Fraud in the organic vegetables industry

Is our organic tomato really organic? The Netherlands imports organic vegetables from Spain to meet demand. But in Spain, checks are haphazard.

Copyright image: Lydia Heida

By Lydia Heida

Ants quickly scuttle away in one of the glasshouses belonging to Ana Acosta and José Martinez, vegetable farmers in Campohermoso (Andalusia), the world’s largest single glasshouse area. The couple have taken the step to organic cultivation. No toxic sprays thus enter the glasshouse anymore.

Acosta: “Organic vegetables are healthier, both for the consumer to eat and for us to grow. We don’t work with toxins any more, and we can get a higher price too.”

Spain has seen an enormous growth in organic farming over the last few years. More than half of its organic farming area lies in Andalusia. The number of hectares with organically farmed vegetables has reached 2,759 hectares, almost doubling over the last five years.

This area is mostly used for the cultivation of tomatoes, cucumbers and other vegetables that can be grown in glasshouses. For comparison: the Netherlands has 70 hectares of organic glasshouse cultivation. Eighty percent of Spain’s organic vegetables is destined for North West Europe, including the Netherlands.

Less profit

Nevertheless, the farming couple Acosta and Martinez make less and less profit on their organic vegetables. The higher price of organic vegetables has attracted those with less pure intentions, asserts Miguel Cazorla, president of AgriEco, a sales organisation to which organic growers are affiliated.

“Some companies now offer their non-organic vegetables as organic. That is fraud and it means that once in a while the supply of organic vegetables here in Andalusia exceeds demand”, says Cazorla. “This causes the price that growers receive for organic vegetables to drop, sometimes to the level of non-organic vegetables.”

Esteban Caballero, president of Costa de Nijar, a sales organisation for non-organic and organic growers in Andalusia does the maths. “One kilo of non-organic tomatoes on the vine are sold in the supermarket for 2.99 Euro. The grower receives between 0.70 and 0.80 Euro. But the consumer pays 5.98 Euro for a kilo of organic tomatoes. Almost twice the price. But the grower gets 0.80 to 0.90.”

“Organic cultivation costs more”, comments Cazorla. The required products are more expensive and you need more knowledge and labour. The yield per square metre is also lower. Organic vegetables therefore need to generate more money otherwise it would not be profitable anymore.”

Pesticide residues

It is important that there is as little fraud as possible in the organic sector. Caballero explains, “Certification agencies need to check the number of kilos that organic growers harvest and supply to their sales organisation much better. There will always be more productive and less productive growers. One grower may harvest 40,000 kilo per hectare while another may harvest 60,000 kilo. But that can never be 100,000 kilo.”

According to Caballero, fraud now slips in easily and unnoticed. “If a supermarket orders more tomatoes than the growers of a sales organisation have been able to produce, the sales organisation takes the vegetables from a grower who does not grow organically but does practice organic pest control. They test the vegetables to check that there are no pesticide residues. And they then procure the vegetables under the name of their own grower.”

Recently, AgriEco has heard from three organic growers that their sales organisation sells vegetables that are in transition between non-organic and organic cultivation as organic. A while ago, a manager of an organic farm that both grows and deals in organic vegetables filed a report of fraud. He discovered at an auction that an organic company was buying non-organic vegetables, probably in order to sell them on as ‘organic’.

This company’s certification was revoked. Whether the fraud has stopped is another question: there are, after all, six certification agencies in Andalusia. If one agency revokes a certificate of a company, the company may turn to another certification agency and have itself certified again.

Central register

A certifying agency should check how many kilos of organic vegetables an organic farmer harvests, how many kilos the farmer’s affiliated sales organisation buys, and how many kilos this sales organisation supplies to an export company or supermarket. These figures should tally.

However, farmers and sales organisations in Andalusia are often linked to various certification agencies. Details about the quantity of harvested and supplied vegetables are not centrally registered.

European regulations to prevent the substitution of organic with non-organic vegetables are easy to avoid or are not enforced. Officially a farm may not grow one type of vegetable organically and non-organically on the same plot of land. In Andalusia the glasshouses with organically and non-organically grown tomatoes on the vine of the same species lie next to each other.

The glasshouses may be the property of different owners, but these are usually family members. While non-organic and organic glasshouses may be operated by different companies, the glasshouses are sometimes adjoining and have the same manager and share the same packaging facilities.

Packaging of organic and non-organic vegetables in the same facilities is permitted under European regulations. The vegetables may even share the same conveyor belt, providing there is sufficient time to clean the belt to avoid pesticide residues from coming into contact with organic vegetables. This system offers no guarantees of keeping the organic and non-organic vegetables separated though.

Testing for pesticide residues is done at every step of the handling of organic vegetables. But these tests do not show the difference between an organic and non-organic tomato, if the latter have undergone organic pest control. The only way to shed any light on the fraud issue is by checking the number of kilos.

Dubious practice

Agrocolor, one of the certification agencies, has discovered two cases of dubious practice in the last year. However, spokesman Raúl Ramos does not immediately link them to fraud. “Growers sold vegetables that were under transition from non-organic to organic. It amounted to a quarter of their harvest. They accidentally switched the codes. It was only a little mistake.”

Even Francisco Casero, president of the Comité Andaluz de Agricultura de Ecológica – the major certification agency in Andalusia – has his doubts whether there are irregularities around organic tomatoes. Initially, he too denies that there are sales organisations that handle both organic and non-organic vegetables. But when he hears the names of companies that others mention, Casero retracts his words quickly.

The increasing internationalisation of the trade in organic products brings risks, confirms Chris Maan, spokesman of the SKAL, the Dutch certification agency. Maan: “Over the last few years we have received more reports of the dubious status of organic products.” In 2007 there were 44 reports, 11 times more than in 2005. “There were indeed problems with half of them. Most of the issues were about residues of banned pest control substances.” In two cases, these were organic vegetables from Spain.

There are three methods of cultivating tomatoes:

  • In non-organic farming, pesticides and artificial fertilisers are used and the floor or containers in the glasshouse is chemically cleaned. This system allows the continuous cultivation of the same vegetable species season after season: there is no crop rotation. But it also drains the soil of nutrients. Viruses and insects become a problem more quickly, leading to increased use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides.
  • A combined method is ‘non-organic cultivation with organic pest control’. The pesticides in this method are replaced by organic forms of pest control. For the rest there is no difference with non-organic cultivation.
  • And finally, ‘organic cultivation’ goes much further: the fertiliser is organic; when cleaned, the soil is treated with the sun’s heat and organic substances and there is crop rotation. Further, the tomatoes are grown in the ground. The Spanish ‘enarenado’ system, in which a layer of sand and gravel is added to the original, mostly infertile, soil in the glasshouses is included as organic.

Published: 10 July 2008 in Trouw, a Dutch quality newspaper.

Read here the original Dutch version in Trouw.

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