The author runs a not-for-profit service to test organic crops, and he explains why in-crop testing is important to the credibility of organic food

Imagine the new world records we’d see at the Olympics if athletes weren’t tested.

I tested my first organic farm in 2003. I was two hours into the paperwork on my 399th career inspection when the farmer asked a question I’d heard many times: “Can’t you just test my fields?”

I put my pen down. The answer I was trained to give — “Organic agriculture is a process, not a guarantee of purity” — would not come out of my mouth that day. I had completed advanced inspector training in Field Sampling for Pesticide Residues, a course I myself set up through the Independent Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA). And there I was, three months later, with the credentials to actually do what this farmer asked.

There was only one hurdle –the price. “I could test your fields today,” I said, “but it’ll cost $300.”

“No problem!” he exclaimed, and then added, “Beats the hell out of looking at paperwork, which, for all you know, I made up this morning before you got here.”

So we hit the real world. It was my best day in the organic industry. I sampled a field chosen at random and soon we had federally certified lab results showing complete absence of organochlorinate pesticides and neutral herbicides.

As long as this farmer didn’t know what substances I would test for, we had bona-fide confirmation he had obeyed the standards. For all he knew I could’ve tested for Roundup, fungicides, or synthetic fertilizer. Or I could’ve tested for soil microbiology to see that his fertility wasn’t being mined.

Then something interesting happened that really opened the door for organic testing. It was tragic actually. Organic brokers, certifiers, and even my professional organization, the IOIA, discovered the wonders of cheap “organic” produce from Mexico and China.

Certified organic flax plummeted from $38 per bushel to $18 per bushel because of competition from lands where forced labour is condoned. “Organic” apples made their way across the Pacific by the container-full.

“Don’t we have enough apples already?” an organic orchardist asked me. “How do we know they’re really organic?”

“Through the wonders of the paper trail,” I answered acerbically.

“So much for buying local!” many organic farmers exclaimed with disgust.

And they’re right. A whopping 80 per cent of the organic food sold in Canada last year was imported, and anyone in the organic industry who says that’s sustainable is probably cashing in on imports. Clearly, something has to be done.

Third-party, federally certified lab results speak louder than any honour-based paper trail.

Strangely, some still object. I’ll respond to them:

Conventional produce can test pure if you wait long enough.

An organic crop should be fit for consumption at any time from seed to table. Unless we do in-crop tests to prove this, then there is no concrete proof that organic food is any different from conventionally produced food. All we have is the paper trail.

If testing replaces paperwork, we’ll lose traceability.

Testing doesn’t replace paperwork. All farmers are expected to have full traceback. But why does an organic inspector waste time examining traceability instead of looking at the real world? Paperwork can be handled like a tax return: through snail mail or by email, with the certifier following up only if there are problems.

Testing might incriminate an organic farmer who’s a victim of spray drift.

If proper buffers are in place, the difference in toxicity between a conventional crop directly sprayed and the edge of a neighbouring crop touched by spray drift is 1,000 to 10,000 times. I test away from the border and have never obtained a positive result.

More important, an organic farmer is supposed to ensure his crops are NOT touched by spray drift. Tell your neighbour not to spray when the wind blows your way, otherwise you’ll sue for loss of income for the full 36 months required to bring that land back into organic production.

You’re just promoting fear-mongering! Are you saying organic farmers are dishonest?

Consumers purchased almost $20 billion of organic products in North America last year. They think “certified” means “tested” because that’s what it means in every other industry. It’s not that organic farmers are dishonest, it’s that it’s human nature to exploit an opportunity like the one offered by paper trail certification. Imagine the new world records we’d see at the Olympics if athletes weren’t tested.

New federal standards in Canada will eliminate fraud and negligence.

Not with more bureaucracy they won’t. I’ve been lobbying Ottawa and Washington for random testing since July 2001 when I found Roundup containers and a backpack sprayer on an “organic” farm. No luck… yet.

My customers trust me, so I don’t need a test!

Then why bother getting certified in the first place?

Consumers, like farmers, are endowed with a predilection for common sense. Say what you will about what you think organic is about, but consumers want a test. And what better way to give them that than to test in the field, in the environment, where the crop (or livestock) grew? Funny how farmers and consumers see eye to eye.

Mischa Popoff, from Osoyoos, B. C., runs a not-for-profit organic testing service called Is it Organic? Visit his website at www.isitorganic.caor call 250-809-2914.

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