Organic: A Journalist’s Quest to Discover the Truth Behind Food Labeling, by Peter Laufer, Ph.D.
Review by Chris Walters
One day Peter Laufer’s wife, Shelia, brought home a bag of organic walnuts from Trader Joe’s. The nuts were rancid. Well, these things happen occasionally. Before returning them, Laufer took a look at the label. “Product of Kazakhstan,” it read. Kazakhstan? Really? A seasoned world traveler, veteran journalist and nobody’s fool, Laufer knew more than most people about the pervasive corruption of the remote central Asian nation, ruled by a capricious dictator ever since the Soviet Union crumbled. He decided to investigate.
Around the same time, the Laufers purchased a can of New Directions organic black beans at their local independent, Eugene, Oregon’s Market of Choice. The labels designate them as coming from Bolivia. Laufer’s antenna vibrated wildly. He knew Bolivia’s picaresque charms intimately from reporting on the cocaine wars. If not quite a dystopian hellhole like Kazakhstan, it was nonetheless a place riven by poverty, criminality and exploitation. Those beans were highly suspect. After inquiries to Trader Joe’s and New Directions yielded replies that amounted to “We’d rather not tell you anything,” Laufer heard the journalist’s call of the wild. Recalling the recent conviction of Harold Chase, an Oregon farmer who faked organic certificates and almost got away with hundreds of thousands in illicit profits, Laufer realized he had a global mystery to unlock. And it went straight to the heart of a business that generates tens of billions every year on the promise of selling millions of people food worth eating.
“‘Organic,’ of course, means a lot of things. That’s the problem,” Laufer writes. The value of his book, one of the best ever done on the organic food industry, resides in the number and variety of those things Laufer relates after seeing them with his own eyes. He could have written a fine book about the absurdities of globalism — which sends black beans 6,000 miles to his local market while first-rate organic farmers grow them in nearby Willamette Valley — from his study in Eugene. Likewise the conundrum of organic certification as practiced here in the United States, where inspectors are tasked with objectively assessing the viability of farms whose owners then hand them money. Instead Laufer goes around, logging enough miles to give the Secretary of State a run for his money. He meets Miles McEvoy in his office at the USDA, where 27 staffers oversee the organic sector, one for each billion dollars of annual revenue. He delves into the complexities of European trust-but-verify schemes with organic VIPs in Vienna, where he hears about Moldovan scammers and that persistent headache, Italy. He visits an olive farm in Tunisia, where a farmer given to philosophical musings produces oil of peerless quality. He sojourns with his wife at an organic farm in Italy, a nation whose great beauty and exquisite food masks a sub rosa world of ethical bypasses, legal workarounds and old-fashioned crime.
Finally, the book comes to an arresting climax when Laufer travels to Bolivia and ends up at the end of a rough dirt road for a midnight meeting with a humble, dignified farmer who shares a tractor with a number of his fellow growers. (Kazakhstan never yielded a good enough lead to make an arduous trip worthwhile, and a USDA investigator concludes that the walnuts were of dubious provenance. And Laufer cannot meet Harold Chase, who languishes in a minimum security prison in Oregon; the warden’s rationale for disallowing the visit is pure Kafkaesque nonsense.)
A complex account of the global organic trade emerges from all these travels and conversations. The integrity of most of the people Laufer meets offers a great deal of reassurance about the integrity of organics itself. Yet it is a system that relies on good faith at many junctures, a virtue that can break down or fail to appear when faced with the lure of expansive profits. Opportunities for fraud are bound to multiply as the market swells in size. Nor do corporate ideas of transparency offer much hope. While a European company maintains a website which lets customers trace food back to its source, transparency for huge American firms is like several layers of cellophane over a base of mud.
Laufer can’t cover everything in this book. He skirts around China, and he doesn’t breach the topic of regulatory capture; both topics that deserve their own books or many books. He covers a large chunk of the waterfront, however, making Organic required reading.
Organic: A Journalist’s Quest to Discover the Truth Behind Food Labeling by Peter Laufer, Ph.D., 2014. Lyons Press. ISBN : 978-0-7627-9071-5
This article appears in the September 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.