Updated May 15
[Read Cornucopia’s letter to USDA Secretary Perdue.]
Industry Watchdog Reinforces Call for New Leadership at USDA National Organic Program
Non-organic corn and soy, labeled as organic, are flooding U.S. ports, undercutting legitimate U.S. organic farmers, due to the USDA’s negligence. The organic industry’s most aggressive industry watchdog, The Cornucopia Institute, reinforced their call for USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue to correct the chronic pattern of gross corruption at the National Organic Program (NOP) by replacing the incompetent management.
Cornucopia’s letter to Perdue follows the release of a new investigation by The Washington Post documenting massive shipments of fraudulent organic grains entering the U.S. from China and Eastern Europe. The May 13 article, The labels said ‘organic.’ But these massive imports of corn and soybeans weren’t, details how easy it has been for exporters to sell gross amounts of fraudulent “organic” commodities to U.S. markets.
“This is the second organic major-league scandal uncovered this month by The Washington Post, and it confirms a longstanding pattern of negligence and corruption documented by our researchers,” said Will Fantle, Cornucopia’s codirector.
Cornucopia has filed numerous formal and well-documented legal complaints seeking to force the USDA to examine a wide range of alleged wrongdoings at organic factory farms and by other industry scofflaws. All too often the complaints have been dismissed without investigation, or, when found meritorious, penalties have been negotiated down to a “light slap on the wrist” for offenders, with the details of the deals cloaked in secrecy, according to Cornucopia.
The organic sector is a robust and rapidly growing piece of the food pie, with annual sales now topping more than $40 billion. “Clearly there is a hunger by many in America for food that is safer and more nutrient-dense,” Fantle noted. “But consumers are being cheated and ethical farmers are being robbed of income while the USDA fails to vigorously defend—as they were charged to do by Congress—organic integrity.”
The NOP oversees approximately 150 independent agencies worldwide that do inspections of organic farms and facilities. “Its accreditation program is fundamental in ameliorating the inherent conflict of interest in businesses hiring their own certifiers,” stated Anne Ross, an attorney with Cornucopia with a background in food and agricultural law.
Cornucopia has updated an outstanding complaint with the USDA’s Inspector General about corruption at the NOP. The agency has ignored well-documented concerns of improprieties in imports since The Cornucopia Institute first published their report on growing Chinese “organic” soybean sales in the U.S. in 2009.
“Regulators have ignored U.S. organic farmer co-ops sharing information about domestic markets being destroyed by imports sold at bewilderingly low prices,” said Fantle. “U.S. farmers simply cannot compete with organic alchemy.”
Whisperings of widespread fraud with grain imports have been circulating for over a decade in the organic farming community. A number of Cornucopia’s farmer members, and leading farmer-owned organic grain cooperatives, have shared data about domestic markets completely undermined by imports sold at extraordinarily low prices that they simply cannot compete with. For over a decade Cornucopia has informed NOP officials of these concerns. Instead of taking action, the NOP sat back and watched domestic markets erode to the point where organic grain farmers could no longer make a living.
Bob Joos, 57, a fourth-generation North Dakota farmer, who has just finished his conversion to organics, is caught in the squeeze, “Three years of financial sacrifice and hard work later I have achieved organic certification and I am now feeling financial stress because I have bins full of organic grains that the end users don’t want because they are now getting production cheaper than my cost of production, from overseas.”
“If I don’t get a break soon, I am contemplating selling some grain as conventional to try to stay in business one more year. The only other thing I can do is sell off machinery or land,” Joos added.
In 2011 Cornucopia joined with U.S. grain cooperatives and organic farmers in Canada in investigating a widespread conventional grain laundering scandal by Québec certified organic operation Jirah Mills.
The allegations of fraud ended up with Jirah voluntarily surrendering its organic certification in Canada, along with their right to engage in organic commerce in the province of Québec. But the company was then recertified by Oregon Tilth, under the NOP standards, and Jirah resumed exporting the suspect grain to the U.S.
The USDA’s National Organic Program inexplicably continues to recognize the credibility of certifiers that have been banned from organic certification activities in Europe. And there are widespread reports of cargoes being rejected in the United Kingdom and instead being diverted to the U.S. The lax oversight of the U.S. organic program has turned bad actors, here and abroad, loose against unsuspecting U.S. organic consumers. Our National Organic Program is failing at its most basic duty: to enforce the organic standards.
“The callous attitude of the National Organic Program administrator, Mr. McEvoy, in ignoring widespread fraud in organic livestock agriculture, illegal hydroponic (soil-less) organic produce production, and the longtime calls for investigation into fraud in imports, has materially injured the organic farming community in the U.S.,” said Mark A. Kastel, Cornucopia’s senior farm policy analyst. “Organic stakeholders need the Trump/Purdue administration to step up and exert authority over the NOP, which has been unduly influenced by the leading industry lobby group, the Organic Trade Association.”