Global Organics Bring New Challenges

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In 1996 I attended the Organic Crop Improvement Association international annual general membership meeting in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It was a meeting I will never forget. During one of the sessions a farmer came up to me with tears in her eyes, holding a fax—the cancellation of a contract for organic soybeans. The buyer had found them cheaper from China. The grower handed it to me saying that this was going to seriously harm the Michigan farmer group with whom she and her husband marketed their organic crops. It had been only recently that any land in China had been certified.

Ten years later, we are seeing more importation of organic food than ever. Demand for organic product exceeds supply. The world is rapidly “going organic,” but are quality control and government oversight keeping up with this expansion?

What does organic mean in China?
This spring I became involved in an email discussion with a small group of individuals who were questioning the integrity of Chinese “organic” products. Paula Lavigne, a writer, wanted information and contacted Eric Kindberg, an organic farmer who currently lives in China on the island of Hainan, as well as a number of other experts in organics. Paula’s article in the Dallas Morning News quoted Fred Gale, a USDA economist, as saying, “The water (in China) everywhere is polluted, and the soil is contaminated from industry and mining, and the air is bad,” adding it was “almost impossible to grow truly organic food in China.” Other concerns in her article include lack of appropriate accreditation of certifiers operating there, as well the use of “nightsoil” as fertilizer. “Nightsoil” is a pretty name for human manure. Human manure is not allowed in U.S. organic production.

This and other recent articles on organic certification in China have shaken confidence in the National Organic Program and the integrity of the organic label. The organic business is already feeling the impact of this press. George Kalogridis, of George’s Organics in Ojai, Cal., sources organic products for manufacturers. He recently reported, “Contracts were canceled by a customer who read the China story and decided they did not want to be part of any brewing scandal. I’m having to deal with rumors and off-hand comments from USDA economists who know nothing about organics,” George said.

In May I was in Washington, D.C., at a board meeting of the nonprofit group Beyond Pesticides. One of my fellow board members inquired about whether or not she could trust the organic label to have real meaning.

This is a question we are going to hear a lot. It is absolutely necessary for retailers of organic products to be able to respond to that question. We’re going to need to do some damage control.

Standards are taken seriously
The folks at the National Organic Program (NOP) have been bashed pretty hard on this issue. They have been under a lot of scrutiny concerning their accreditation practices, especially accreditations for foreign certifiers. But is NOP doing its job? The folks at NOP are there to implement rules that were written with a huge amount of public input. Like the organic producers they oversee, they are pioneers. We learn as we go.

As an accredited certifier, I have to deal with NOP and accreditation issues every day. I also have to deal with certification issues—complaints, noncompliances, violations. There seems to be a never-ending stream of problems that we need to address. I can only imagine what the NOP office experiences. The ability to address every issue rapidly is a staggering challenge. But I can tell you that NOP does take action when they see a problem. I have experienced this directly.

Violations of the organic regulations are taken seriously by certifiers and by NOP, but complaints and allegations must be investigated before action can be taken. We can’t just stop a farmer’s sales because we “think” something is wrong. We have to have evidence, documentation. I can’t speak for NOP, but I do know that our office receives many calls from people complaining that they think so-and-so has violated the regulation. Most of the time they won’t leave their name or write a formal complaint. In very few cases will they provide us with anything we can use. Yet successful legal action is based on evidence that takes time to gather if it is done correctly.

What is to be done?
When I recognized the problems with China I did what we should all do when we see a potential violation of the organic regulations: I called NOP. I asked if they were aware of the problems and was assured by Mark Bradley that they are aware and that they are investigating. I could tell by the conversation that they had done their research and that they intend to do their job. I also know that this will take time. China is far away. It has a completely different government structure, and there are language barriers. NOP has a big job ahead of them with this one. Retailers do, too.

There will be many tough questions. How do I know if it is really organic? Can I trust the USDA label? What’s wrong with Chinese “organic” food anyway? If it’s cheaper, isn’t that a good thing?
How do we answer? The organic label is supposed to provide the consumer with assurance that the product has been raised and handled under an organic system plan approved by an accredited certifier. But anybody could slap an illegal organic label on a product. How do we tell the difference?

Consumers need to be empowered, to be provided with real information to help them make educated decisions in the marketplace. More and more of them want organically produced products. Every certified organic product must contain a label that identifies the certifier. Any member of the public can contact a certifier for information on products bearing the certifier’s name. The contact information is easy to find. All accredited certifiers are listed on the NOP website at www.ams.usda.gov/nop/CertifyingAgents/Accredited.html.

It is a certifier’s job to respond to calls from people wanting verification. The USDA website will soon be publishing a list of operations whose certification has been suspended or revoked. In addition, there are state laws and programs that may be able to answer consumers’ questions. Complaints about suspected violations should provide as much information and documentation as possible and should go to the certifier and to NOP’s compliance and enforcement office. Compliance information can be found at www.ams.usda.gov/nop/compliance/compliancehome.html

Growing pains
It is not new that Chinese “organic” food has entered our markets. Some of it probably meets or exceeds the NOP standards, and some of it may not. Problems happen in the U.S., too, and when reported, the USDA reacts. The system may not be perfect but it is working. It is not fun to be involved in an investigation, but it is interesting to see the system at work.

 Some 16 years ago the Organic Foods Production Act was passed, giving USDA the power and authority to regulate use of the organic label. When our children get to a certain age, we expect them to go out into the real world. And the NOP is at the same stage. The industry has grown and it is time to step out into the bigger world of organics. We need to have expectations of the NOP, and we also need to let them do their job.

It will take more than a village to raise this organic “child” well. This is an international child and we are all raising it together.

Consumer lack of faith in the organic label will hurt us all. People have believed in the organic label because they felt they had some say in what it was—control over their food supply. As we become an organic “world” it will be harder to have control.

NOP’s Mark Bradley said, “We are putting everyone on notice that we are holding certifiers’ feet to the fire.” As a certifier I can attest to feeling the heat, and I know my fellow accredited certifying agencies feel it as well.

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Cissy Bowman is an organic certifier and manages Hoosier Organic Marketing Education, a nonprofit organization (317-539-4317 or [email protected]).

See other articles from this issue: #126 September - October - 2006