Dirty Feed, Done Dirt Cheap: Are Consumers Who Shell Out for Organic Meat Eating a Bunch of Bull?
By Brian Barth
Many Americans assume that anything labeled "USDA Organic" hails from the U.S.. And for produce, at least, the assumption typically holds true, with the exception of obvious imports like mangoes or coffee beans or tomatoes in January. But the farther an item is removed from the soil, the greater the possibility it harbors ingredients farmed abroad. One needn't reach the tail end of the supply chain, where the frozen breakfast burritos dwell, to find foreign inputs. Just consider the steak in your butcher's case. A cow must jump through multiple hoops before earning USDA certification. While the animal may have grazed on chemical-free Iowa pasture all summer, what did it eat during the off-season and where were the feed's ingredients grown?
Chances are, not here. Although the U.S. remains the world's largest exporter of conventional grain, we now import a hefty chunk of the organic stuff. Roughly 70 percent of our organic soybean supply, and some 40 percent of the organic corn consumed domestically, originates overseas. Between 2013 and 2016 alone, the amount America spent on imported organic soy leapt from $110 million to $250 million, and on imported organic corn from $36 million to $160 million. As a result, the bottom fell out of the U.S. market: Prices for organic soy plummeted from $26 to $18 per bushel, and organic corn from $14 to $7.50 a bushel—less than what it costs most American farmers to produce the crops.
A number of these growers found the sudden spike in imports suspicious. Beyond questions regarding food security and food miles, the glut of foreign grain raised regulatory concerns, especially given the three-year transition period required for organic certification. How could the USDA possibly enforce its strict standards on a rapidly expanding global playing field?
"I knew something was up," said John Bobbe, executive director of OFARM, a marketing co-op that represents several hundred organic grain growers across 19 states. In May 2016, Bobbe needed to move corn from Illinois farms to an Indiana feed mill, and had a tough time finding anybody to haul the load. Turns out, a much bigger gig was drawing Midwestern truckers: A cargo ship called the Federal Nakagawa had just docked in Burns Harbor, Indiana, with 25 million pounds of feed corn in its hold. "That's as much as 50 of our farms produce in a year," explained Bobbe, who doubted the corn was organic when he discovered its country of origin.
Turkey lacks the flat, fertile plains needed to support export-scale corn and soy production. The politically volatile nation also has a history of attempting to export fraudulent organic goods to the European Union, according to a 2016 report from the USDA's own Foreign Agricultural Service. Yet, that year, we imported $118 million worth of organic corn from Turkey, more than twice the amount the United States purchased from all other countries combined. The amount we spent on organic Turkish soybeans rose 268-fold between 2013 and 2016.
Bobbe soon heard of other ships delivering purportedly organic grain from Turkey to our ports. In September 2016, he turned over the names of the vessels, and one particularly suspicious importer, to the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP), which is charged with ensuring the integrity of the organic seal. "The NOP told me it was too late to investigate," he said. "I think it was more like, 'We don't want to bother.'"
Then, in February of last year, Peter Whoriskey, a reporter at The Washington Post, got in touch. Plying industry informants and Freedom of Information Act requests, Whoriskey managed to unearth shipping documents and other paperwork that laid bare a lucrative laundering scheme. His May 2017 article detailed three shipments of conventional grain that magically turned "organic" as they crossed the sea. All three came through Turkey, but at least two originated in other countries. "Lo and behold, the NOP started looking into it," recalled Bobbe.
So just how, exactly, does the USDA go about certifying crops grown overseas? In the case of some countries (Canada, Japan, Switzerland, Korea and the 28 European Union nations), the agency basically takes their word for it, via "equivalency arrangements" that acknowledge a foreign government's organic standards as equivalent to ours. America has also signed "recognition agreements" with Israel, India and New Zealand, recognizing certifiers accredited by those governments. Everywhere else, a USDA-accredited certifier must perform the inspection.
You might be surprised to learn that, of the 80 third-party, organic-certification agencies accredited by the USDA, 32 are based in foreign countries. Bobbe believes that's part of the problem. "There is no way the NOP has the manpower to monitor them," he insisted, pointing out that only six or so auditors, none stationed abroad, are tasked with overseeing all the paperwork submitted by organic certifiers worldwide. He also faults the NOP for failing to inspect inbound cargo. U.S. Customs and Border Protection might, but those agents aren't trained to scrutinize organic-certification documents. "Your chances of getting caught with a shipload of fake organic grain are next to nil," Bobbe said. And should you get caught, the maximum fine per violation is $11,000—not much of a deterrent when millions can be made off a single shipment of fake organic corn.
