By C S Liew, Agronomist and Managing Director of PACIFIC AGRISCIENCE PTE LTD based in Singapore.
In well-balanced eco-systems like forests, plants growing there are truly organic. However, once man upsets this ecological balance by cutting down millions of hectares of forest for food production, insects and diseases start to become virulent.
With an ever-increasing world population, there is a need to grow more crops and raise more animals for food. With increasing food production, it follows that there is a need to use more chemical fertilisers to feed crops and chemical pesticides to control pests, diseases and weeds.
Over US$60 billion worth of well-researched, well-regulated and approved chemical pesticides and 200 million tonnes of chemical fertilisers are used by farmers annually for good reason.
Organic farming attempts to do away with chemical pesticides and chemical fertilisers. However, certified organic fertilisers such as compost and animal manure have very low nutrient content compared to chemical ones. Certified organic or bio-pesticides are nowhere near as well researched as the chemical ones. Additionally, they are low in performance to treat the huge hectarage of crops grown. This is especially so in the tropics where we have year-round hot and humid conditions that allow pests, weeds and diseases to thrive and reproduce rapidly.
Even in temperate regions, it is extremely challenging to produce certified organic food. According to a major British newspaper, The Guardian
, land in the process of being converted to organic fell by 24% in 2013 while UK organic sales rose by 4% in 2014. The key reason for this anomaly is that a large number of farmers who used to produce certified organic food have gone back to conventional agriculture. They said that it was very difficult to comply with the rules of organic farming!
Related article: Why are organic farmers across Britain giving up?
Therefore, it is impossible to grow certified organic food consistently, season after season, and in large quantities.
The average consumer does not understand the difference between “organic” and “certified organic” and what it takes to achieve certification. Even fewer are aware of loopholes, allowing rampant cheating in the supply chain.
It takes three years of strict non-use of any chemical fertiliser and pesticide to obtain certification. Smaller farms would find this process very expensive. In Singapore, and in many other countries such as India, Japan and China too, many farms are tiny, ranging from 2 to 10 hectares. In the case of small countries like Singapore, with no known local organic certification body that is internationally recognised, foreign certifiers would have to be flown in over the three years to get the certification done. It is inconceivable for a small farm to be certified and still grow enough certified organic food to make it economically viable.
When consumers visit hydroponic farms with netting over the growing vegetables, they may assume that these vegetables are organic. These nets block larger insects but not smaller, yet devastating, ones such as mites and whiteflies. Moreover, how would the nets prevent the many diseases caused by microbes such as bacteria, fungus and viruses? In the tropics and during the summer in temperate countries, plant diseases and insects are prevalent due to the conducive weather conditions.
A consumer told me she feels that a particular organic producer is “fairly authentic”. Well, the truth is that they are either certified organic or they are not. Even if the produce is indeed “certified organic”, is it authentic? No, not necessarily.
There are no authorities strictly enforcing certification rules. In the USA, the largest consumer market for certified organic food where about US$ 50 billion were consumed in 2017, the USDA (US Department of Agriculture) allows organic farmers to appoint their own certifiers. More often than not, farmers are notified well ahead of time that the certifiers are coming. Because the certifiers are engaged and paid by the organic farmers, it is not hard to conceive that certifiers would over-look non-compliance steps so they would be engaged again. And in developing countries, are consumers to accept that there is no corruption and self-interest in the certification process?
In addition, who knows whether unscrupulous suppliers mix conventionally grown food with certified and weakly-certified organic food and label all of these as “organic” or “certified organic”? In China, a farmer, whose produce is exported to the USA, has been seen to be labeling his conventionally grown produce as “Organic” and when asked why he did that, he simply replied that the word “Organic” is very popular in the USA. And indeed it is!
The Straits Times of Singapore (March 27, 2017), published a feature article with the headline “A taste of kampung (village) life” with a picture apparently showing a farmer watering New Zealand spinach, the caption says “the produce is sold to an organic produce retailer in Singapore and regular customers...”. So, when non-certified organic food is sold to “an organic produce retailer”, imagine what the label will say. “Organic” of course!
How can one tell if food is truly certified organic? If indeed farmers do not cheat and certifiers are honest, the crop yield should easily be halved, for most crops grown in large hectarage, compared to conventionally grown ones. A large portion of the organic produce would not be marketable due to damage by pests and diseases. Given the lower crop yield, organic produce should cost easily two to three times the price of conventionally grown ones. If they merely cost marginally more, one should immediately doubt their authenticity.
Organic produce that appears to be near-perfect in appearance is another tell-tale sign that it is very likely not organic. Having said that, we must not be hoodwinked into believing that organic produce with holes and blemishes is authentic. Due to intense pest and disease pressures, farmers could have cheated by spraying non-approved pesticides earlier in the growing season to avoid residues being detected at harvest.
In contrast, conventionally grown produce is sampled and checked for chemical residues in most developed countries, before it is released for sale. If no one is checking for chemical residues in organically grown produce, then, logically, and ironically, people consuming organic food should be more worried than those consuming conventionally grown ones.
The AVA (Agri-food and Veterinary Authority) of Singapore is the government body sampling and analysing incoming food for excessive chemical residues. It is also the body regulating organic food being imported and sold in Singapore. What they do or don’t do to ensure that organic food is authentic and whether so-called “certified organic food” contains chemical residues is what concerns me, and those in the know.
The AVA has stated that “original organic certificates are needed for verification when required.” These certificates in no way demonstrate that every batch of organic food is organically certified, and most of all, free of chemical residues.
The AVA or relevant authorities in every country should bar the word “organic” in farm and company names as a critical step in a stricter regulatory regime preventing consumers being misled.
There should be a system of traceability in the supply chain, allowing regulatory authorities to have batches of claimed certified organic food traced all the way back to the farm or processor that produced it. This is where blockchain technology can help.
Dealers and importers of certified organic food should be punished more severely for any mislabeling and fraudulent practices. With this critical step in place, it will make them work harder in ensuring that the organic food they import and market has been subjected to much more stringent and honest certification process. It’s time to clean up the act.