Certified Organic Is Hurting Small-Scale Farmers

Emily Woody

When you walk into a grocery store today it's clear that the once niche market for organic food has gone mainstream. We are more curious than ever about how our food is being grown and organic appears to have satisfied that craving. When you buy an organic product you assume that no GMO’s, herbicides or pesticides were used. But besides the obvious, what else do you know about the Organic Standard? I’ll be honest, before I became a farmer I didn't have a good understanding of it.

During our first year of farming we got certified. But after having to follow the Organic Standards I started to question the efficacy of the program. I then began to look more closely into the standards and discovered that not only did I disagree with some of their principles, I vehemently opposed them. How could this be? I thought the Organic Standards were supposed to be the gold standard of sustainable farming?

One Farms Experience

When we moved to the Kootenays to fulfill our dream of starting a farm we figured we better get certified organic. Why? Because that’s just what you do, we thought. I mean, how else will our customers know how we farm? We couldn’t simply tell them and have them trust us, right?

After we got our inspection we discovered a typical inspection looks something like this: You plan a specific day and time for the inspection. The inspector shows up, does a quick walk around your farm, asks you a few questions about how you plan on farming that year, and then leaves. You’re then supposed to record all of your activities on your farm for the whole season and submit those records at the end of the year. 

Once we were approved we then had to pay our annual fee. For our roughly ¾ acre farm it was $900. For a small-scale farm just starting out this felt like a steep cost. Theoretically we could raise our prices to make up the difference. But as a small-scale farm we already have to charge a premium just to stay afloat, so that didn’t feel like an option we could use.

Another challenge we encountered was the paperwork. You have to record everything you do on the farm, and you don’t get paid to do it either - in fact, you’re paying to do your paperwork. It felt akin to paying a teacher for the privilege of doing homework. Believe me, the last thing any farmer wants to do at the end of a hard day of toiling is tedious paperwork. We found it incredibly draining to take the extra time to remember and record all of our activities and inputs during the madness that is peak growing season.

We ended up dropping our organic certification mid-season because we found it to be too expensive and too much work for benefits that we felt weren’t worth it. We sell most of our produce directly to the community and we thought, “why do we need to pay a third-party to explain to people how we farm? “We're proud of how we farm, so why not tell our customers directly, answer any questions they have and build trust?” And so that’s what we did.

We realized that the whole organization is essentially based on the honor system. There are no surprise inspections - they just have to trust that the information you’re giving them is true with no meaningful ways of catching you doing something you’re not supposed to. With such little oversight farmers could easily get away with breaking the rules.

There are conflicts of interest baked into the system as well. Most certifying bodies make their money from the very people they’re trying to patrol. This creates an incentive to look the other way with violators because every time they take away someone's certification, they lose a customer. The system also incentives lying. Organic produce almost always sells for more money. If you could falsely sell conventionally-grown vegetables as organic and make a nice profit doing it, how many people do you think would try and get away with that?

The Great Organic Fraud

This article by the New York Times illuminates just how easy it is to game the certification system. From 2010 to 2017 an organic grain seller by the name of Constant and four others pleaded guilty to a scheme that led to more than a hundred and forty-two million dollars in sales of fake organic grain - although they believe the scheme could have been going on since 2001. This is the largest fraud of its kind ever committed.

How could this have happened? For one, the inspections are scheduled, happen once per year, are generally short, and the rest of the proof is in the paperwork that the farmer fills out themselves. Another issue the article points out is that “a farm’s organic certification is good for a year. It doesn’t get used up by sales. If a farmer has only a dozen organic apple trees, but agrees to sell you a million organic apples, you’re unlikely to learn that you have a problem merely by looking at the orchard’s certification”. Putting your acreage on your certification is not a requirement under the U.S.D.A regulations.

The article further explains that “It’s unusual for a farm to lose an organic certification. If a certifier sees evidence of bad practices, the consequences come slowly. The farmer is nudged to reform, and, if then still found noncompliant, may be invited to a mediation. Only after those efforts fail is a revocation proposed. Actual suspension can take another year.” Inspectors are afraid to call out fraud. They believe if they bring too much attention to the fact that some farmers aren’t following the rules, consumers might start to lose trust in the organic brand.

This was the worst case of organic fraud yet, but you have to assume smaller frauds are happening all the time. I don’t blame the certifying bodies however. They’re doing the best they can with the limited resources and budgets that they have. In a perfect world there would be multiple random inspections throughout the year, soil samples and crops would be tested to prove that what the farmer said they used for inputs was actually used, and a thorough record of sales would be required. Still, a program this extensive would be astronomically expensive and you’d be hard pressed to find a farmer that would be willing to pay for it.

Organic Doesn’t Equal Better Farming

When we think of organic farming we assume it means more sustainable and ethical farming practices. But the truth is far different than what most people think. As Benjamin Lorr points out in his book The Secret Life of Groceries, “Today's food system can easily bend its industrial production methods to accommodate the reduced-pesticide food. If the only criterion at the shops is to buy 'mass organic', we might dent the profits of pesticide companies, but do little else to change the way food is farmed.

Above all, organic farming remains compatible with monoculture. Even if farmers' dependence on pesticides were severed, they would still be hooked on the rest of the food system's apparatus.”

Don’t get me wrong, reducing the amount of synthetic pesticides and herbicides that we use is paramount, but the Organic Standards do little to promote soil health, protect ecosystems, improve biodiversity or reduce fossil fuel emissions. Under Organic Standards you can still plant vast swaths of one single crop, use heavy machinery to plow and degrade the soil and utilize mass distribution to ship those crops across the globe.

