally, this is not always the case. Hopefully, more stringent regulation in the future will make the “organic” label as trusted as the proper kashrutcertification we find on kosher food products, whose supervision we trust wholeheartedly.