Kelly Damewood, director of policy and government affairs at one of the largest certification agencies in this country, California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), agrees that the NOP needs more funding, though she warns against overstating the lapses. "In the rare cases of fraud, it can often be traced back to an uncertified handler," said Damewood. "Technically, if you are not repacking it, processing it, relabeling it, or turning it into anything else—if you are just a pass-through entity—then you are not required to have certification." Last September, CCOF started requiring the companies it certifies to complete a new form, verifying that every handler is complying with organic standards.
That same month, following a strongly worded directive from the USDA Office of Inspector General, the NOP issued new guidelines for certifiers aimed at closing loopholes along the supply chain. The agency also stopped a freighter named the Diana Bolten as it arrived in Bellingham, Washington, loaded with "organic" corn for the same importer associated with the Federal Nakagawa. Sources with knowledge of the incident told Bobbe that a portion of the shipment was rejected by the USDA as fraudulent. The USDA declined Modern Farmer's request for comment on the matter.
Another sign of progress: Last September, Representatives John Faso (R-NY) and Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) introduced the Organic Farmer and Consumer Protection Act, which would authorize $5 million for the NOP to upgrade its enforcement systems and technologies, and mandate ongoing budget increases at a rate that matches the growth of the organic sector. The bill has garnered broad bipartisan support, with a mix of co-sponsors from both parties, including celebrated food-movement champions like Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME).
"This is the system working more or less as it's supposed to," said Mark Lipson, a former organic and sustainable agriculture policy advisor at the USDA. Lipson worries that extrapolating a few specific, if glaring, fraudulent incidents into a systemic indictment of the NOP risks undermining public confidence in the organic label—and would be unjustified. "The Washington Post report demonstrated that the enforcement structure needed to catch up with the growth in the market, but the National Organic Program still works better than a lot of other regulatory divisions," said Lipson.
Bobbe isn't so sure. While the amount of certified organic grain flowing in from Turkey has decreased since 2016, to approximately $80 million apiece for soy and corn last year, his network of farmers continues to suffer. One of them, Bob Stuczynski of Amherst, Wisconsin, said, "Organic farmers in America can hardly move their corn unless they want to fire-sale it." Stuczynski estimates that he's lost tens of thousands of dollars in revenue over the past couple years. And an OFARM analysis found that imported organic grain cost U.S. farmers a total of $300 million to $400 million from 2015 through 2017.
Bobbe recently attended a conference convened by the European Organic Certifiers Council and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements in Odessa, Ukraine, across the Black Sea from Turkey—an apropos location. Some of Bobbe's E.U. counterparts are convinced the Turkish mafia is barging in conventional corn from Ukraine and other Black Sea countries, then shipping it out as organic to Europe and North America. "It's an international crime syndicate," he said.
A final piece of the puzzle has even more of a conspiracy-theory ring to it. The nations surrounding the Black Sea, like Kazakhstan and Armenia, generally do not produce corn and soybeans on a significant scale. But there is one giant exception, and its grain exports are booming of late. "Russia!" said Bobbe, his voice dropping to a whisper. "It's the elephant in the room."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Modern Farmer.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Zahida Sherman
Cooking has always intimidated me. As a child, I would anxiously peer into the kitchen as my mother prepared Christmas dinner for our family.
Falling in Love With Food All Over Again<p>Slowly, through my most intimate relationships with friends and partners, I began to see the beauty — and rewards — of cooking.</p><p>I got tired of giving in to defeat and always bringing chips or paper products to social gatherings. I started asking my mom to send me her Christmas and Thanksgiving recipes. I even volunteered to host Thanksgiving dinner at my place.</p><p>Each time I heard my loved ones sing the praises of the foods I prepared for them, I felt a tinge more confident that I could carry out our traditions my way.</p><p>In reaching out to other relatives for their favorite recipes, I learned that they had a little help of their own. They didn't rely solely on their ancestral cooking instincts. They turned to Black chefs for guidance.</p><p>These 7 cookbooks by Black chefs have inspired my family and fed us in nutrients, joy, and spiritual sustenance. They're also helping me overcome my personal fears of cooking.</p>
Get CookingWhether you're in recovery from cooking fears like me, or are just looking to expand your culinary confidence with dishes honoring Black heritage, these Black chefs are here to support you on your journey.Turn on some music, give yourself permission to make mistakes, and throw down for yourself or your loved ones. Glorious flavors await you.
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By Tara Lohan
The conclusion to decades of work to remove a dam on the Middle Fork Nooksack River east of Bellingham, Washington began with a bang yesterday as crews breached the dam with a carefully planned detonation. This explosive denouement is also a beginning.
