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USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) Continues to Fail at Protecting U.S. Organic Producers

By John Bobbe. First printed in Milkweed, May 2019; reprinted with permission from the author

John Bobbe

Since February 2019, over 150,000 Metric Tonnes (over 6 million bushels) of “supposed organic corn and soybeans” have flooded U.S. markets. These shipments are from the usual suspect region of the world, Turkey and the countries surrounding the Black Sea. The result has been U.S. organic farmers seeing a price drop of $1.50-$1.75 per bushel on corn alone.

The risk that at least some of these shipments are fraudulent is quite high. If you can believe anything that comes out of USDA in Washington, D.C. these days, especially the National Organic Program (NOP) this is all on the up and up. No worries, all the paperwork is in order. Or is it?

Again, as since 2016, the European Commission issued its annual memorandum “Guidelines on official controls on products originating from Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Moldova and the Russian Federation.” (November 28, 2018 for the entire 2019 year). Much of the grain flooding U.S. markets is coming from these same countries. The memorandum requires rigid protocols on any shipments from the afore mentioned countries.

On March 20, 2019, the Official Journal of the European Union issued a statement revoking accreditation of Control Union, a certification body out of the Netherlands. The Control Union revocation cited products including grain originating in the same countries as the European Commission and added Turkey and United Arab Emirates.

Meanwhile here in the U.S., the NOP is apparently looking the other way on shipments originating from these same countries.

I personally filed a formal complaint with USDA’s NOP on the ship, Andalucia scheduled to arrive in Moorhead, N.C. Subsequently, a similar complaint about the overall level of corn and soybean imports was lodged by a significant entity in the U.S. that wants to see this import fraud mess cleaned up. The complaint noted that only half the amount of 150,000 MT of grain was shipped from the Black Sea region a year ago.

A subsequent investigation by a concerned farm group in North Carolina points to the USDA’s NOP preventing Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) from inspecting the organic certificate and audit trail of this ship when it arrived in port. NOP reportedly gave the greenlight to unload the ship and asked CBP not to inspect the ship.

Since last September, I have personally reported information on suspicious ships of grain with quite specific information to USDA’s NOP and not a single ship to my knowledge was even inspected. The response in some cases was to push back as to why I suspected the shipments might be fraudulent. Control Union, the reported certifier in the Black Sea Region for many of these shipments is still on the NOP’s accredited list though having lost it in Europe. One has to ask, “Why”? Especially when the 2018 Farm Bill requires NOP to take action when a foreign government does on matters like revocation.

It is no secret that the NOP is the weakling when it comes to enforcement of organic standards compared to Canada or the European Union on imports. No organic farmer in the U.S. would ever get away with the excuse, “My paperwork is in order, no need for an annual inspection this year.”

It is quite probable, NOP can’t even provide the Organic Farm Plans from farms supplying the grain for these shiploads and can’t even trace the grain. It is certainly not reassuring that these shipments come from an area of the world where there is major civil unrest, war, massive corruption and forgery and fake documents are the name of the game. USDA’s own Foreign Agricultural Service issued a report on the massive corruption in Turkish organics in 2016.

Meanwhile, protecting the organic integrity of markets for U.S. organic producers doesn’t seem to be much more than an NOP slogan. Producers are looking at major losses due to the flood of questionable imports from suspicious areas of the world thanks to the NOP. To date, NOP’s response to my and other complaints questioning these shipments has been met with “total silence.” That usually means a backroom deal has been struck to look the other way like in the past. To protect organic integrity requires real honest work, not playing paperwork and computer games with U.S. organic producers who stake their livelihood on organic integrity.