Can Organic Certifiers Be Trusted?

By | March 22, 2019

When you see a certified organic food at your local supermarket, a variety of standards likely come to mind. You probably assume the food is free from pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but beyond that may also expect that it was produced with the highest levels of quality and integrity, for instance, allowing animals access to pasture, fresh air and sunlight.

Such assumptions are not always accurate, unfortunately, as there is a wide range of quality among organic products, and these quality discrepancies may be — at least partly — to blame on the integrity (or lack thereof) of organic certifiers, according to a provocative report from the Cornucopia Institute, a public interest group.1

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets standards as part of its National Organic Program (NOP), and these standards are supposed to be adhered to in order for a food to be certified organic.

Organic certifying agents are tasked with visiting farms and businesses to check on their operations, but producers both choose their own certifiers and pay them a fee for their services, creating a landscape ripe for potential conflict of interest.

Some Organic Certifiers ‘Betraying the Spirit of Organics’

Such was the conclusion reached by Cornucopia, which stated, “When farmers lobbied Congress to pass the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990, their intention was to create a level playing field in the market and to affirm the credibility of organic labeling in the eyes of consumers. Unfortunately … the USDA’s poor oversight of federally accredited third-party certifiers has paved the way for illegal output from ‘factory farms’ that now dominate the $ 50 billion organic marketbasket.”2

The resulting uneven playing field is the result of some certifiers’ wide interpretations of organic standards, particularly as they relate to the production of “organic” milk and eggs, as well as hydroponics, which are plants grown in a liquid medium without soil. Some of the largest organic certifiers are also associated with the Organic Trade Association (OTA), a controversial lobby group that favors corporate agribusiness.

OTA, for instance, has lobbied for standards that would degrade the organic label, such as allowing the additive carrageenan in organic products. Cornucopia’s report identifies which certifiers are OTA members, providing for increased transparency into potential conflicts of interest. The report explained:3

“Cornucopia holds the position that conflicts of interest threaten organic integrity when clear boundaries between certifiers, their clients, the OTA and the NOP are not defined and enforced.

The certification system is rife for fraud because certifiers are paid by the corporate clients they monitor. Certifiers then collaborate with, and financially contribute to, lobbying organizations that advance the interests of these same corporate agribusinesses.

The potential for fraud is amplified when former NOP employees move, unfettered, through the proverbial ‘revolving door’ to work for certifiers and lobby the NOP on their behalf.

These relationships must be closely monitored and regulated to ensure that conflicts of interest do not undermine the interests of high-integrity organic farmers and the founding entrepreneurs of the organic industry.”

Problems With Organic Milk and Eggs

Cornucopia’s report highlighted problems with the production of organic milk and eggs, raised on industrial concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that are a far cry from the idyllic small family farms many people imagine when purchasing organic foods.

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Aurora Organic Dairy, for instance, is certified by Quality Assurance International (QAI) and in some cases “double” certified by Organic Tilth. Both of these certifiers received the lowest grade in Cornucopia’s investigation for documented unethical behavior, including not only certifying hydroponics but also factory dairy or egg porches.

While all animals are required to have outdoor access under USDA organic regulations, some certifiers allow small, often concrete, spaces to substitute for outdoor access. “[M]any organic egg producers do not provide hens with access to outdoor space, or even sunlight, in windowless buildings holding as many as 200,000 birds each,” Cornucopia’s report noted.4

Organic dairy is another area where not all organic brands are created equal. While some are offering truly superior milk that comes from grass fed cows raised on pasture, others are passing off industrially produced milk as organic — and pocketing the increased profits while small family farms struggle to survive.

In short, cows produce more milk, faster, when they’re fed grain in the barn, as opposed to grazing on grass on pasture. Industrialized organic dairies are capitalizing on this by skimping on grazing time, raising thousands of cows in veritable CAFOs, yet still gaining the USDA organic label that suggests a superior product. According to Cornucopia’s investigation:5

“In organic dairy production, operations with thousands of cows in the desert are theoretically meeting grazing requirements on ridiculously small acreages, and industrial-scale dairies are allowed to buy conventionally raised replacement heifers, sometimes raised with antibiotics, and ‘convert’ them to organic on an ongoing basis.

These practices place legitimate organic dairy farmers, who raise their own organic replacement animals from birth, at an extreme economic disadvantage. This has facilitated the rapid growth of organic milk production; the resulting surplus is now poised to drive farmers out of business from coast to coast.”

Why ‘Organic’ Hydroponics Is an Oxymoron

USDA organic regulations require that your crop rotation plan maintains or improves soil organic matter. Since hydroponics do not involve the use of soil, they do not qualify for organic certification, yet hydroponic operators have been certified organic by some USDA-accredited certification agencies, which is deceitful to the public.

OTA was among those pushing the USDA to approve hydroponics under the organic label, and in 2005 the USDA began allowing organic certification for hydroponics, leaving the ultimate decision up to the certifiers.

