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Critic of Organic Agriculture Lacks Credibility

Opinion

Recently, Mr. Mischa Popoff wrote an op-ed for Food Safety News critical of the organic movement. Popoff is a former Canadian organic certification inspection contractor, the author of a self-published book critical of organics, and a commentator affiliated with ultra-conservative think tanks in the U.S. that are funded by agrochemical interests.

The article below, entitled, “Who is Mischa Popoff?,” was penned by researchers at The Cornucopia Institute in 2011. It remains accurate and relevant today.

When The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group, officially launched in April 2004, one of its primary issue areas was what it referred to as “The Corporate Attack on Organic Agriculture.” At the time, Cornucopia’s focus was on the father-and-son team of Dennis and Alex Avery at the ultra-conservative Hudson Institute’s campaign to discredit organics. Now, in 2011, after seven years of successfully exposing the genesis of Hudson’s ire, and greatly diminishing its effectiveness, a new generation of “Trojan horse” naysayers has emerged.

The latest attacks come from Mischa Popoff, a Canadian who purports to be an advocate for organics and is publicizing his self-published book entitled, “Is It Organic? The author misses few opportunities to impugn the integrity of the organic label, or USDA oversight, while simultaneously defending biotechnology and the industrial agriculture system that organics seeks to replace.

“Addressing the potential damage from attacks by the Hudson Institute, and other right-wing think tanks such as the Hoover Institution, the Heartland Institute, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, was relatively easy,” said Mark A. Kastel, codirector at the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute. “Every rebuttal that we published, or preemptive media advisory we issued, was put into context by including the corporate agribusiness funding base for the work of these entities.”

Like the Averys, Popoff is a conservative ideologue, a global warming denier, an ardent critic of hybrid automobiles, and has suggested that the American mortgage crisis that precipitated the financial meltdown was caused by “overregulation.” His book sold on his website is subtitled: “The Inside Story of Who Destroyed the Organic Industry, Turned It into a Socialist Movement and Made Million$ in the Process, and a Comprehensive History of Farming, Warfare and Western Civilization from 1645 to the Present.”

“Popoff calling the $30-billion organic industry a ‘socialist movement,’” says Cornucopia’s Kastel, “is akin to the fascist leaders in Germany, during the 1920s and ‘30s, referring to their movement as the National Socialist party. It’s Orwellian doublespeak. Nowhere in the food industry have entrepreneurs and investors realized greater financial reward, with virtually no governmental funding, than in meeting the higher standards consumers are seeking by paying a premium for organic food.”

Popoff acted as an organic inspector a number of years ago. He now challenges the propriety of organic accreditation and third-party certification by suggesting, echoing the Averys at Hudson, that, “There is currently little proof of actual cleanliness, nutrition and fair play in the global organic industry.” Popoff’s unsubstantiated claim is that 80-90 percent of organic food in North America is fraudulent and imported.

That’s not to say that Cornucopia doesn’t share some of Popoff’s concerns. Popoff suggests that the entire certification process is without merit and should be replaced with a testing protocol for prohibited toxic chemicals.

“We think there is great merit in doing spot testing, as Congress required, and we have criticized the USDA for not having implemented testing until now, but it would be prohibitively expensive to test all farms and crops and would not substitute for other careful oversight protocols,” said Will Fantle, research director at The Cornucopia Institute.

USDA’s National Organic Program, sensitive to the need for spot tests, is currently soliciting public comments on a new federal rule outlining the periodic residue testing of organically produced agricultural products. The proposal calls upon independent organic certifiers to conduct more surprise inspections of organic operations.

Cornucopia, in its role as an organic industry watchdog, along with many other organic advocacy groups, supports the proposed new regulation recently published in the Federal Register (available for public comment until June 28).

“This is a scheme similar to how the Internal Revenue Service conducts audits,” added Fantle. “Strategically conducted tests, and aggressive prosecution if willful violations are discovered, will surely act as a powerful deterrent. I will add that there is no documentary evidence to believe that widespread fraud is currently occurring in the organic industry.”

