Cornucopia Spotlights Abuses in the Organic Marketplace

[This article was previously published in the summer issue of The Cultivator, Cornucopia’s quarterly newsletter.]

by Anne Ross, JD, Farm and Food Policy Analyst
at The Cornucopia Institute

Source: Adobe Stock

To understand how the surge of organic imports is affecting organic farmers in the United States, one only has to talk to farmers like Bob Joos, whose experience has become far too familiar.

The pain suffered by many of our organic farmers has become chronic and coincides with the dramatic increase of imports of organic corn and soybeans from countries such as Turkey, Ukraine, and other Eastern European nations—with plenty of imports still flowing in from China, India, and elsewhere.

Mounting evidence shows our farmers are not on an equal playing field. In a May 13 front-page story, The Washington Post documented cases of dubious organic certification practices originating overseas. These massive fraudulent shipments make it increasingly difficult for domestic farmers to compete.

It begs the question: Is the USDA doing all it can to protect organic farmers in the United States from impostor organic imports?

Concern about the legitimacy of imported grains gained increased attention when, last year, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and the International Organic Accreditation Service (IOAS) suspended the Turkish organic certifier ETKO for failure to comply with applicable organic standards.

Although currently barred from issuing organic certificates under Canadian and European Union (EU) regulations, ETKO still maintains its accreditation status with the USDA.

Opportunities for the import of dubious organics into the United States continue. In 2016, the USDA started requiring import certificates for organic shipments from countries with which the United States has organic equivalency agreements to verify compliance with USDA organic regulations. Europe has long required such paperwork.

However, these organic import certificates are not required for imports from countries like Turkey, with whom the United States does not have an organic equivalency agreement. Astoundingly, between 2015 and 2016, shipments of organic corn to the United States from Turkey more than tripled, while imports of organic soybeans skyrocketed nearly 800%.

Even where organic equivalency agreements exist, questions remain as to whether source countries are truly “equivalent” in terms of applying standards designed to minimize avenues for fraud.

Later this summer, the USDA’s Office of Inspector General will release an audit of the NOP’s “International Trade Arrangements and Agreements.”

In analyzing the enforcement methods in Canada, Cornucopia has already accused the USDA of not looking after the interests of U.S. organic stakeholders.

The effectiveness of the NOP’s import certificates, and the organic equivalency agreements, in minimizing fraud remains to be seen. The United States would do well to adopt additional traceability mechanisms, such as those implemented by our EU counterparts.

Effective October 19, 2017, the EU will require that all organic imports be accompanied by an electronically generated organic import certificate to track movements of food. A comprehensive electronic database could offer additional protection in verifying the legitimacy of organic imports. An electronic system could also help identify those perpetrators who create fraudulent organic certificates.

Although measures like organic import certificates, OIG audits, and traceability measures offer promises of improvement, this is little solace for farmers like Bob Joos who seek, and deserve, immediate relief.

Combating impostor organics requires a multi-front approach on the part of the USDA, farmers, and processors/handlers.

This is a crisis; the recent damning exposé in The Washington Post illustrates the dire need for action. To identify the bad actors in the international supply chain requires collaborative efforts.

The NOP needs to respond timely to FOIA requests intended to unearth this information. Marketers/processors and consumers should ask where their organic products are grown and seek out U.S. sources to create marketplace pressure.

Cornucopia will continue to report on this issue in our efforts to protect legitimate organic farmers and consumers from fraud and to update organic stakeholders on the status of efforts to combat the flow of dubious organics into the United States.

The Cornucopia Institute also intends to publish guides, helping consumers choose brands that exclusively source from U.S. farmers.

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