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Why Many “Organic” Foods From Other Countries Are So Cheap

There is a huge problem in the organic foods industry, and it's a problem that our government refuses to address. The issue is that many of the imported foods into the US are actually not organic, and are not complying with organic standards. The result is that crops grown in the US, from farms following organic standards, can not compete with the low prices of fraudulent "organic" imports.

Now there is a follow-up to the lawsuit filed last October 2023 by Organic Eye and others about this "organic" fraud and lack of oversight by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) of foreign organic imports. It turns out that big business and industry lobbying groups are just fine with the lack of oversight and fraud - because it's great for their bottom line (billions of dollars!) And so they are opposing the lawsuit!

Many organic imported foods from places like China, Brazil, and Turkey are actually not organic, and this is why their "organic" foods are so inexpensive.  (The Washington Post and others have written about the fraud.)

Instead, try to buy organic foods grown and produced in the US, Canada, the European Union - and also from local farmers.

The following are excerpts from a follow-up article from Organic Eye - the investigative watch-dog group, who are trying to make sure that organic food really is organic. Go check out their site and read the full article, as well as others on the site.

Excerpts from Organic Eye - Organic Civil War: US Farmers Face off in Court Against Importers of Potentially Fraudulent Food

Last fall an Oregon organic hazelnut farmer filed a federal lawsuit against the USDA alleging the agency’s complacency in allowing massive imports that do not meet the federal statutory requirement that all certified farms be inspected on an annual basis. The lawsuit suggested this opens up a large percentage of the US organic food supply to wholesale fraud.

Instead of collaborating with the farmer-plaintiff and the nonprofit farm policy research group backing the effort, OrganicEye, to tighten up oversight on international organic production, a consortium of business interests has now filed an amicus (“friend of the court”) brief on behalf of the USDA and the status quo, worth billions of dollars in international commerce.

The effort to stymie the lawsuit was led by two powerful trade-lobby groups (the Organic Trade Association and an international group, IFOAM), four business enterprises marketing foreign organic imports (Equal Exchange, Dr. Bronner’s, Natural Grocers, and Frontier Co-op), a Guatemalan coffee producer (Manos Campesinas), and two nonprofits (Alliance for Organic Integrity and Center for Food Safety).

With billions of dollars of commerce at stake, the lobbyists at the Organic Trade Association (OTA) started organizing the industry as soon as the lawsuit was filed in October 2023.

“Based on a clear profit motivation, the amicus brief just filed attempts to defend the un-defendable,” according to Mark Kastel, executive director of OrganicEye and one of the researchers focusing on the certifying of “groups” — sometimes comprising thousands of growers each — rather than individual farms.

The foreign farms are almost entirely uninspected, with regulatory oversight delegated to the businesses buying the crops instead of a legally-mandated USDA-accredited certifier.

“This profound conflict of interest is damaging to US farmers, creates a pathway for fraud, and is in clear violation of the requirements stated in the Organic Foods Production Act passed by Congress in 1990,” Kastel added.

The lawsuit was filed by Bruce Kaser, a semi-retired lawyer and certified organic farmer-member of OrganicEye, who grows hazelnuts near Salem, Oregon.

Kaser instigated an investigation with the United States International Trade Commission in doing the initial in-depth investigation into why US nut growers couldn’t compete with cheap foreign imports.

“Not only have we found that the exporting farmers, from countries like Turkey, didn’t go through the same legally-mandated rigorous annual inspections that US organic farmers comply with, but also that the trading back and forth between all kinds of shady foreign entities resulted in the foreign farmers receiving almost the same price for organic nuts as conventional,” Kastel added.

Turkey is just one of the countries with endemic levels of past commercial and organic fraud where agribusinesses are being allowed to supervise the certification of their own suppliers.

Although the trade groups claim a prime motivation for legally fighting the lawsuit is based on defending the interests of small subsistence farmers in developing countries — discounting their own direct interest in the billions of dollars in commerce they reap as a result — OrganicEye notes that the reality of how many of these farmers are being treated is being glossed over.

“The fact of the matter is that most of the farmers in these groups have become indentured servants,” said Kastel. “Unlike American farmers who can take the highest bid for their crops, these small farmers, who are theoretically overseen by the agribusiness purchasing their commodities, are required to sell only to that single business and have no access to the free market, domestically or internationally, for their organic goods.” The amici filing concedes that these growers are living in poverty.

According to OrganicEye’s research, this has resulted in both foreign organic farmers and US organic growers being economically injured. One of the amici filers, Equal Exchange, a $70 million per year agribusiness, purchases hazelnuts sourced from suppliers in Turkey, where a matrix of middlemen and shippers dominate the exports. By the time the nuts get to the US, Turkish-supplied “organic” hazelnuts are effectively shutting American farmers out of the organic market, with very little economic benefit going to growers overseas.

“There seems to be very little concern on the part of the business interests regarding the potential damage uninspected foreign imports do to the reputation of the organic label in the eyes of organic consumers,” Kastel lamented. “According to USDA data released in February, there has been negative growth in the number of US organic farms in recent years as the aggressive market growth has been filled by dubious foreign imports.”

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