The U.S. organic industry broke $50 billion in sales last year — and according to Mark Kastel, arguably one of the most experienced fraud investigators in organics, it doesn’t take long for money to corrupt an entire industry.
“Cheating is possible,” Kastel said. “And it’s becoming a growing problem in the organic industry.”
Farmers in the 1960s and 1970s turned to organics as a “prescription for survival,” Kastel said, bucking the trend to either “get big or get out.” And while farmers seized this opportunity for a stable income, he argues that problems within the organic industry began to emerge as corporate businesses also saw an opportunity.
“It worked for farmers for the first couple decades,” he said. “But now there’s an emphasis on maximizing production and real farmers are being placed at a disadvantage.”
With more than 30 years of experience working in the organic industry, Kastel was recently hired as the director of OrganicEye. An investigative arm of Beyond Pesticides, a public interest group that advocates for healthy air, water, land and food by eliminating the use of pesticides and instead advancing healthier agricultural practices, OrganicEye aims to defend organic farming and food production from what supporters call “a systematic failure” of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to protect the interests of farmers, businesses and consumers.
“At OrganicEye, we want to create a level playing field that is fair so real farmers can make a decent living and consumers get what they paid for,” Kastel said. “And as hard as we work, the USDA still isn’t performing adequately.”
Kastel said there are three trends that are negatively impacting the organic agriculture industry currently; these are also trends that Kastel and his colleagues say the USDA isn’t strictly enforcing through its organic certification and review process.
First, there is a shift from family-scale farms to large, industrialized livestock operations. As an example, Kastel said the USDA has been allowing large farms to bring conventional cows to an “organic” operation and convert them to an organic system, sometimes overnight. These larger farms may also be finding ways to get around a grazing requirement, as outlined by the USDA.
“We think that’s illegal and immoral,” he said.
Secondly, Kastel said hydroponic and soilless greenhouses are also being allowed to be certified organic under the USDA, even though there is a general understanding that to be “organic,” the farmer must be a good steward of the soil, maintaining and improving the soil’s health and fertility on their farm. It is also a requirement under the USDA, he said.
Untrustworthy imports is the third trend Kastel has been seeing in the organic industry. In fact, the first official action of OrganicEye has been the sending of a formal letter to the Office of Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office requesting an investigation of a recent incident where a large shipment of imported grain from Turkey was identified as potentially fraudulent. The tip on the allegedly fraudulent shipment came from an industry source and was relayed by the Organic Farmers Association.
Kastel said listening to industry sources is just one way OrganicEye plans to select targets to investigate. He also expects to hear from current and former employees of businesses, farmers and neighbors about possible fraudulent doings. OrganicEye will also discover abuses on their own by visiting organic operations and even looking at satellite imagery to see if something isn’t right on an organic operation.
A new toll-free hotline, 1-844-EYE-TIPS (844-393-8477), has also been established for OrganicEye to help facilitate tips from the public. All claims will be verified with additional witnesses, documentation, photographs and other evidence, Kastel said, and the identities of those whistleblowers protected.
“Our secret weapon is the truth — we will out people who aren’t being truthful,” he said. “Media, farmers and consumers can help bring some of this to justice.”
Kastel, who is an organic farmer himself in Vernon County, said his interest in organics began in similar ways to many consumers who buy organic today: they don’t want potentially harmful agri-chemicals in their food.
“We don’t have control over many stressors on our immune system but we can control food and water,” he said.
Kastel explained he became very ill after spending several successful years working in the world of corporate agribusiness. A doctor told him his illness was likely from pesticide poisoning and recommended Kastel eat an all organic foods diet. While it was an out-there idea at the time, Kastel is finding more and more consumers have a parallel story to his.
“It’s these dynamics that drove me and many farmers and eaters toward organics,” he said.
He acknowledges Congress set up a good mechanism when they created the organic certification process and standards, but that mechanism is no longer working. For Kastel, it’s time to put pressure on government regulators, courts and the marketplace as organic markets continue to grow.
Along with Kastel, OrganicEye employs Jay Feldman, a 40-year veteran of organic policy work and executive director of Beyond Pesticides; and Terry Shistar, one of the nation’s top experts in analyzing synthetic and non-organic materials proposed for use in organic production.
For more information, visit organiceye.org.