The Great Organic Food Fraud: Some Surprises
This week, The New Yorker published the story of Randy Constant, the perpetrator of the “largest-known fraud in the history of American organic agriculture.”
Surprisingly, Constant didn’t need to be a mastermind to pass off a quarter of a billion dollars worth of “conventional” chemical grain as organic between 2001 and 2018. In spite of the many complaints received over the 17 years Constant was in business, the National Organic Program didn’t try very hard to catch him.
“In a market that often seems to value a certificate of authenticity over authenticity, all he had to do was lie,” stated article author Ian Parker. Instead of cunning intelligence, all it took was a lack of integrity (and the willingness to cheat eaters and thousands of honest organic farmers that were forced to compete against the fraud). The eaters got to pay more for conventional grain. The farmers got to go out of business.
Having been convicted in 2018, the story of Randy Constant’s fraudulent organic grain scheme wasn’t news to many of us. It was a gripping tale of a man who made the wrong choices making a fortune followed by shame and suicide.
But what was a surprise to many of us in this New Yorker article was the employment of a respected member of the National Organic Standards Board at Constant’s aquaponic money laundering facility.
The Real Organic Project was formed in 2018, precisely when the Department of Justice was finally indicting Constant for his crimes. But the Real Organic Project, ironically, did not form in response to grain fraud (domestic or imported, both of which were happening on a grand scale). We formed because farmers lost an important vote made by the National Organic Standards Board in the fall of 2017.
The vote was about whether or not soil health should remain as the foundation for organic farming. The final vote was a milestone in the dissolving integrity of the National Organic Program. The New Yorker article informed us that yet another NOSB member had a conflict of interest surrounding that pivotal vote on hydroponics. At the time, this member was actually an employee of Constant’s money laundering aquaponics facility! And we have just learned that she was also giving workshops as she developed a “hydroponic organic” teaching facility at the same time that she participated in a heated debate on the NOSB. But never a word was spoken about a possible conflict of interest.
I remember my state of befuddlement when this specific NOSB member stated her reasoning for voting in favor of hydroponics in a weepy account about how organics needed to better support “minority” inner city youth.
Her words were:
“So I'm here to follow my heart, and my heart says land is disappearing. My people that have settled in northwest Arkansas in 1852, those people can no longer buy farms because — I'm not going to use that D word that we use for the Yankees who have come down and bought all of our farms. Cannot farm — buy farmland. They want to farm. They were raised for generations to be farmers. They can't find land. They want to raise food for their neighbors.
Last year we had a horrible incident in Missouri. Was it two years ago? I think it's still last year. Ferguson. Do you all remember Ferguson? Made national news. Urban young people are so disenfranchised. They don't have fresh food available. You can say, “Oh, well, you know, you can go to the grocery store,” but many of these people don't have opportunities to go to the grocery store, and they need fresh food. And there is no land. It's concrete. How do we supply those foods for the next generations? How do we do that? Well, yeah, we can establish community gardens, and we do that.
But we have young people who have lost their hope. They can't afford tractors. They can't afford cultivators, and I don't know how that guy does 38,000 acres of certified organic vegetables because I sure couldn't do it. He must use a whole lot of help. But I'm telling you, that little — can I say those minority people on those concrete don't have that opportunity, and they need opportunity to farm food.”
– Sue Baird, former National Organic Standards Board member. 2017, Jacksonville meeting explaining her vote to allow hydroponics in organic.
What??? Organic hydroponics is, and has always been, the influx of massive corporations into the organic movement (including the likes of Driscoll’s, Wholesum Harvest, NatureSweet and others).
All the BIPOC inner city farmers we work with grow food in soil enriched with locally generated compost. It takes hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to set up a hydroponic facility – hydroponics is not a grassroots, inner city movement. It is big money!
In all the hours of debate and discussion on hydroponics and “organic integrity,” this person never said a word about her career working for the biggest crook in the history of American organics nor in her role at his hydroponic facility.
At the 2017 NOSB meeting in Jacksonville, over 60 farmers showed up in person to testify in support of the law, of the current requirements to improve soil health as part of the foundation of organic certification. They spoke eloquently and passionately about their life’s work to improve the soil on their farms and the destruction to the organic movement of permitting hydroponic growers to simply pump fertilizers into plastic containers. But between the obvious influence of a former NOSB member who was a Driscoll’s employee (Driscoll’s is known to have thousands of acres of hydroponic berries), and this NOSB member who was employed at Constant’s aquaponics facility, the farmers didn’t stand a chance. There simply weren’t enough actual farmers on the board for the NOSB to understand what the organic farmers were testifying about.
