Whistleblower Casts Doubt On The Integrity Of Organic Certification

Mischa Popoff is a hard core Organic farming advocate.  He grew up on an Organic farm in Saskatchewan and went on to become a licensed, independent Organic inspector.  He still believes in the ideals of the Organic movement that he traces back to the early 18th century at the dawn of the faith-driven founding of modern, Western science.  But Mischa is disillusioned about what “Organic” has become since the finalization of the National Organic Program in the US in 2002 and comparable standards around the world.   Mischa actually traces this back to the early 20th century when Rudolf Steiner became the key driver of the Organic movement and shifted it to anti-science, Vitalism, and homeopathy as in “Biodynamics.”

Popoff’s Book

In October of 2010, Popoff published a book titled Is It Organic? with the sub-title, “The inside story of who destroyed the organic industry, turned it into a socialist movement and made millions in the process.”  The core of the book is the story of Popoff’s experience as an Organic inspector.  He describes how, on the annual and pre-scheduled, on-farm visits, he would often find troubling signs of potential fraud (the use of non-allowed pesticides and fertilizers, sanitation issues…).  Popoff recommended to the various certifying agencies for which he worked that they take samples and test them in the lab.  His suggestions were never taken seriously, and at most the farmers were asked for additional paperwork.

A Fundamental Weakness of the Organic Certification Process

The incidences that Popoff describes in detail are certainly suspect, but what is more disturbing is his description of the way that Organic crops are actually certified for sale at premium prices.  Even though the system theoretically allows testing, in fact that almost never happens and everything depends on paper work.  As Popoff puts it, it is like asking Olympic athletes to sign a document saying they used no performance-enhancing drugs but never testing them.  It actually gets worse.  The certifying agency gets a fee for the farm visit, but they make much of their revenue as a percentage of the sale of the approved crop.  In any other business this is considered an “active conflict of interest.”  Do you think these certifiers would be inclined to spend money on tests that could potentially reduce their revenue?  I don’t think so!

As you might expect, after he went public with his concerns, Popoff was “black listed” among certifying agencies and driven out of the Organic industry.


To be balanced, there are a few things about this book that are less than ideal.  First of all, at 538 pages before the index, it is a daunting read (though one could use the extensive index to read selectively).  Second, Popoff spends a great deal of time arguing that the current Organic industry downstream from the farmer (brokers, distributors, retailers, regulators) is part of a sort of conspiracy from the Left.  It seems to me that these “socialists” are actually pretty good capitalists so I’m not sure I buy all of that argument.  Popoff maintains that all socialist movements tend to be well financed and he may be right.  Third, the tone of the book is often sarcastic and/or snarky in a way that will put-off many readers who actually need to hear what Popoff is saying.


On the positive side, Mischa’s story is honest and deeply personal.  He is careful to point out that there are many completely honest and skilled Organic farmers.  He should qualify as a card-carrying historian for his tracking of the origins of this movement and the history of science in general.  He is also a realist who recognizes that Organic (the pure type he favors) will never be a large part of the food supply.  He also says that: “people in the third world need organic farming like they need caviar and 15-year-old Scotch.”

Why This Is A Big Deal

Probably the most disturbing message of this book is that if there is some degree of fraud in Organic in “rule following” societies like Canada or the US, what about the un-tested, paper-work-only “Organic” products coming from outside North America and particularly from China?  Popoff is not the only one raising this issue (PRI, Treehugger).  Since US Organic acreage only represents 0.5% of cropland and is generally only 60% as productive, a large proportion of what is sold as Organic comes from outside of the US – particularly any grain-based, frozen, or fruit sweetener containing products.  Mischa Popoff’s question, Is it Organic takes on a whole new meaning in that context.

You are encouraged to comment here or to email me at [email protected].  My website is Applied Mythology.  Book cover image from Popoff’s website.

  1. Marc Ballat


    first of all let me mention that I haven’t read the book and I certainly won’t read it (I am way too tired when I finally reach my bed in the evening).