In November 2017, NOSB further rejected a proposal to ban hydroponics and aquaponics in organic production, but to this day NOSB has not adopted guidelines for hydroponic production.

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“Some ACAs [accredited certifying agents] already certify hydroponic systems, apparently because of the corporate-friendly USDA posture,” the Cornucopia report explained. “Others have decided not to certify hydroponics based on the clear language in the law that identifies ‘improving and maintaining soil fertility’ as a prerequisite.”6

Now You Can Choose Which Organic Certifiers to Support

According to the USDA, there are nearly 80 agents authorized to certify farms and businesses to organic standards in the U.S.7

Which ones farmers and consumers choose to support ultimately shape the integrity and working definition of the organic label and, according to the Cornucopia Institute, “whether this definition embodies the spirit and letter of the law or simply caters to corporations who want to use the organic label for marketing purposes.”8

Organic certifiers are listed on product packaging, and the Cornucopia Institute has ranked USDA certifiers in their new guide, according to whether they certify hydroponics and factory dairy or egg porches, as well as their OTA membership status.9

Those that received an exemplary rating have shown a commitment to organic principles and transparency, along with adherence to regulations. Those with a fair to excellent rating have a positive track record and some indications that they are operating ethically but failed to fully share or confirm their policies in writing.

The lowest category, which Cornucopia recommends not supporting, not only certifies hydroponics and dairy and chicken CAFOs but those that also may have engaged in other unethical behavior, such as certifying products with nonorganic or synthetic ingredients. Now you can make a choice to support products certified by people who care about the standards the organic label was founded upon. Cornucopia added:10

“Although the USDA has done nothing to stamp out abuses in produce or livestock production, some of the best certifiers have consistently adhered to the spirit and letter of the law of their own accord — placing these ACAs at a competitive disadvantage as well.

Poor enforcement by the USDA has also encouraged industrial ‘organics’ to grow and invest hundreds of millions of dollars into infrastructure.”

The guide will also help farmers looking to choose certifiers based on their good reputation and adherence to high-quality organic standards. “Some operations are becoming aware that some certifiers, playing fast and loose with enforcement, are hurting their bottom lines and the reputation of the organic label,” Cornucopia explained.11

Biodynamic and Grass Fed Farming

Certified organic products are typically better than conventional, but a step beyond is the category of grass fed and biodynamic products. Biodynamic farming is organic by nature, but it goes even further, operating on the premise that the farm be entirely self-sustaining.

In the U.S., biodynamic farms use the USDA organic standard as a foundation but have additional requirements, encompassing the principles of regenerative agriculture and more.

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For instance, biodynamic farms must produce at least 50 percent of their own organic animal feed, and 100 percent of the farm must be biodynamic (on the contrary, an organic farmer may raise only one crop as organic). In addition:12

  • Crops and livestock are integrated
  • Animals are treated humanely, and all have access to the outdoors, free-range forage and plenty of space to move around
  • At least 10 percent of farm acreage is set aside for biodiversity
  • The farm must uphold standards of social responsibility

One of the key differences even between organic and biodynamic farms is that organic farms may raise only one type of crop, or only crops or livestock. But biodynamic farming brings animals and plants together to form a living web of life, a self-sustaining ecosystem.

“Each biodynamic farm or garden is an integrated, whole, living organism. This organism is made up of many interdependent elements: fields, forests, plants, animals, soils, compost, people and the spirit of the place,” the Biodynamic Association explains, adding:13

“Biodynamic farmers and gardeners work to nurture and harmonize these elements, managing them in a holistic and dynamic way to support the health and vitality of the whole. Biodynamic practitioners also endeavor to listen to the land, to sense what may want to emerge through it, and to develop and evolve their farm as a unique individuality.”

Biodynamic farms are also, by nature, grass fed farms, but the American Grassfed Association (AGA) logo is another tool you can use to find grass fed products. The AGA logo on a product lets you know the animals were fed a lifetime diet of 100 percent forage, were raised on pasture (not in confinement) and were not treated with hormones or antibiotics.14

In the U.S., Demeter USA is the only certifier for biodynamic farms and products. While largely unknown in the U.S., Demeter is well-recognized within Central Europe. In Germany, 10 percent of the organic farmland is biodynamic, and there are even Demeter stores. At this time, most Demeter members are small family farms that only sell locally or regionally.

The vision of Demeter is to heal the planet through agriculture, and we can do that by transitioning farming from conventional to not only organic but ultimately to biodynamic. If you want to learn more, be sure to watch my interview with Elizabeth Candelario, managing director for Demeter USA, which discusses the history of biodynamic farming and why biodynamic certification is the mark of superior food.

When choosing where to spend your food dollars, choosing organic and using the Cornucopia Institute’s guide to organic certifiers is one place to start. But you can go a step further by looking for Demeter (biodynamic) and the American Grassfed Association (AGA) certifications, which are both indicative of high-quality, sustainable and environmentally sound food.