Magical things can happen when you travel, especially if you are a shipment of soybeans from Ukraine! Apparently, the trip from Eastern Europe to the United States can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.
At least, that’s what happened to a shipment of 36 million tons of soybeans originating in Ukraine. The conventional soybeans went through Turkey before landing at their final destination in California with a “USDA Certified Organic” label. The change in production status also came with a hefty price premium — $4 million more than the conventional soybeans were worth. As The Washington Post uncovered in their bombshell report about organic imports, there are serious flaws in the system allowing room for fraud. As the Post reported, verification of organic production does not have to be traced back to the foreign farm, leaving room for a bit of mischief during transit.
The article has spurred some pretty important conversations about the value of the USDA’s organic program. Generally, the consensus is that the certification of imported goods needs to be re-evaluated to ensure those products meet the program’s parameters. But as the Post pointed out, there might even be problems with certification oversight here at home, which has led some to call for abolishing the program entirely.
Given that the legitimacy of the program is being questioned, something needs to be done. At the very least, the USDA and Congress need to act quickly to tighten certifications for imported food. At most, maybe the organic program should be abolished entirely. Both options seem to have some merit.
As to abolishing the program, let’s get real for a second: Consumers have no idea what the organic label actually means. Through some creative and purposeful marketing tactics of organic marketing companies and activist organizations, many consumers believe that the label somehow signifies the product is superior in some way. But the label is simply a marketing tool for a certain type of production method, which focuses on “natural” over “synthetic.” Organic produce is not necessarily safer, more nutritious, or even better for the environment than conventionally produced food. Unfortunately, the label has evolved to represent something it doesn’t.
Which begs the question, if the label has become completely separated from its true meaning, then is it even worth keeping and enforcing? What value does it actually provide to consumers?
That is exactly the reason that Congress and the USDA need to act if they want to keep the program around and ask taxpayers to enforce those regulations. The integrity of the label needs to be maintained, whether the food comes from somewhere in the United States or somewhere halfway around the world. If organic products are going to command a price premium and the misleading marketing is going to continue, consumers should at least be able to trust that the food they are paying for was actually produced in the way mandated by the certification, even if “organic” means something different to them.
Otherwise, if the organic label can so easily be hoodwinked, why should consumers believe that any of the USDA or FDA labels are accurately portraying the products they get slapped on?
At the very least, the organic certification of imported foods needs to be monitored more closely or it erodes the public trust on every other government certification, label, and program. As we see consumer perceptions of farmers on the decline, and more people disassociated with growing food, this trust becomes ever more important. Suspicion and cynicism hurts all farmers and food producers, regardless of what label, if any, is put on the end products. Consumers should feel confident that the USDA, FDA, and EPA are appropriately acting to monitor and regulate our country’s food supply. From pesticide regulation to nutrition labeling, this is crucial.
Unfortunately, as with most things, the wheels of legislation are probably going to take a little bit too long to get into motion. For the sake of the organic label’s integrity, and the trust in our nation’s food system, I hope Congress and the USDA make it a priority.
Amanda Zaluckyj blogs under the name The Farmer’s Daughter USA. Her goal is to promote farmers and tackle the misinformation swirling around the U.S. food industry.