The Organic Standards don’t consider ethical labour in their standards either. A certified organic cacao farm in Africa can still use slave labour to pick their cacao pods. A certified organic tomato farm in China can still use forced labour camps of Uyghurs Muslims to harvest their tomatoes. And a certified organic berry farm in Mexico can still get away with paying their farm workers $7 per day.

Organic Sells Out

If Gatorade, Jelly Belly Beans and shampoo can become certified organic, what does “organic” mean anymore? When the organic movement first appeared it was in direct response to the Green Revolution. Our agricultural system was quickly becoming industrialized, centralized and chemicalized. With no way to know if your food was grown naturally or grown on a factory farm and being doused with toxic chemicals, the organic movement sought to make the distinction clear. The movement stood for holistic farming, biodiversity, soil health and sustainability. Since its inception the movement has made tremendous gains. But something has happened to it the past 5 years.

Certified organic food is now the fastest growing grocery category. Between 2020 and 2021 the sales in the US reached over $57.5 billion and globally they’re expected to reach $380.84 billion by 2025. 

With that much growth the movement has attracted some of the biggest companies in the world. It’s gone from a small hippie-lead movement to the board rooms of multinational corporations. Organic has become an industry. Corporations now have their hands in the movement and they're using them to manipulate what the term “organic” means to better suit their business models.

Soil-Free Organic?

I’m sure you’ve seen the ubiquitous organic Driscoll's berries at the grocery store. You’ve probably bought them at one time or another - most of us have. But did you know that those organic berries could have been grown without soil? And that those soil-free berries would be acceptable under the U.S.D.A Organic Standards?

Hydroponic or “container growing” is a way of growing food indoors in soil-free plastic tubes with artificial light and a liquid nutrient cocktail that’s pumped into the plants through irrigation. Sounds wholesome doesn’t it? Well according to Organic Standards this is a perfectly acceptable practice. Multinational corporations such as Driscoll's have managed to convince the U.S.D.A that hydroponically-grown food is in fact, organic.

Driscoll’s then Executive Vice President Soren Bjorn defended its practices, telling The New York Times that, “’growing the produce hydroponically was hardly different from what the company does when it grows its berries in sandy soils. Part of the benefit of that is there’s no disease in the soil, but there’s also very little nutrition in sand,’ he said. ‘So for certain kinds of berries, we add the vast majority of nutrients through irrigation.’”

Apparently Driscoll's not only grows their “organic” berries in indoor plastic tubes, they also grow them outside in sand, which is also organic? And to be clear, when he says “sandy soil” he means literal sand. Like the stuff you’d find at a beach. 

In an article from Truthout, Dave Chapman, executive director of the Real Organic Project explains that “Hydroponic [growing] is simple, and that’s what makes it attractive to producers,” “The liquid feed contains fertilizers typically allowed in organic production but never intended to supply the plant’s entire nutrition.”

The article also mentions, “Most consumers have no way of knowing which products were grown in soil using traditional farming practices and which were raised in indoor greenhouses without soil because there are no regulations mandating labeling or signage in stores,” said Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, which educates the public on agricultural issues. Nor do “major hydroponic brands, such as Driscoll’s and Wholesum Harvest mention production methods on cases or product labels.”

It’s not only berries either. Certified organic hydroponic tomatoes, peppers, herbs and salad greens have also made their way into grocery stores - although you would never know it.

Organic Is Putting Small Community-Based Farms Out Of Business.

We can grow berries with high-quality compost and natural amendments in rich, biodiverse soil that we’ve dedicated our lives to improving. Driscoll's can grow berries indoors in plastic tubes or outside in sand, fed with liquid supplements and harvested by underpaid, overworked Mexican farmers. Both of these practices can be sold under the same organic label.

If you were to see a pint of our berries next to the Driscoll's ones at the grocery store, and ours were $8 and the Driscoll's ones were $6, with no way of knowing the differences between the two, which one do you think most customers will choose? I see this all the time here in the Kootenays. At the Kootenay Coop they have organic produce from California or Mexico right next to the locally-grown produce, only cheaper.

I’ve also begun to notice that when we try to sell our vegetables to local grocery stores they expect and even require you to be certified organic. If you refuse, then you could get cut off from a vital sales channel. If you agree, then you’re forced to bear the financial and mental burden of being certified while also having to compete with the cheaper factory farm organic produce. This is happening in the restaurant world as well. For example, buying factory farm organic spinach from the Sysco truck has become more convenient and cheaper than working with a local farmer. And if you’re a customer looking at the menu, you can’t tell the difference. Who do you think the restaurant will choose?

Where Do We Go From Here?

It’s clear to me that the organic movement is now doing more harm than good. Small-scale farmers are being pressured into getting expensive and laborious certifications, while at the same time having to compete with multinational corporations who are pricing them out of the market. If it were up to me I would get rid of all certifications. What purpose do they serve other than to erroneously make us feel better about buying food we know nothing about?

Here's the uncomfortable truth we all have to accept: If you buy food from a grocery store, you are shopping blind. Our globalized food system is deceptive, vast, and far too complicated to keep track of.

If you want to eat food that’s in alignment with your values then you have to start building relationships with local farmers who share those same values. There are plenty of hard working people in your community who produce food with integrity - food that you would be proud to eat and share. You just have to remove the middlemen to find them.