    There is fraud wherever there is control. Otherwise there would be no need for control. I’ve heard non-organic colleagues explain how they fraud (spray to close to harvest), for what reason (rain during harvest) and how their inspector knew about it. I’ve heard organic colleagues tell similar stories. But…

    To be fair, the topic would need more investigation and explanation. Consumers who want to buy certified organic food deserve it. I can of course only talk about the situation in the EU.

    To be allowed in organic farming, a substance needs to be allowed by the EU organic directive. It must also be allowed by a more generic directive which regulates pesticides in general. A product that contains the allowed substabce must then apply for a license. This is very costly and must still be done for each EU country. Let’s take the example of bicarbonate potassium. It has been recognized that it is a fungicide that help counter apple scab. Bicarbonate potassium is used as baking powder. You can eat it. It is also cheap : 1$ per kg. However, there is only one company that has applied for a license : the makers of Armicarb. The product is mostly composed of bicarbonate potassium but it costs 8$ per kg. If I spray unlicensed food-grade bicarbonate potassium, it is fraud. Does it hurt nature or the consumer more than if I used Armicarb ? I don’t think so.

    The same applies to natural extracts like neem and quassia that are very helpful in fighting aphids and apple sawflies.

    “A Fundamental Weakness of the Organic Certification Process”. I agree with the fact that inspectors are being paid by the very same people they control and that it could be seen as a conflict of interest. Again, fairness requires that you mention that it is the very same situation for auditors (ever heard about Enron and Arthur & Andersen) and in countless other domains. Would you prefer a situation where each and every citizen would have to pay for the certification of products they have not chosen to eat ? Be careful, this could be considered as socialism or even communism…

    You are careful enough to mention that Popoff is “careful to point out that there are many completely honest and skilled Organic farmers”. But you are smart enough to immediatly mention that they “will never be a large part of the food supply” and later that “US Organic acreage only represents 0.5% of cropland”. Let’s summarize : a small part of 0.5% is… nothing.

    Since this blog is about sustainability, not organic vs IPM, not about how to feed the world, not even about how to help the world population to increase (basically what science and peace have contributed to over the last two centuries ;-), you could jump to the same conclusion without unfairly casting doubt on organic farming : importing organic food from far-far-away is stupid and not sustainable. But again, this applies to non-organic food as well.

    My advice : buy from a local farm (organic or not) if you can and ask the farmer what products he use, go and see the fields and animals by yourself. If you buy from a store, ask them where the products come from. Consumer’s demand/pressure may be the best way to motivate farmers to become more sustainable.

  2. Marc Ballat

    I forgot to mention that in my case, the inspector takes a sample during the growing season to test it for forbidden chemicals. They also sometimes take samples of fruit after the harvest.

    One can regret that the results are not made public.

    1. Steve Savage

      Your baking soda illustration is good – you should be able to use the food grade soda instead of paying too much for the “official” source. Regulations can get silly. When I worked at Mycogen we were selling an “insecticidal soap” which was just the potassium salt of oleic acid. The EPA label required that we say that if you get it on your hands you should immediately wash with “soap and water.”

      My biggest doubt about Organic is the stuff from places like China. I worry about very few things in my food supply, but I do make a conscious effort to avoid that source. I’m not a China basher – I have a grand daughter who calls me Ye Ye (Paternal grandfather in Mandarin), but I’m convinced that this is the source of most of the organophosphate insecticides that keep showing up in blood and urine in the developed world.

  3. Richard Cornett

    Hi Steve. I follow your blog site a lot and it really makes for some interesting reading. I’m the communications director for a agchem trade association in Sacramento and I am always told that organics can feed the world and all pesticides should be banned. Do you think that some day organic crop production can feed a world approaching 9 billion people? If not, why not?

    1. Marc Ballat


      I really can’t answer your question but I’d like to stress one thing : organic is NOT pesticide or fertilizer free. Organic uses non synthetic pesticides and fertilizers (BT, pyrethroids, quassia, neem, virus, copper, sulfur, bicarbonate potassium, spinosad, etc.).

