ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Organic fertilizer fraud -- an in-depth look

I have a story posted over at Grist this week, California Schemin', on fraud in the organic fertilizer market. The issue has not gotten a lot of attention because, unlike pesticide residues, it doesn't end up on your food. But the scope of the fraud was truly mind-boggling. This story was in the works for months and delayed by internal staff changes at Grist. I was happy it finally saw the light of day. 

Here's the intro:

It's no secret that the organic food industry has seen explosive growth, taking only a mild drubbing through the recession and then continuing its ascent. At the heart of that growth has been trust -- consumers are willing to shell out more bucks for organic because the food's been grown without synthetic chemicals, with that claim verified from farm to market.

Yet two major cases of federal fraud have been filed in the past six months, rocking the California farming world and alleging that probably millions of pounds of produce sold as organic over several years weren't worthy of the label.

So why haven't you heard about this? Because the shady practices came from a side of the farming world that few shoppers think about: the fertilizer industry. And the real dupes weren't consumers but organic farmers.


Did an Organic Advisory Panel Punt on Cloning?

By Samuel Fromartz

That's the question we're asking and here's why.

The USDA's National Organic Program said in January (pdf) that a cloned animal cannot be organic. But it wanted a recommendation from its main citizen advisory panel on what to do about progeny - that is, the offspring of clones, which is the main way that clones will enter the food supply.

Rather than answer that question head on, however, it appears that the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) - the main citizen advisory panel to the USDA on organic food regulations - has sidestepped the issue.

The NOSB's livestock committee came out with a <a href="
vestock/CloningRec.pdf">policy recommendation on cloning (pdf) that sounds, well, wishy washy when it comes to progeny. The document states:

The NOSB concurs with the NOP and believes that the existing federal organic rules prohibit animal cloning technology and all its products. To strengthen and clarify the existing rules, the NOSB recommends that the NOP amend the regulation to ensure animal cloning technology, and all products derived from such organisms be excluded from organic production.

So far so good. But then the next sentence reads:

Furthermore, the NOSB is very concerned with the issues involving the progeny of animals that are derived using cloning technology, and will work with the NOP on further rulemaking recommendations as issues are identified.

What we're wondering is why the NOSB didn't outright recommend that the progeny of clones be banned as well? Evidently, one NOSB board member was wondering the same thing in this 6-to-1 vote on the recommendation.

The dissenting vote (Kevin Engelbert) reflects a belief that the Livestock Committee should also recommend a rule change ... to prohibit livestock, progeny of livestock, reproductive materials, or any other products derived from animals produced using animal cloning technology (includes somatic cell nuclear transfer or other cloning methods) from being used as a source of organic livestock.

Reached by phone, Engelbert told me that the committee was concerned that there was no test on the market to identify progeny. He argued that the availability of a test should not be the benchmark by which to judge this technology. On principle, progency should be banned and farmers and certifiers should work toward that principle.

As the recommendation states: "If the FDA does not require clones to be tracked, consumers are very likely to turn to organic products, under the assumption that clones are not allowed in organic production."

We could not have said it better, which is why it's in the NOSB's interest to come out on a firm stand against the progeny of clones - just as it did with clones themselves. Comments on this issue can be made for the upcoming NOSB meeting in Washington, D.C., on March 27-29.