Organic Broadcaster

OFARM executive urges NOP to step up scrutiny of organic grain imports

By John Bobbe, OFARM

Editor’s note: This is a followup article to “Organic imports hurt U.S. organic grain producers,” published in the Sept.|Oct. 2016 Broadcaster. John Bobbe, OFARM’s executive director, presented this article to the National Organic Standards Board at its meeting Nov. 16.

The U.S. organic market has been deluged with imports of organic soybeans and corn—almost a million bushels of corn per month in 2016—that are highly suspect as to their organic integrity.

Imports from Turkey especially raise concern. A 2016 report by USDA’s Foreign Agriculture Service summarized the potential for fraudulent activity in Turkey, saying, “Although inspections and transparency in the Turkish organic food sector are improving, the integrity of organic farming, production, shipping and marketing is not always guaranteed.”

One Turkish organic certifier, ETKO, has been decertified by the European Union and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Yet ETKO is still acceptable on the USDA Integrity Data Base.

With regard to Turkey and Ukraine, an Anti-Fraud Initiative has been established to “improve cross border communication among inspection and certification bodies, trade companies, label organizations and authorities to strengthen organic integrity.” The fact that fraud is serious enough to trigger the creation of this network should provide sufficient motivation to the NOP to dedicate more effort to this issue.

In meetings I’ve had in both Europe and western Asia with farmers and an NOP-accredited certifier, people commented that there is less chance of getting caught for fraudulent organic exports to the U.S. than almost anyplace in the world.

In July, the NOP reminded importers of handling regulations and fines, which is commendable, but simply not enough. A fine of the stated maximum of $11,000 amounts to about 2 cents per bushel on a shipload of organic grain—a mere cost of doing business.

The NOP needs to do more to re-establish U.S. organic integrity. I think it should model the EU’s protocols, which include:

(1) Tracking and identification of all consignments of imported organic food and feed

(2) Complete documentation check at point of entry, including certificate of inspection, documents of custom declaration, transport documents, and, operators and product traceability: verification of names, addresses and valid certification of all operators in the trade flow.

(3) Sampling and analyzing for pesticide residues in each incoming consignment at point of entry.

In a joint letter Sept. 1 by the Food and Water Watch and OFARM to the USDA’s Office of Inspector General, we called attention to this major problem and urged the OIG to take a careful look at the potential for non-organic products, especially bulk commodities like grains, to enter the U.S. market and be sold as organic. We asked:

• What procedures does NOP have to assess whether the EU’s processes for accreditation and certification are adequate to ensure the integrity of bulk shipments of commodities that are pooled from many farms?

• Does NOP have an adequate system to track bulk commodity shipments produced in other countries outside the EU that are certified by EU-based certifiers, or shipped through EU countries?

• What other data collection should NOP set up to have a better understanding of source of imports, back to the certifier and farm level?

The widespread fraud in Turkey has been publicly known for at least a year, while the NOP has taken little action to address these issues until now.

Prices of domestic organic corn have dropped from $12 a bushel 18 months ago to $6 to $8 a bushel today. U.S. organic producers are losing an average of $300 per acre, far below the cost of production, which is around $10 per bushel.

The market signal to organic farmers is to produce less, not more at a time when we are encouraging increased transitions to organic production domestically. Unless immediate steps are taken by the NOP to strengthen organic import protocols to be equivalent to what U.S. producers and the industry face here, in the EU and Canada, this stands to be a major economic train wreck setting back industry growth for years to come.

From the November | December 2016 Issue

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