This article was previously published in the winter issue of the Cultivator, Cornucopia’s quarterly newsletter.
By Michele Marchetti, Co-Director of Development and Communications at The Cornucopia Institute
Huddled inside a trade show booth, Anne Ross, JD watched dozens of icons, each representing an international shipping vessel, inch across a computer screen.
Behind the scenes of the bustling MOSES Organic Farming Conference, Ross was getting schooled in how to track grain shipments traversing a vast ocean, thousands of miles away.
She reflects on that day as the first thread in the unraveling of a massive story.
A few weeks prior, Ross sat in her packed-up house, ready to embark on a move from South Carolina to California, when a job posting surfaced in her email. On a whim, she sent her resume. “It wasn’t strategic at all,” she says.
Yet it was life-changing. For the next three years, Ross embarked on a high-wire journey worthy of a screenplay. As she spearheaded an extensive investigation into the scourge of organic grain fraud, she quickly became immersed in the shadowy world of informants and the unsavory side of global trade.
With courage, tenacity, and wisdom, Ross turned her findings into cogent commentary, advocating for regulatory changes to improve the traceability of organic food imports in the global supply chain and, ultimately, helping to shift government policy at the USDA National Organic Program (NOP).
A TANGLED WEB
Ross plunged deep into a global industry that plays a starring role on nearly every American family’s plate.
Cloaked in secrecy, the fraudulent organic grain trade originates on farms overseas and infiltrates domestic markets that provide a source of feed for organic livestock. The industrial dairy and poultry operations allowed under the USDA seal offer a lucrative customer base.
Without vigorous enforcement mechanisms, incestuous corporate relationships create an environment ripe for fraud. Just a handful of overseas companies are responsible for the bulk of this deception.
The US imports 70% of its organic soybeans and 40% of its organic corn, mostly used in organic livestock production. Well over half of corn imports come from overseas regions that don’t even have sufficient acreage to support this level of purported organic production.
The influx of cheap, imported grain of questionable legitimacy lowers the market price for authentic organic grain farmers, a devastating competitive disadvantage for organic producers who either grow their feed on farm or purchase from a legitimate source. This bias disincentivises new farmers, as well as those considering a transition to organic.
TRACKING THE BAD GUYS
Ross began her career as a corporate litigator before pursuing an advanced degree in agriculture & food law from the University of Arkansas, where her studies focused on the federal regulation of pesticides and food labeling.
She approached the grain fraud investigation like a lawyer taking on a case, US organic grain farmers her de facto clients and confidants.
She cultivated a trusted network of unflagging farmers who took her calls, often from the fields, patiently walking her through the intricacies of grain farming and trade.
As Ross set out to expose how the fraud was perpetuated, she began to receive calls from informants, insiders in the grain industry. She formed close, trusted relationships with the tipsters, strategizing daily with them for three years. “They had information that, had it been known they were sharing it, could have gotten them fired.”
One of Ross’ informants warned her of grain fraud’s ties to organized crime. He had been personally threatened and carried a weapon. At another point in the investigation, an informant and former contractor for the FBI offered this pointed suggestion: I’d look into a more secure internet platform. Ross, who embodies equanimity, continued.
A big break in Cornucopia’s case came in 2018. At the time, Ross had been training for the Boston Marathon, a passion that provided necessary stress relief.
On the eve of her flight to Massachusetts, she received a call in the middle of the night from one of her informants, who pointed her to a complaint that had been filed in California federal court.
A company wanted to unload 25,000 metric tons of purportedly “organic” corn from a vessel lingering off the coast of California. A massive importer was suing the USDA and US Customs for rejecting the shipment, worth millions of dollars.
Those court filings, combined with other databases and her sources, allowed Ross to piece together a web of major international players. Instead of running her race, she logged hours at her computer, working on a release about the lawsuit, news that Cornucopia was the first to break.
Several months later, Cornucopia published a groundbreaking white paper that meticulously turned hundreds of hours scouring lawsuits and databases into a compelling story of how the international grain trade operates. “No one before had actually named some of these companies that are involved in the importing.”
That white paper was circulated to more than 1,000 industry insiders on email lists. It made its way to the agriculture ministry in Romania, and resulted in a confab with the Ministry of Agriculture in Ukraine. The USDA’s NOP also took notice. “It put pressure on them in a way—if I can figure this out, then there’s really no excuse for a government agency not to be out in front of this.”
ADVOCATING FOR FARMERS
The uneven playing field created by fraud is crippling. Agronomists have estimated that one bulk cargo ship of imported grain may be equal to the annual production of 50 to 80 US certified organic grain farms. US organic grain farmers have suffered losses exceeding $400 million to fraudulent grain shipments, originating primarily from the Black Sea Region.
“It wasn’t just grain unloaded from those vessels, but financial hardships and erosion of confidence in an enforcement system that failed to protect them,” Ross says.
After years of tracking vessels, notifying authorities of questionable incoming shipments, and pressing the USDA to act, Ross finally received the news she had been waiting for: The USDA was unveiling a draft Strengthening Organic Enforcement (SOE) rule meant to address organic fraud by giving the USDA stronger tools to ensure compliance and traceability.
While the rule is far from perfect, Ross is heartened by any progress that hinders the bad actors who are hurting the dozens of organic farmers she befriended over the course of her saga.
Those farmers were on her mind when, throughout the investigation, people wondered why she was spending so much time on something they contended “wasn’t really hurting anyone.”
They’d ask: What’s the big deal? Ross’ answer: Integrity. “When you’re talking about intentional deceit for monetary gain, there is no relative truth,” Ross says. “There is a right and there is a wrong.”
Finding the truth, and amplifying it for the USDA and thousands of Cornucopia supporters, provided Ross with ample motivation. Despite years as a litigator, it’s the one case she’ll never forget.
As she continues her role as a consultant and international policy advisor for Cornucopia, Anne Ross can also be found working on her primary passion, food justice and access, as the new executive director at Food Democracy Now.
Hear Anne on the November 12 “Food Sleuth Radio” podcast.
You can also catch Anne at The Real Organic Project’s Virtual Symposium in January.