There’s a song refrain that goes, “You never know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” But what if it goes and you still don’t know?
That’s the heart of a long-standing controversy about organic food.
In the latest development, a Minnesota farmer has been brought up on federal fraud charges, accused of passing off ordinary corn and soybeans as organic for six years. At first glance, this would seem to belong in the “They Never Learn” department: A little over two years ago, a Missouri farmer and grain broker who had been convicted of doing the same thing committed suicide just before he was due to report to prison to begin serving a 10-year sentence.
That man’s fraud was on a huge scale: more than 11.5 million bushels of phony grain between 2010 and 2017, amounting to 7% or more of the total (legitimate) organic grain grown in the U.S. What would motivate someone to undertake such a massive scam? Probably the same factors that motivate a lot of criminals: a high payoff with a low chance of getting caught.
The high payoff comes because organic grains typically sell for at least twice the price of their conventional counterparts. When the grains are grown legitimately, the high price is the reward for a long, arduous process that begins by not allowing pesticides, artificial fertilizers or similar tools of modern agriculture onto a field for several years.
Yields on that field during that time will almost certainly be below conventional standards, but can only be sold at the conventional price. When the field finally is fully certified as organic, it will be shot through with weeds that the farmer will have to deal with. (One trick the Missouri felon used was to leave the perimeter of a field untreated, so there would be a screen of weeds to fool inspectors.)
As for the low chance of getting caught, that came about because verifying the organic provenance of food is an expensive and time-consuming process that few care to undertake. And also because very few people cared. In an excellent account of the case in the New Yorker, Ian Parker explains how this indifference is rooted in an attitude of organic farmers toward their ultimate customers that sounds very close to contempt:
“There was a little bit of a sense of effete, latte-drinking, Volvo-driving people,” [a lawyer involved with the case] said. “The whole idea of organic corn versus other kinds of corn, you know – once you grind it up and put it into cornmeal, who the hell knows the difference?”
It's not hard to see where this attitude comes from. I’m going to go full curmudgeon here and reveal my own attitude toward the whole concept of organic food, which is that much of it is hype. I can see its value for things like fresh produce, for people who really dislike pesticides. But organic potato chips? Come on. That’s just a way to make people feel better about eating something that they know they shouldn’t.
I wouldn’t care so much about this except for an aspect that I find troubling. Under current standards, organic food is by definition free of “bioengineering,” or genetic modification. That is in theory a separate issue, except that the constituency for non-bioengineered food is probably very similar if not identical to the one for organic food.
The problem is that bioengineering is arguably the 20th century’s greatest achievement in agricultural technology. Studies have shown increases in crop yields ranging from 6% to 25%, with improvements in nutrition and reductions in acreage cleared for agriculture – a net ecological gain.
It would be a shame if this kind of progress got held back because of a bunch of airy, theoretical concerns. Farmers have a hard enough task feeding the hungry world; they don’t need to do it while wearing organic handcuffs.