It appears that Popoff pins his credibility to his role as an insider and organic supporter. But even that is open to debate as he hasn’t actually done any organic inspections in years and has been inappropriately identifying himself as an “International Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA) Advanced Inspector.”

The executive director of IOIA, Margaret Scoles, says that she often gets calls and messages from people who are confused by Popoff’s claimed credentials.

“A recent message I received was signed, ‘Mischa Popoff, IOIA Advanced Organic Farm and Process Inspector,’” says Scoles. “I was surprised,” she adds. “In 2008, I asked him to discontinue using the term because there is no such thing [Advanced Inspector]. He just made up the title. We asked him not to use the IOIA name in any way to imply membership status with our association, but his continued use of our name on his website and in his emails still causes confusion.”

Popoff was an Inspector member of IOIA between 1998 and 2004, Scoles notes. But, she notes, “He has never worked for us and has no affiliation with IOIA.”

Popoff’s political ideology comes through strong and clear in some of his writings (click here to view a sampling) and statements; his other website also exposes ultra-conservative views.

In addition to his suggesting that organics is some kind of socialist construct, he has stated that, “Liberals destroy agriculture in B.C. [British Columbia]” and suggested that the liberal American financier George Soros is somehow financing an organic “bureaucracy” instead of substantive oversight.

“Mr. Popoff’s contention that the organic industry has some kind of socialist/liberal agenda is a gross misnomer,” stated Kastel. “Support for organics cuts across all demographics with liberal and conservative suburban consumers, urbanites and rural farmers ranging from dreadlocked hippies to conservative Christians, Mennonites and the Amish.”

Like the Averys at the Hudson Institute, he’s also attacked The Cornucopia Institute, suggesting that they have partnered with Soros and claiming that the organization’s largest funder is the farmer-owned cooperative Organic Valley (another one of Popoff’s targets in his book).

“Because Organic Valley CEO George Siemon doesn’t back his thesis to switch all organic oversight exclusively to testing, he attacked Siemon and now is going after Cornucopia,” said Kastel. “Interestingly, Popoff has also promoted a testing business that would directly benefit from this recommended approach.”

Kastel and Siemon are in good company. Popoff’s book also attacks Deputy USDA Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, a well-known organic supporter, and Michael Pollan, a New York Times journalist and author of the bestseller “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

“By trying to tie all of his favorite villains together, Mr. Popoff discredits himself and leaves all of his statements open to question,” noted Kastel.

“Not only is Organic Valley not our largest funder, we do not receive any financial support from the cooperative, or from Mr. Soros, and fully stand by our independence as an organic industry watchdog,” Fantle affirmed.

Almost no element in the organic farming movement has been spared attacks on its credibility by Popoff. One of the certifiers impugned, OCIA International, responded to what they referred to as “false statements about our organization and organic certification in general.”

“We would like to set the record straight. On a YouTube video, Mr. Popoff states that there are no unannounced inspections performed on certified organic farms. This is untrue and is covered in the NOP Final Rule and also in the OCIA Standards.”

The USDA organic regulatory language includes: Additional inspections may be announced or unannounced at the discretion of the certifying agent or as required by the Administrator or State organic program’s governing State official. And the contract OCIA, one of the original nonprofit certifiers predating the USDA, has with its farmers and processors reads: The inspector shall have the right to make unannounced visits, take samples, and require residue tests.

“We take our responsibility to follow up on any questionable activities in organics very seriously,” said OCIA President Peggy Linzmeier. “Mr. Popoff’s fictitious stories, challenging the credibility of the organic label, are injurious to all the farmers and organizations in this industry that are acting with high integrity.”

Although his material has primarily appeared on what has been referred to as the “echo chamber” of conservative websites, Popoff has developed an extensive database of e-mail addresses in the organic industry.

“Either he’s had tremendous financial support in his data mining efforts or he’s personally invested countless hours in developing this electronic mailing list,” stated Fantle. “If it weren’t for this level of outreach, we would probably entirely ignore his rantings, which all too often grossly distort the facts.”