The History<p>The Middle Fork Nooksack drains glacier-fed headwater streams that run off the icy summit of 10,778-foot Mt. Baker. The Middle Fork joins the North Fork and then the mainstem of the Nooksack River, which travels to Bellingham Bay and Puget Sound. The entire Nooksack watershed stretches 830 square miles across Washington and into British Columbia.</p>
A Plan Comes Together<p>The Middle Fork dam is not a pool dam built for water storage. Much of the time, water flows over the top until dam operators drop a floodgate to divert water to new locations. That water travels about 14 miles through tunnel and pipeline to Mirror Lake, then Anderson Creek, and to Lake Whatcom before finally being delivered to residents' taps.</p><p>Before removing the dam, engineers had to move the water intake 700 feet upstream and situate it at an elevation that still enabled city water withdrawals throughout the year, regardless of flow conditions.</p><p>They also needed to make sure that the rushing water didn't sweep up fish and accidentally send them through the water-supply system.</p><p>"The solution required a fairly complex design in the intake structure, including a fish exit pipe out of that structure to put fish back into the river in a way that meets current environmental permit standards," explains LaCroix.</p>
Project layout for the removal of the Middle Fork Nooksack diversion dam and rebuilding of water intake. City of Bellingham<p>Despite the cost and the work, she says, being able to continue to meet their municipal water obligations while opening up habitat for threatened species has been a win-win.</p><p>"I think there's a lot of benefits to having a dam removal versus fish passage — the main one being that you get a free-flowing river that can be a dynamic ecosystem and change over time," she says. "A static fish ladder just can't provide that same level of ecosystem benefit."</p>
Restoration Success<p>Despite local authorities' championing dam removal on the Middle Fork, the project has largely flown under the radar, overshadowed in the Pacific Northwest by heated discussions about a much larger potential project — removing <a href="https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/feds-reject-removal-of-4-snake-river-dams-in-key-report/" target="_blank">four federal hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River</a>, a major tributary of the Columbia River.</p><p>Proponents of dam removal there see it as the best chance for recovering threatened salmon populations, including Chinook, which could help starving Southern Resident killer whales. Those dams also provide irrigation water, barge navigation and hydropower, so there's been more pushback against removal efforts.</p><p>Previous dam removals around the country, however, have proved successful at aiding fish recovery and river restoration.</p><p>Most notably the 1999 demolition of <a href="https://therevelator.org/edwards-dam-removal/" target="_blank">Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River</a> restored the annual run of alewives, a type of herring essential to the food web. The fish run has gone from zero to 5 million in the two decades since dam removal. Blueback herring, striped bass, sturgeon and shad have also extended their reach. And the resurgence has brought back osprey, bald eagles and other wildlife, too.</p><p>The overwhelming success of river restoration on the Kennebec helped to spur a nationwide dam removal movement that's now seen 1,200 dams come down since 1999. Last year a record <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/conservation-resource/a-record-26-states-removed-dams-in-2019/" target="_blank">90 dams</a> were removed in 26 states, including <a href="https://therevelator.org/cleveland-forest-dam-removal/" target="_blank">20 dams in California's Cleveland National Forest</a>.</p>
Spider excavators remove on dam on San Juan Creek in California's Cleveland National Forest. Julie Donnell, USFS<p>The results have been seen in the Pacific Northwest, as well, which boasts the largest dam removal thus far in the country. In 2011 and 2014, the demolition of <a href="https://therevelator.org/elwha-dam-removal/" target="_blank">two dams</a> on Elwha River, which runs through Washington's Olympic National Park, opened up 70 miles of habitat that had been blocked for a century. Scientists have started seeing all five species of salmon native to the river coming back, particularly Chinook and coho. Bull trout, they've observed, have increased in size since the dams were removal.</p>
Benefits on the Middle Fork Nooksack<p>McEwan hopes to see a similar outcome on the Middle Fork.</p><p>Like the Elwha the Middle Fork Nooksack is a relatively pristine river with little development, and dam removal is expected to provide a big boost to fish. The additional miles of spawning habitat are important, but so is the temperature of that water.</p><p>The dam removal will open access to cold upstream waters, which are ideal for salmon and getting harder to come by as climate change warms waters and reduces mountain runoff.</p><p>"This is really great for the climate change resiliency for these species," says McEwan.</p><p>Steelhead will get back 45% of their historic habitat in the river, and scientists expect Chinook populations to increase in abundance by 31%.</p><p>That <em>could</em> help Southern Resident killer whales.</p><p>"When you get to the ocean, it's a little bit of a black box in terms of what you can model and say definitively is going to help, but more fish is better for orcas," McEwan says.</p><p>Upstream habitat will see benefits, too.</p><p>Oceangoing fish like salmon enrich their bodies with carbon and nitrogen while at sea. When they return to their natal rivers to spawn and die, the marine-derived nutrients they carry back upriver become important food and fertilizer for both riverine and terrestrial ecosystems — aiding everything from trees to birds to bears.</p><p>"Once the fish start making their way back, it will start changing the whole ecological system," says Delgado.</p><p><span></span>But any ecological benefit from salmon restoration, either in the ocean or the upper watershed, won't be immediate.<br></p><p>"The population of salmon on the Middle Fork is so low that we expect it's going to take quite a while to rebound," she says. "But the big picture is that what's good for salmon is good for the region — our history and our destiny are intricately intertwined."</p><p>After decades of work, that process of restoration has finally begun.</p>
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By Katie Howell
A new tool called The Food Systems Dashboard aims to save decision makers time and energy by painting a complete picture of a country's food system. Created by the Johns Hopkins' Alliance for a Healthier World, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Dashboard compiles food systems data from over 35 sources and offers it as a public good.
