Opinion: A spotlight on organic is an opportunity for all of us

I read with interest the May Washington Post article about shipments of corn and soybeans from Turkey that arrived in the United States labeled organic, but that clearly were not. The article raised important issues about organic supply chains and certification documents, but it raised a more fundamental issue as well: when there is an opportunity for added value in a supply chain, how can we make sure farmers, and not unscrupulous middlemen, reap these rewards? 

In the examples highlighted by The Washington Post, it’s clear farmers in the United States and in Turkey are getting the short end of the stick. In both countries, farmers who followed the rule were left competing with grain that wrongly wore the organic label, but was offered at prices “too good to be true” for the organic market. And one wonders what the farmers in Turkey (or perhaps neighboring countries) were paid for that grain, and whether they were even aware of the significant premiums they could have received if their grain had been produced according to organic standards.  

It is encouraging to see that the Organic Trade Association has formed a task force to address the integrity of organic imports, and that the National Organic Program (NOP) is cracking down as well. These are important steps.  But this issue is not just about organic. This was fraud, pure and simple, and any value-added supply chain is vulnerable to similar behavior, whether it’s shade-grown coffee, high-oleic soybeans, or specialty wheat or barley for bread or beer.  (While some products can be tested to determine whether they meet specifications, those test results can be falsified, just as an organic certificate can.)

To think about this problem as limited to the National Organic Program is thinking too narrowly about the solutions available, and about the benefits that an investment in stronger government and private sector cooperation could bring to agriculture value chains. We have an opportunity to work together to ensure that farmers capture additional value for the work they do to produce food and protect our natural resources. While we are at it, we can also improve consumer confidence and trust. 

In addition to NOP and organic certifiers, we can and should be using the expertise of the Foreign Agricultural Service and Customs and Border Patrol, and asking them to work with each other, their foreign counterparts, and importers to share information when they see irregular documentation or cargo movements. The International Trade Commission should add grains to the list of organic products that have unique tariff codes, so the volume and sources of trade in organic grain can be more accurately tracked and matched against certification records.

These efforts would ensure greater integrity in the organic supply chain, but also increase communication and build a reservoir of data about current patterns of trade across a broad range of agricultural products, organic and conventional. The improved relationships and information sharing among the government agencies and businesses engaged in trade will leave us better positioned to spot trade problems early, and identify opportunities to improve transparency and efficiency at borders.

In addition to improving the documentation and tracking of agricultural products, the United States has a history of agricultural capacity building that we should consider applying in new ways. The U.S. government and private sector have supported capacity building for farmers around the globe because not only it is the right thing to do, but because we know that if livelihoods improve in other countries, those countries become better customers for U.S. agricultural products.

But we may need to build capacity in other countries to ensure they are better suppliers to U.S. farmers, processors and retailers as well. U.S. producers, processors and retailers who use imported organic and other certified ingredients rely on the integrity of those ingredients to build their brands here at home. USDA and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have a wealth of experience working with other governments to help them establish regulation and oversight to allow their agriculture sectors to thrive. Both agencies could draw on this expertise to help governments establish best practices for working with organic and other certifiers to provide strong traceability and transparency from farm to fork.

Organic and other value-added agriculture are important engines of growth in the United States and globally, and can provide an opportunity for farmers and ranchers to support their families and communities when access to land and other high cost inputs is limited. It’s time for us to think creatively about how to support that growth, both abroad and at home. //


Ambassador Darci Vetter is an international trade and agriculture consultant, a former Chief Agricultural Negotiator at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, a former Deputy Under Secretary at USDA, and a Nebraska farm girl.

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