Research indicating organics’ nutritional superiority and demonstrably lower level of exposure to agrichemicals, antibiotics and hormones, can be found on Cornucopia’s website or that of the Organic Center.

“Whether it is research conducted by the USDA, Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports magazine), or numerous peer-reviewed journals, there is considerable scientific backup for the faith consumers have in the ethical approach organic farmers have taken,” added Kastel. “Mr. Popoff’s claims to the contrary just don’t hold water.”

© Food Safety News
  • http://batman-news.com Molly

    I have no problem with questioning someone’s motives or being critical of someone’s statements, but this article feels like more of an attack on the person. I think it would serve everyone better to address the claims and leave conservative or liberal leanings out of it.

    • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

      When a person touts their expertise, it is justifiable to question that expertise, and that’s what this article does.

      As for the conservative leanings, Popoff does connect organics to a political system, so it’s fair to question his own political beliefs and biases.

      I don’t always agree with Cornucopia, but this writing does establish whether Popoff’s writings should be treated as credible. The answer is, no, they shouldn’t be.

      Now, FSN should consider whether providing a forum for Popoff is a responsible thing to do.

      • Mischa/Marka GROW UP!!!

        Who knows whats credible and whats not? All we have here is a classic case of good ole American finger pointing. This is why nothing ever gets done in this country.

        Yes both sides have different opinions, but they also agree on the issue of the need for increased residue testing on organics to confirm their validity as an organic product.

        So Mischa, and Marka, this is my request to both of you. Please work together to strengthen the organic program. Please put aside your differences for a moment and move forward on the issues you agree on. Please keep left and right opinions to yourselves, it doesnt matter who started bringing politics into it, grow up and leave it out. Marka you must realize that Mischa is not your enemy, his criticism is only as destructive as you make it. Why not make it constructive criticism, handle it like an adult, and make improvements to shut the critics up?

        All the public wants is safe food on the shelves and to be confident that organic food is indeed organic, is it that hard?

        • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

          Who knows what’s credible or not? Seriously?

          One can look at an individuals actions, past, credentials, and so on and make an informed decision that no, what they’re saying is not credible.

        • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

          Who knows what’s credible or not? Seriously?

          One can look at an individuals actions, past, credentials, and so on and make an informed decision that no, what they’re saying is not credible.

          • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

            So, are you saying organic crops should NOT be tested in the field to ensure they’re safe and genuine Shelley?

          • Ted Miner

            Apparently in Popoff’s alternative reality he can put word in the mouth of another to imply something that wasn’t a part of the conversation.

  • Ted Miner

    This is a very good accurate assessment of Misha Popoff.

    He is a very active Monsanto/Koch Brother GMO pesticide industry operative. His specialty is corrupt GMO pesticide industry disinformation.

    You will find Popoff on many Disqus sites trolling people who oppose the GMO pesticide industry agenda.

    Thanks for exposing this corrupt tool for disingenous corrupt GMO pesticide industry operative that he is.

    • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

      Sorry Ted, but I have absolutely nothing to do with Monsanto, the Koch Brothers or the pesticide industry. I am not paid by anyone or any corporation to write what I think.

      I grew up on an organic farm and worked for five years in the United States and
      Canada as an organic inspector. But I left the organic movement when I realized
      it was all just a bureaucratic scam designed to propel a political agenda.

      I remain a strong supporter of the principles of organic farming, but believe it was a black day for the organic movement when our urban leadership elected to ban GMOs outright without exception.

      You see, you can’t ban science. Others have tried throughout history and they have always failed.

      • Ted Miner

        I’ll watch what you do, Misha. I’ve seen what you say many times before. You have a track record that looks like GMO pesticide industry operative to me. Who pays you is not the issue.

        We can get into your Koch Brother connections another time. After all, Mark Kastel has done a fair and honest assessment in this piece.

        • The Truth

          I call tell your a buffoon Ted. Do you even know why GMO’s are “bad”?

          I can also tell your not a farmer, your not a scientist, and you know nothing about organic standards or food safety, otherwise that’s what your comments would be about. Not fear monger finger pointing.