      Also keep in mind that at the moment, a significant part of our high agricultural yields are being wasted as Steve pointed out in an earlier post and that a lot could be saved too by reducing our daily meat consumption.

      Also, there is an open question which we cannot easily answer : how long will synthetic fertilizers and pesticides allow us to have higher yields ? Will it last or, as some claim, will yields decrease in the future (degraded soil quality, resistant strains, loss of biodiversity) ?

      Note that the question of sustainability also applies to organic farming as it is not immune to resistant strains (e.g. granulose virus).

      Finally, is it sustainable to insist so much on feeding 9 billion people when we are already over-exploiting water, oil, forests and oceans ?


      1. Steve Savage

        you are right to point out that Organic is not fertilizer, pesticide, carbon footprint or pollution free any more than ag as usual is. Ideally we won’t really get to 9 billion if we get serious about infrastructure development in Sub-Saharan Africa so that those people can get a better life and not feel the need to have so many kids. Still, even meeting the demand for an improved diet in many developing nations will require that we farm better and smarter. There are features of Organic that can be part of that solution, but it will never be the whole solution as even a strong advocate like Popoff will say

  4. Marco

    Organic importer begins testing all products

    A Pennsylvania-based importer of organic fruits and vegetables has begun testing product for residue to ensure it is chemical-free.

    OTC USA Inc., Ephrata, Pa., started doing residue tests on all of its Southern Hemisphere-grown fresh fruits and vegetables in May, according to a news release.

    Results of the tests, which are being conducted by Woodland, Calif.-based Environmental Micro Analysis, are available to OTC-USA customers on request.

    The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 requires that residue tests be conducted periodically on organic produce.

    But Marco Brakkee, OTC-USA’s vice president, said in the release that those tests are not performed regularly.

    “Although OTC-USA imports only produce from certified organic producers, we do feel the need in reassuring the integrity of the product we sell,” Brakkee said.

    OTC-USA imports organic fruits and vegetables from Argentina, Mexico, South Africa, Chile, New Zealand, Italy and Israel.

    Its product line includes apples, pears, kiwifruit, mangoes, grapes, peppers and citrus.

    1. Steve Savage

      It would be interesting to know what they test for and what the results are. “Conventional” fruits and vegetables are tested at random every year and the results are published by the USDA (PDP). They show very low residues of no concern

  5. Paul DeCampo

    Oh, I get it – like Socialism is a bad thing. Too bad about how poorly the social democracies of Scandinavia are doing so poorly compared to the more capitalist USA. The Canadian Wheat Board, a collective of farmers enforced by government regulations, has proved effective in protecting independent farmers from predatory pricing and corporate control.

    It is not in any way realistic to assert ” that Organic (the pure type he favors) will never be a large part of the food supply. He also says that: “people in the third world need organic farming like they need caviar and 15-year-old Scotch.”

    There is ample evidence that traditional agro-ecological methods that focus on building organic matter in the soils are best suited to producing food in a context that most effectively addresses both the production and distribution barriers to ending hunger.
    Please see: http://tinyurl.com/3jz8pw5

    And in case anyone still believes the empty promises of bio-tech, please refer to: http://tinyurl.com/dkjs32

    1. Steve Savage

      Being fed by “traditional agroecology growing methods” is only an appealing idea to rich, well-fed people who don’t live and work in such settings. For those that do the experience is lots of hard work, grinding poverty, malnutrition and hunger.

  6. Ken Carypidis

    As a grape grower in Sth Australia The audit system gets a bit too much and too much details which buyers wouldn’t understand.
    I once lost a organic year simply because we used 200 grams of a product during ferment in 50 tons of wine. The wine was sensational picked at the correct time that suited our style of wine making. All that year for no certification.
    Not many consumers will ever understand that. and we risk being dinosaurs and never truly get off the ground with organic simply because we are fighting within ourselves to get the paper work correct.

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