ST. LOUIS — The organic food certification program is a flawed model, and conventional farmers are helping to pay for it, according to a former organic inspector who has written a book that challenges conventional wisdom.

While most organic farmers are hardworking and conscientious producers, activists with no agricultural background are responsible for controlling organic goods, said Canadian Mischa Popoff, who served for years as an inspector of organic farms. He spoke at the annual convention of the Grain and Feed Association of Illinois.

Since the advent of biotech crops in the 1990s, organic food sales in the U.S. have exploded, going from $1 billion to $30 billion annually.

Among reasons for the increase in sales is the federal government’s involvement in the industry. It began decades ago, when a group of organic growers petitioned the government to regulate them.

It’s an unusual strategy for business success — asking to be reined in by the government. But the top-down approach has worked because approval of the U.S. Department of Agriculture lends value to the organic “brand” by its official endorsement of certification.

“They went straight to the top,” Popoff said. “Who in his right mind goes to Washington and says, ‘I want you to slow me down?’ But they didn’t care if farmers were saddled with red tape. They wanted the credibility that the U.S. Department of Agriculture could give them. They convinced Washington to play along, and it really paid off. Now there’s a seal on all organic food. People think it must be legitimate — the feds are overseeing this.

“But they got something else. They got cash flow through legitimization of their private enterprise. But also, they turned all those honest, organic, hardworking farmers into revenue streams, because those farmers have escalating certification costs to be paid to the activists, not to Washington.”

And because the certification process requires more federal workers, all Americans are subsidizing the industry, according to Popoff. He noted that organic farmers and processors receive refunds of up to 75 percent of their certification fees.

Following a registration fee of $1,000 to $3,000, farmers and processors then pay a user fee, something Popoff compares to a franchise fee paid by an owner of a McDonald’s restaurant. Much of the revenue — as much as $1 billion — ends up being used to advance the goals of organic activists.

“USDA doesn’t get a cut. But all of that money goes into activism. So now you know how these people are making our lives difficult,” Popoff said.

“Bernie Madoff couldn’t have come up with a plan like this. I took a bit of heat when I wrote that (in his book Is it Organic?). So I apologized. I said, ‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have used Bernie Madoff. I should have used John Gotti.’ Because this is the Mafia, folks. This is a scheme. This is a Ponzi scheme.”

In addition, he considers the inspection process a sham. Growers and processors are given notice instead of being subjected to surprise inspections.

Popoff said he personally was ignored when as an inspector he pointed out possible violations on organic farms.

Another issue is the fact that most organic food sold in the U.S. is grown outside the country. Processors who are located here reap the benefits of USDA approval. The result is millions for public relations campaigns that often denigrate traditional agriculture.

“It’s a new breed of professional, a publicly funded, tax-exempt, fervent activist who never worked a day on the farm,” Popoff said. “And they’re suddenly leading organic farmers, who comprise 1 percent of all farmers in America. They don’t just lead the organic farmers — they browbeat all farmers. They spread the notion that farmers are destroying the planet.

“When people who never worked a day on the farm try to tell you, the farmer, what works in agriculture, you’d better think twice. The media let people get away with this.

“Most organic farmers are just like regular farmers. They work hard. They contend with fluctuating market prices and weather patterns and have the same problems as other farmers have and really don’t have time to chain themselves to a fence somewhere at corporate headquarters.”

Studies indicating that organic food is no better than food grown with the benefit of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides often are ignored or buried, according to Popoff.

He contends that organics are more likely to be tainted, citing a current spinach recall in the U.S., and an E. coli outbreak traced to organic bean sprouts in Germany a few years ago that killed 30 people and sickened 3,000 more.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s certified organic if it’s going to kill you,” he said. “Who has ever gotten sick from synthetic ammonium nitrate? But you can get real sick from pathogens from improperly composted manure.”