          If Mischa was a agro-chemical company “operative” he would obviously be pushing for less pesticide residue testing/legislation on organics.

          Dow, Monsanto, Bayer, BASF, Syngenta, all these company’s do not want any problems or any issues with their product. All these company’s want to sell as much chemicals as possible, not just to conventional farmers, they have pesticides for organic farmers too.

          The result of increased testing of organics would be that we would find at least 20% of them to be out of compliance in regards to organic standards. The next phone call a farmer would make is an angry one to their chemical provider complaining that “their product didnt degrade as stated on the label”, or “this chemical i use for conventional sticks to plastic/rubber and I cant clean it out of my tanks and they found a residue on my organics”, etc, etc…

          NO AGRO-CHEMICAL COMPANY WANTS INCREASED TESTING. ALL IT CAUSES THEM IS LOST FUTURE REVENUE AND A MAJOR HEADACHE.

          • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

            Quite right. Companies like Dow, Monsanto, Bayer, BASF, Syngenta… along with farm bureaus and commodity groups, like the organic industry just the way it is right now without any field testing. Best to leave things unknown rather than find out how many organic crops are being “contaminated,” either through negligence or fraud.

          • Ted Miner

            Popoff will always ignore the poisonous pesticide laden GMOs being hidden in our children’s food, while trying to spin the phoney concept that somehow organic foods are not safe.

            This tool was so far out in right field that his own party removed him from the ballot in Canada because of the outrageous things he had to say about women. See: http://www.vancouversun.com/life/Conservatives+drop+candidate+over+insensitive+disrespectful+comments+about+single+mothers/8297084/story.html

            Misha Popoff has absolutely no credibility. The fact that he is spinning lies and disinformation to support the GMO pesticide industry shows how desperate they are.

      • Sandy Weaver

        GMO is not science it is technology. They are two different things.

        • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

          Science is employed to create technology. And you can’t ban a field of science just because you don’t like the technology.

          • Ted Miner

            Typical Popoff, responding to something the poster never said. This tool is totally removed from any connection with reality.

          • bilpoles

            Science doesn’t lie, but some scientist do.

      • Sandy Weaver

        GMO is not science it is technology. They are two different things.

  • jake

    This was basically a big smear article, and Mark Kastel discredits himself by doing nothing but bashing the beliefs of Popoff. For future reference, if you want a good article leave the politics out of it.

    • Sandy Weaver

      I think Popoff does a pretty good job of discrediting himself.

    • Sandy Weaver

      I think Popoff does a pretty good job of discrediting himself.

  • The Truth

    The only thing important mentioned in this article is that all sides agree there needs to be more residue testing done on organics to prove that they are indeed in compliance with organic standards when regarding residues.

    Right now, organic farmers do one residue test per year to get their certification. After that, how does a consumer or retailer know what their selling is organic or not? You would be a fool to trust spray records, a complete fool that has no idea how things go down in the field.

    In my opinion every organic crop should be tested for pesticides. Otherwise it should not be sold as organic just based off the fact that it was not tested to confirm its validity.

    The rest of the article just fully discredits your claims because you are doing the same thing you are claiming Mischa is doing, but just for the other side of the fence. How can’t you realize this? why must you stoop to the level you are accusing Mischa of being at?

    When things become about right or left, science is thrown out the window. For example, you can thank Al Gore for personally creating all the climate change deniers. If politics were left out of it everyone would agree that human activities can affect climate and that we need to change now in order to preserve the style of life we live for future generations. But no Al Gore had to make it a dem vs rep ideological battleground which in essence has prevented the very progress he intended the stupid documentary would spur. Also by over exaggerating and fear mongering he made it very very easy for people to poke holes in the validity of human induced climate change.

    • grifty

      Well…while that would be through, its not realistic. Pesticide testing costs money. You’d also see some losses while awaiting the results from testing. In short, it would mean that already expensive organic foods would get more expensive.

      Secondly, organic is a marketing program. Not a safety one. If safety if your concern, then you shouldn’t really be worried about pesticides as much as bacteria.