It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” This opening line from the Charles Dickens novel, “A Tale of Two Cities,” could also be used to describe the current state of the organic grain industry. Demand for organic grain-based products has never been greater, particularly in the U.S. and Western Europe, but a recent wave of negative publicity may hamper efforts to expand production and strengthen the public’s trust.
Fraud has been a concern of the organic industry for years, and stakeholders have gone to great lengths to assure consumers that their products are indeed organic. But news in December that a farmer in the United States was charged with falsely marketing more than $140 million worth of corn, soybeans and wheat as “certified organic” was unsettling. It was one of the largest schemes ever uncovered in the organic farming industry and came on the heels of a 2017 scandal in which millions of pounds of organic-labeled soybeans and corn imported by the U.S. from Turkey were found to be fraudulent. After that troubling discovery, one of the U.S.’s largest organic inspection agencies, the California Certified Organic Farmers, issued a notice to its clients indicating it “lacked the confidence in the organic status of foreign grain.” But with the recent case in Missouri, along with another case of fraud involving three Nebraska farmers last fall, consumer confidence both in the United States, which is the fastest-growing organic food market, and globally has undoubtedly been shaken.
Adding insult to injury, researchers in Sweden released a study in December 2018 that concluded that organically-farmed food has more of a negative impact on climate change than conventionally farmed food due to the greater areas of land required. The organic industry was quick to point out the problems with this study, most notably that the researchers hadn’t accounted for energy use in food production, which is much greater with non-organic crops. But research findings tend to get more attention than their counterarguments, so there is likely a percentage of the population that now associates organic grain production with climate change.
Even without the recent negative publicity, increasing organic grain production is an uphill battle in many parts of the world as farmers are skittish about taking the risk to grow organic crops. The push for more organic acreage was discussed from every angle at the recent Organic and Non-GMO Forum in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S. Among the key takeaways were: 1) there are more health-conscious consumers than ever demanding that their food come from organic origins; and 2) although a bushel of organic corn or soybeans is worth three times more than GM crops, producers would like more assistance in helping them weather the initial economic challenges in organic farming.
While the forum included many interesting ideas that would support farmers in their transition to organic production, the bottom line is the industry must make policing the bad actors its top priority. A step in the right direction is the introduction of a fraud prevention program this year in the United States by an industry task force. The program includes the development of a best management practices guide, which will be the basis of an Organic Industry Fraud Prevention Program. There is also a plan to develop a preferred buyer list of companies that are adopting the BMP guide.
The vast majority of organic grain producers are playing by the rules, but it only takes a few bad kernels to ruin a bushel of grain and put doubt in the mind of the consumer.