By Manuela Callari
It can grow to a maximum of six inches (16 centimeters), change color depending on mood and habitat, and, like all seahorses, the White's seahorse male gestates its young. But this tiny snouted fish is under threat.
Building an Ocean Seahorse Destination<p>Seahorses are found in tropical and temperate coastal water worldwide, but are most abundant around Australia, China and the Philippines. </p><p>Trade in the tiny creatures is strictly regulated because of their use in traditional medicine, aquariums and their sale as dried curios. But because they are poor swimmers and cannot easily move elsewhere, habitat loss is a particular threat for these curious animals. </p><p>Seahorses wrap their tails around seagrass and corals to avoid being carried away on currents. They use the habitat to spawn and hide from predators such as crabs, while also feeding on riches of plankton and small crustaceans living in the reef.</p><p><span></span>Where corals aren't available, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/aqc.1217" target="_blank">scientists</a> found seahorses taking up residence in fishing nets and old crab traps abandoned at the bottom of the ocean. </p>
Mixing With the Locals<p>Baby seahorse mortality is high in the wild because they are easily caught, so those bred in the protected environment of the aquarium weren't ready to be released into the wild until early May.</p><p>The team released 90 new arrivals into Sydney Harbor, placing some directly into the purpose-built hotels, and others onto a net that wild seahorses had already settled on.</p><p>Before setting them free, the researchers marked each young seahorse with a fluorescent tag with unique IDs inserted just beneath the skin to track how they get on in the different environments. </p><p>"The most exciting part was being able to put these animals into the wild and then go back a month later and still see them surviving and growing," said McCracken. </p><p>The seahorses will be old enough to mate and reproduce around October or November 2020. And researchers hope that by then, they will be able to breed with the wild population. </p>
Building a Global Seahorse Hotel Chain<p>With seahorses everywhere facing the loss of their coral reef homes, similar projects have sprung up in places like Greece and South Africa, home to the world's most endangered seahorse, the Knysna seahorse. </p><p>"The endangered South African seahorse is benefiting from something quite similar, even though it wasn't intentional," said Peter Teske, professor at the Department of Zoology, University of Johannesburg.</p><p>In the South African <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322649251_An_endangered_seahorse_selectively_chooses_an_artificial_structure" target="_blank">case</a>, seahorses have bedded down in "Reno mattresses" — wire cages filled with rocks — that were used to build a new marina. Researchers from NGO Knysna Basin Project found the structures acted as a refuge for the animals.<span></span></p><p><span></span>While Teske describes the seahorse hotels as "a positive news story" and a great way to create public awareness of conservation, he added that establishing artificial habitats in some areas will only prevent the extinction of local populations.</p><p>"For a complete recovery, it is necessary to give the natural habitat a chance to regenerate," said the seahorse expert. </p>
Underwater Mascot<p>In Australia, the researchers hope the project could provide an opportunity to raise awareness not only of the plight of the Sydney seahorses but the other animals with which it shares its ocean habitat.</p><p>The waters around Sydney and the east coast are rich in biodiversity and include several threatened species like the weedy seadragon — a relative of the seahorse — and the grey nurse shark. Like the seahorse, they're also under pressure from pollution, ocean traffic and habitat loss through storms and coastal construction. </p><p>"It's a good thing to get people's support and interest. The seahorses are a useful vehicle to get people concerned if the harbor is in trouble," said David Booth, professor of marine ecology at the University of Technology Sydney who is also working on the project. </p><p>The hotels have become an attraction for divers hoping to catch a glimpse of these small but near mythical creatures. </p><p>"Everyone loves seahorses," added Booth, "they are so popular." </p>
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