Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a series of articles by Mischa Popoff and Jay Lehr on modern agriculture and organic farming.
There can be no mistaking the fact that modern agriculture is under attack. Gone are the days of saving the whales or attacking logging companies for cutting down trees. The latest environmental “bad guy” is the farmer who grows the food you feed your family.
This attack against farming has occurred mainly in the form of sustained and very negative public-relations campaigns, but it has also made its way into the nation’s courtrooms. It comes generally from environmental activists, but more specifically from a sect within the organic food industry that levels a constant barrage of unfounded attacks against any form of food that isn’t certified organic.
But through all of the allegations that the modern American food system is unsafe, that it’s unsustainable and even toxic, the organic activist sect harbors a dirty little secret: organic crops and livestock are not tested before they are certified. This allows the well-funded organic lobby to turn a blind eye to unethical practices and behavior within its own ranks in order to keep money flowing into its coffers.
Activists Oppose Testing
It should come as no surprise that with money on the line, this activist element opposes the introduction of mandatory, across-the-board, unannounced organic field testing, knowing it will undermine their political and legal fundraising efforts. Meanwhile, true rank-and-file organic farmers across the United States have no affinity whatsoever for these mainly urban political activists who claim to represent them.
Honest organic farmers support field testing because they know better than anyone that they have nothing to hide.
Considering that America’s food system is perfectly safe and one of the most efficient the world has ever known, and considering that only clean air and water are more important to the smooth functioning of an economy than food, we urge every American to defend the nation’s food system against these attacks from a movement that, among its most prominent proponents at least, really doesn’t have a leg to stand on. What’s that expression about how people in glass houses should not throw stones?
Organic food could, someday, be legitimate. In fact, we believe it should be legitimate. At present, however, it’s not, due entirely to the lack of field testing in the organic sector. Until organic field testing becomes the norm, organic food activists should cease and desist their attacks on the conventional food system.
Message Behind the Label
Most food safety monitoring and enforcement is done behind the scenes. It never appears on a label, and consumers rightly take it for granted.
But wait—what’s this? A certified-organic label on the store shelf? What is the message a consumer is supposed to glean from this, especially now that this label comes replete with the imprimatur of no less august an institution than the U.S. Department of Agriculture? The message is that this food is purer, more nutritious, safer, and more sustainable than conventional, more efficiently produced food. That’s what we’ve been led to believe.
Sadly, none of these claims are true. A couple of them could be true, someday, if organic field testing were used as an enforcement tool. But, and this is crucial, the promotion of any such claims should never occur at the expense of the regular, conventional, nonorganic food industry. America’s food system is perfectly safe and provides abundant affordable and nutritious food to the United States and beyond. No one should get away with implying otherwise, especially in order to advance a thinly veiled political agenda that economically benefits an industry group.
Exaggerated Organic Claims
Although a handful of organic farmers across the United States do indeed produce certified-organic food which can be purer and possibly even a little more nutritious (the first two of the four claims noted above) than some conventionally produced food, organic food is not by any scientific measure “safer” than regular food. After all, pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers are all perfectly safe when used according to the directions.
Nor can organic food, by its very nature, ever be considered more sustainable than conventionally produced food. After all, since pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers are not being used, more fossil fuel is required and more CO2 is emitted per acre and per bushel of food produced in order to kill the weeds in every field.
Moreover, if there is a possibility that organic food could, someday, in all instances, always be purer and offer elevated levels of nutrition, why isn’t this the case right now? The answer, disturbingly, is because the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) avoids serious scientific scrutiny. As such, the NOP provides basically no oversight to ensure that food labeled USDA certified-organic is even close to being truly organic.
This is the case even for “organic” food imported into the United States from countries with notoriously lax environmental standards, such as China, Mexico, and Brazil. You read that right; even imported food can bear the USDA’s good name on its label, all based on paperwork, without a single test to verify purity or nutritional value.
Mischa Popoff ([email protected]) is a former organic farmer, a USDA-accredited Organic Crop Inspector, and author of the book Is It Organic? Jay Lehr ([email protected]) is science director of The Heartland Institute.