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Ruth Bass: Agriculture czars tighten surveillance of ‘organic’

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Those of us who stare at the veggies labeled organic in the market have no way of knowing who’s cheating and who’s not, notes columnist Ruth Bass. New federal guidelines are designed to weed out the bad actors.

RICHMOND — The vegetable garden here isn’t organic. To put that label on a crookneck yellow squash, no matter how delicious looking, you need a certificate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That piece of paper guarantees the squash was been grown without toxic pesticides, synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, antibiotics, synthetic hormones or tinkering with genetic engineering. It also means sewage sludge hasn’t been used for fertilizer, and the soil quality is acceptable. It’s hard to know how our clayey garden, former site of charcoal production and range chickens, would fare.

The best we do here is not spraying anything with anything unless we experiment with one of those homey suggestions about garlic solutions. Not liking the idea of being greeted with a worm when we bite into an apple, we do spray apple trees, and perhaps some of that wafts over as the early lettuce is coming up.

My husband used to spray the fruit trees himself. He had a tank on wheels, he’d mix up whatever it was that the bugs wouldn’t like, put on a grotesque mask so he’d inhale none of it, and start the roar of the machine. It worked fairly well, the photos were hilarious, and we learned that hiring a pro was better.

We go through spasms of composting skins and peels and eggshells, depending on whether it’s raining or snow-covered between us and the compost pile; then, periodically, one of the fenced areas is dug out and black gold spread on the garden. It’s one of the best of recycling attempts: Doesn’t cost us anything, nor impact the town’s trash disposal expense.

Biodegradable paper mulch is a boon, and it’s to be hoped it isn’t made with a chemical-laden recipe. But fertilizer in a bag is used every year, sometimes barring us from any organic status. Recently, we’ve tried the fertilizer made from lobster and crab leftovers, which is advertised as organic. But sprays? Beware of those that say not to leave them within reach of children or pets; or that they may kill bees. Something hides there.

On the national map, the Department of Agriculture is cracking down on organic pretenders, and apparently, at various levels, something crooked is involved and it has nothing to do with crookneck squash. The USDA is calling it fraud and, earlier this month, charged two Minnesota farmers in connection with the sale between 2014 and 2021 of more than $46 million worth of chemically treated crops, labeled organic.

In a Washington Post article last week, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine — herself an organic farmer — said she knew how hard it was to adhere to the regulations for organic certification, but “when the rule-breakers cheat the system, it sows seeds of doubt about the organic label’s integrity.”

Those of us who stare at the veggies labeled organic in the market — and take note of the fact that they’re more expensive than the chemically treated ones — have no way of knowing who’s cheating and who’s not. So the present new USDA guidelines for products labeled “organic” are as welcome as universal background checks would be for gun sales. At least agricultural interest in our health and safety is in a growth spurt.

The Post quotes Tom Chapman of the Organic Trade Association as saying the updates “raise the bar to prevent bad actors at any point in the supply chain.” Along with more publicized things it’s been doing recently, the Department of Justice has indicted individuals connected to a multimillion-dollar plan to export non-organic soybeans from Eastern Europe and sell them here as organic — for 50 percent more.

As the garden catalogs roll in, it’s nice to know our official gendarmes have time to watch over offerings of organic seeds, as well as documents. For those devoted to heirloom varieties, the bumpy-skinned, crookneck summer squash seed comes in regular and organic — the price difference negligible.

Ruth Bass is an award-winning journalist. Her website is www.ruthbass.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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