I’m new to The Michigan Daily, and if anyone had told me a year ago that I would be sharing my writing with thousands of students and alumni and countless others, I would have taken it as a joke. I’m science-minded, to say the least, so the prospect of putting my opinion out there in writing for anyone and everyone to criticize is frightening. Though criticism can be negative at times (luckily I haven’t received anything too tough to handle, yet), it can also be constructive, which was the type I received in regards to my last article.
After my last article, “‘Organic’ and ‘healthy’ are not synonymous,” was published, I was contacted by Mischa Popoff, author of the book “Is It Organic?” and a long-term supporter of the organic movement. His response was not only positive, but also revealed a few facts about the organic industry that were interesting and conflicting at a fundamental level. Needless to say, no industry as large and rapidly growing as the organic industry is perfect, but Popoff peaked my interest, and was able to provide me with a follow-up interview about his experience.
Popoff has been immersed in the organic-food realm his whole life. He grew up in Saskatchewan, Canada, on a grain farm that became fully organic in 1993, far before Canada (in 2009) and the United States (in 2002) had national organic programs. For five years, Popoff worked as a United States Department of Agriculture contract organic inspector.
“I left the organic movement when I realized it was a bureaucratic scam designed to propel a political agenda,” he said. Popoff’s arguments center on a few points: that “43 percent of all organic food sold in America actually tests positive for prohibited pesticides,” that organic-crop field testing is practically non-existent, and that the organic industry is fueling a fire against GMOs which has little to no scientific grounding.
I entered the interview expecting to speak to a man who only ate local foods, grass-fed meat and purely organic produce. I have realized now that nothing is so simple. Perhaps I was naive to think that the National Organic Program could be articulated by a single man in such a linear manner. Though Popoff presented a number of good arguments, the issue is more complicated than simply condemning the entire organic industry.
“Some people say I’m anti-organic for speaking out with the media like this, but the truth is I’m pro-organic, and I’m trying to save the industry I love,” he admitted. Popoff’s is only one of thousands of opinions about the successes and failures of the organic industry, and it’s important to approach each new one with caution.
From the research I have done on Popoff’s points, I’m in agreement with some of them, yet left in confusion with others. The first of his statistics — essentially that every time you buy something bearing the organic seal (which is a complicated issue within itself) there is a 43-percent chance it will actually test positive for pesticides — is more complicated than just a single percentage.
First, it’s important to distinguish that the pesticides that are prohibited in organic farming are synthetic. There are some organic pesticides that the USDA approves to be used on products, and for those products to be sold under the label “organic.” Even still, according to the USDA, “Organic agriculture practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues; however, methods are used to minimize pollution from air, soil and water.”
The USDA claims that the main purpose of organic farming is to maximize “the balance of natural systems,” and to enhance “biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity.”
It seems naive to assume that doing such things in a 100-percent natural way, without any intentional or unintentional influence of technological advancements, is actually possible. Additionally, according to a 2010-2011 pilot study on pesticide residue testing, “As long as the operator hasn’t directly applied prohibited pesticides and has documented efforts to minimize exposure to them, the USDA organic regulations allow residues of prohibited pesticides up to 5 percent of the EPA tolerance.”
Popoff’s second claim, that there is absolutely no field testing of organic products, is also a complicated issue to address, based solely on the issue of semantics. Words such as “testing” and “inspection” are thrown around as if they identify specific activities that are conducted on farms. The USDA identifies that, “Before a product can be labeled ‘organic,’ a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.”
As a consumer, “inspection” sounds fine, but does this include lab-testing to ensure that the products do not exceed the allotted 5 percent of residues? Or does the term “inspection” simply imply passive observation of methods and crops. Additionally, only 5 percent of an organization products are tested once per year. What this means to me is that by the time it is found that a farm is not complying with organic standards, individuals could have purchased products from this farm under the impression that it was, in fact, organic. Maybe more pre-sale testing could benefit the industry after all.
The third and perhaps most worrisome issue with the organic industry is the rising push against the use of GMOs. Currently, according to the Organic GMO Policy, “The use of genetic engineering, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), is prohibited in organic products.”
A report by Packaged Facts demonstrated that of the $5 trillion retail value of the global food and beverage market, $500 billion dollars are attributed to the non-GMO market. Additionally, Packaged Facts predicts that the non-GMO market will almost double by 2019. There are considerable resources being allocated to the marketing of GMO-free markets, that perpetuate the fear of these “alien” foods. However, the problem with this is that there is little scientific evidence backing the claims that GMOs are harmful. In this regard, the money being spent within the anti-GMO movement should be allocated to something more useful.
It’s evident that any industry as large and quickly growing as the organic industry is not perfect. The main issue, I believe, is transparency. Despite the countless annual reports and guidelines that are published by the USDA, the Agricultural Marketing Society (AMS), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and practically any other three to four letter acronym of an agency that exists under the umbrella of “food administration,” there still seems to be little consensus on what’s actually going on and in what ways it’s truly necessary to take action.
Until then, my biggest suggestion? Keep doing your own research.
Grace Carey can be reached at email@example.com.