Demanding Reform of the USDA Organic Program

For many of us involved in lobbying Congress to pass the Organic Food Production Act in 1990, our motivation was to create a level playing field with strictly enforced regulations that would assure shoppers they were receiving a return on their investment.

Consumers turn to organic food not only because they want something safer, more flavorful, and more nutritious for their families, but because they think they’re doing something altruistic at the same time.

Eaters think they are supporting high environmental standards and humane animal husbandry practices, and that a portion of the premiums they are paying support economic-justice for family farmers.

The stewardship by the USDA, during both Republican and Democratic administrations, has been a gross betrayal of these values.

Successive USDA Secretaries, including current Biden cabinet member, Thomas Vilsack, have listened to the lobbyists from the Organic Trade Association rather than rank and file organic farmers and their customers. Mr. Vilsack has even appointed OTA lobbyists to leadership positions in his office and at the National Organic Program.

The result is that we now have livestock factories producing “organic” milk from dairies managing over 20,000 head of cattle, eggs from “farms” with over a million birds each, and beef raised in feedlots rather than on lush pastures.

By looking the other way on violations of the spirit and letter of the law requiring animals access to the outdoors and pasture, and fruits and vegetables to be produced in nutritious soil rather than plastic containers filled with liquid fertilizer in hydroponic greenhouses, we are squeezing out the very family-scale farmers this law was designed, in part, to protect.

Even worse, a succession of massive frauds has been caught not during annual inspections but rather by confidential informants ratting-out their current or former employers, competitors, or suppliers. The tens of millions of dollars spent every year by farmers, businesses, and taxpayers on USDA certification amounts to not much more than “busywork.”

In the latest scandal, a Minnesota farmer indicted by a federal grand jury this month is not only accused of having defrauded grain buyers of $46 million over a period of six years but has tarnished the reputation of the organic label that so many ethical farmers and entrepreneurs have worked to establish.

Sadly, this fraud is nothing new. The current fraud looks penny-ante in comparison to one perpetrated in Missouri and Nebraska by Randy Constant who pleaded guilty in 2018 to laundering $142 million in fake organics and subsequently committed suicide.

With Constant, Wolf, and just two other domestic fraud cases, in less than a decade, amounting to over $264 million in ill-gotten gains, not to mention many more modest incidents, the organic community has also worked to pressure the USDA to more judiciously review imports from China, Turkey, Central America, and elsewhere (including some countries with endemic levels of commercial fraud).

For almost two decades, I have personally banged on the doors of the USDA demanding better oversight of the massive imports that have usurped the environmental and economic benefit of switching to organic production and cheated domestic farmers out of their hard-earned profits.

It was only after partnering with the Washington Post that our complaints were heard. Reporters at the Post confirmed import fraud on a jaw-dropping scale. As a result of the USDA finally being jolted awake, over 75% of USDA certified operations in former Soviet bloc countries, and others in the Black Sea region, lost their certification. Seventy five percent! These imports represented the majority of the feed organic animals in the US were eating for years. Shame!

We have now formally asked Secretary Vilsack and President Biden to revisit the protocol in annually inspecting and certifying farms, grain dealers, and manufacturers. No longer should young folks, fresh out of college, go through a few weeks of training and then go toe to toe with seasoned agricultural professionals who can practice “organic alchemy” by simply crafting creative paperwork.

We need to target our resources by creating more periodic federal audits, conducted by seasoned agriculturalists and forensic accountants, who might catch these frauds in real time. Not eight years later, as in the case of Minnesota farmer James Clayton Wolf, who will imminently have his day in court.

This may take congressional action to accomplish.

The OTA is lobbying in Washington for more regulatory minutia when the system itself is broken. This will result in onerous costs to honest family farmers and businesses, while the scofflaws continue to have our lunch.

Added regulatory burden will be like water off a duck’s back to the giant agribusinesses that have taken over much of the organic market. It’s just an incidental cost for Tyson, Purdue, Danone (Horizon), Taylor/Earthbound Farms, or Grimmway with 30,000 acres of production (Cal Organics, Bunny Love, etc.), to add an additional employee or two for regulatory compliance. But what about the young couple producing local organic vegetables or milk? They are already working 80 hours a week. No wonder we are losing some of the brightest young farmers who are rejecting organic certification.

The USDA needs to shift from its role as industry cheerleader to supporting the marketing of organic food built on a foundation of true integrity, protecting all organic stakeholders and, most importantly, citizens who recognize the value of authentic food production and are willing to pay for it.

Right now, the USDA National Organic Program is a paper tiger paying lip service to organic integrity issues. That’s not good enough. Organic operations and taxpayers deserve better for the tens of millions of dollars they are investing in regulatory oversight.

Mark A. Kastel is Executive Director of OrganicEye, a nongovernmental organization widely regarded as the nation’s most aggressive organic industry watchdog.