Organic Food or Organic Fraud? Fakers in the Organic Food Industry
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Organic food, especially in the past decade or so, has become highly valued quality for produce. If you go to any supermarket, you’ll find at least some organic versions of produce or other foods but at a higher price than their conventional counterparts. Of course, as organics have entered even mainstream conventional stores, there are people who will want to make a quick buck off of the hype. It stands to question how often this happens and what different organizations have been trying to do about it.
How do we even try to differentiate organic and conventional food? As much as we try to put farming styles into different distinct categories, there are some grey areas. As Michel Cavigelli of the USDA (The United States Department of Agriculture) said, “all conventional is not the same, and all organic is not the same.” (Washington Post). There are, however, ways to test whether a farming style falls under the organic category. In general, the way the USDA sees organic farming is a style of farming that shies away from genetically modified foods (GMOs), synthetic pesticides and herbicides, and fertilizers. Traditionally, organic farming uses less energy, keeps soil more fertile, and is more profitable for farmers. The conventional farming style normally enjoys a higher yield of crops and has less soil erosion. There are a couple ways that organic farms provide environmental benefits, but conventional farm styles also have their own benefits as well (such as the new research in GMOs providing new ways to cut down on pesticides while still being safe to eat). Often, consumers will buy organic foods because they assume that organic foods are always safer nutritionally than conventional foods, but that simply isn’t the case. There is very little evidence to support the idea that organic foods are more nutritious or safer than conventional foods. There are plenty of trade-offs that come with organic and conventional farming, and there is not a conclusive answer is to whether one is ultimately “better.” Without conventional farming’s high crop yields, we wouldn’t be able to feed the populace we have, but organics do provide some interesting ways of making soil more sustainable and fertile in the long run.
While there is some controversy over whether to buy conventional foods or organic foods, organics do have a higher profit margin. In the United States, organic foods make up a 45.2 billion dollar industry (Food Business News). With such an attractive incentive for profit, there’s no surprise that fraudsters will try to step up and peddle conventional food like it’s organic food. It is estimated that millions of pounds worth of faux-organic corn and soybeans slip through the cracks of the USDA (Food & Wine). In a recent case, an Iowa-based grain brokerage was busted for selling corn and soybeans that weren’t all organic (Global News). They farmed most of their grains the conventional way then mixed in some organically farmed grains to keep people from noticing. The head of the brokerage also had a network of farmer accomplices who helped keep up the scam for 7 years. This past week, the head of the scam was put away in jail for 10 years on these charges, with the accomplices receiving lighter sentences.
The USDA has been trying its best to make sure that farms have been appropriately advertising whether their food is organic or not. While conventional and organic farming styles have their trade-offs, many consumers will buy organic food at a higher price than conventional products, which also incentivizes farming companies to try to fool people into buying conventional foods. Currently, the USDA is trying to make better reporting practices, make better training programs for organic farmers, and make more stringent punishments for people who do choose to break the rules. Whether or not you think that organic farming is the way to go, it’s still important that you know exactly what you’re buying so that you can make an informed choice about the produce you get.