The vote was 8 for hydroponics, 7 for soil. It was a pivotal moment for organic farmers across the country. They were losing the word they had worked so hard to protect to the greedy corporations who didn’t share their belief in organic (or their integrity).
For every certified organic industrial operation skirting the standards, there are hundreds of real organic farmers with integrity.
We can’t let a few bad apples (producing a large supply of the product) spoil the bunch. The organic movement is stronger than ever, and we’re uniting behind our commitment to certification in the Real Organic Project.
“The National Organic Program accepts complaints from the public, and from interested parties. But, as Sam Welsch, the founder of OneCert, a long-established certification company, told me, “it seems like when you report things, they’re looking for reasons not to have to investigate.” As Lynn Clarkson, of Clarkson Grain, sees it, the system was set up in such a way that “as long as someone is covered with paper documentation you don’t go after them.” He argued that, across the industry, there’s a fear of breaking something fragile. “It’s: Do I stand up and talk about the fraud that’s happening? Is that going to do more good or more harm? Am I going to kill the movement? Am I going to destroy the market that I’m trying to perfect?”
– From the New Yorker article The Great Organic-Food Fraud
The New Yorker article reminds those of us in the movement of several truths:
- There are simple things we can do to improve the process (for example, the article pointed out how easy it would be to add the certified acreage to the organic certificate, assisting the buyers ability to detect fraud based on volume.)
- Regional, shorter supply chains have greater transparency, and therefore integrity, and should be supported and expanded.
- We have work to do to further democratize the National Organic Standards Board and the National Organic Program. Industry has an outsized influence compared to the farmers
- Some organic certifiers have greater integrity than others. QAI, Constant’s certifier, didn’t do their job in overseeing Constant’s operations. In contrast, another certifier, OneCert, had filed multiple complaints about Constant (and others). These complaints were ignored or were not properly investigated. We farmers should switch our business over to these organic certifiers with integrity.
- And finally, we must speak up about our problems in order to protect our movement. Hiding them has enabled the problems to worsen. Eaters will find comfort in a movement that defends and improves upon its core principles.
Thank you for joining us too. We can only do this together.
Yours In The Dirt,
“I often wonder what is the breakdown of the number of USDA certified farms that fall within a range of acres grown. So I asked the National Agricultural Statistics Service if they could give me that data. So from the 2016 organic survey, this is the first important statistic. 73 percent of all certified farms were under 180 acres. That is a big number. And if you want that broken down, that's 185 certified farms altogether. 22 percent grew under 10 acres; 23 percent grew between 10 and 49; 28 grew between 50 and 179. So taken together, again, that's 73 percent of all farms in 2016 growing under 180 acres.
Why is that important? It's just those numbers, because 73 percent is a significant number. It is a huge percentage of all certified organic farms in the United States. These smaller scale operations are not just a side note to the movement. They are the foundation of the certified organic label. Meanwhile, in that same year, the NOP provided us with survey data that they collected, 2016, that only less than .4 percent of all worldwide certified organic operations were hydroponic, aquaponic, or container-based combined. And that was 121 operations in total of the worldwide operations. Small-scale organic farming is a labor of love, not one done for profits. But there are far easier ways to earn a living that family scale farmers do that is out of a passionate belief system and the value of organic farming, which you have heard from in the past couple of days.
I have yet to hear from a single small-scale farmer in support of hydroponics or containers. In fact, an organic vegetable farmer in my region who also has a small aquaponics operation told me that he did not believe his aquaponic system should or could be certified organic. I know some are legitimately concerned about taking away certification from those who have already been certified, those aquaponics and hydroponic and container systems.
But in my view, a far greater concern is that 73 percent of smaller scale farmers — and I don't want them to begin to feel sufficiently disenfranchised from the label as to leave it, which I think is a very legitimate concern. And that is not a concern as much just to the small-scale farmers. That is concern to the entire label, and the larger scale operations because we are all operating under the integrity and understanding of this label. Soil-based farmers have expressed their strong preference for organics in the soil, in the ground. And to be clear, that is my own preference and the one I feel obligated to represent as a stakeholder. ”
– Emily Oakley, National Organic Standards Board member. 2017 Jacksonville meeting, explaining her vote in support of soil.
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