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Is Organic Enough?
by Bill Duesing,
C 1995, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, email@example.com
NOFA and its members have spent over two decades promoting organic agriculture,
and learning how to practice it in this region. We have seen organic
agriculture grow from being ridiculed by the agricultural and food establishment
to being nearly mainstream. We know that a shift to organic agriculture is
essential for the long term health of people, the soil and the Earth. But is
organic, even certified organic, enough?
In the early days of NOFA, before organic agriculture was codified in
certification standards and widely recognized, the idea of "Organic Farming"
meant many different things to different people. Its lack of specific
definition allowed many of us to associate it with certain important
characteristics of scale, locality, control, knowledge, nutrition, social
justice, participation, grower/eater relationships and the connections with
schools and communities. Anyone who attends a few workshops at almost any NOFA
conference understands these characteristics. The "implied or hidden
curriculum" of small scale, local eating, good nutrition, connection to
community and consistency with social and environmental justice has been and
still is very evident. Proper soil care and avoidence of toxic and synthetic
chemicals are just part of what NOFA has seemed to represent for over 20 years.
These desirable food system characteristics seem threatened as the definition of
organic farming and food is narrowed to a set of standards which deal with
growing and processing methods exclusively, and is acceptable to the food
industry and government. It seems that in many ways organic food is slipping
right into some of the most destructive patterns of the conventional,
globally-destructive food system.
The new giant, energy-intensive supermarket in a wealthy suburb nearby recently
had a full page ad for organic produce in its weekly flyer. It prominately
featured organic seedless grapes, which are currently in great excess in
California. The peppermint tea sold at the NOFA Summer Conference was
certified organic and imported from Chile. Peppermint! A recent issue of Organic
Food Business News (OFBN) reported that representatives of Dole, a
multinational food corporation which has caused much political, social and
environmental damage in Central America and elsewhere, brought growers from
Argentina to this country so they could learn organic techniques and grow
certified organic garlic and other vegetables in Argentina for export to the
U.S. Other corporate food giants are buying into the organic food business.
Pepperidge Farm Bakery in Connecticut called to see about certification.
General Mills is milling organic grains. And of course, because the USDA is
getting increasingly involved, there will be higher fees for organic
certification. Meanwhile, the conventional farmers just go about their thing,
moving smoothly to the marketplace, especially if they are very large. Farms,
input suppliers, distributors and retailers all are becoming larger with more
OFBN and The New York Times have carried stories about pesticide contamination
of organic food -bananas from Central America, for example. It seems either
nearly impossible, and/or very expensive, to assure freedom from chemical
contamination, especially when there are thousands of miles between the grower
and the eater, and while the world is still flooded with toxic pesticides and
other detrimental substances. The transportation itself contaminates the produce
and the rest of the world. While this expense may seem a pittance for
well-to-do folks who spend only a small percentage of their income on food, it
is significant for the growing number of people, especially in the cities, who
are struggling to obtain the necessities of life. It is also expensive
taxpayers who pay for school lunches and food stamps.
Some local organic growers make up for any energy savings in transportation from
distant farms by using lots of plastic and energy intensive greenhouses,
irrigation and indoor growing systems. In some cases the "plastic to produce"
ratio is very high.
John Jeavons says that many of the large organic farms in his part of northern
California are even less sustainable than some conventional farms. These energy
-intensive organic growers fertilize their crops with manure from very large
dairy operations in southern California* which feed their cows grain grown in
the midwest. If the produce is then shipped to the east coast, it's not hard to
imagine that, looking at energy use and its polluting effects, one could
conclude that those same vegetables, grown locally with conventional fertilizer
might be better for the planet. Since food is energy - our energy source -
energy considerations are very important in any evaluation of the long term
sustainability of our food system.
To power a human being for twenty four hours takes the energy equivilent of
about a cup of gasoline. The amount of fossil and nuclear energy it takes to
deliver that food energy in the current system is enormous, often the equivalent
of two gallons of gasoline are used to provide a cupful's worth of food energy.
The global food system is rapidly increasing its energy use through such
practices as building four new McDonalds every day for years at a time, selling
Coke, Pepsi, Budweiser, Miller et al in aluminum cans in India, Mexico,Vietnam
and China, genetically engineering a new strain of seeds for each year's crop
and by erecting new, enormous, capital-and energy-intensive animal factories and
food processing facilities.
For our long term survival, it is important to measure efficiency according to
the second law of thermodynamics (which describes energy's one-way flow toward
uselessness). By this important standard, the food we grow in gardens and local
small farms, especially if hand tended, is nearly infinitely more efficient than
that delivered by the conventional food system. The rapidly-evolving corporate
food system will probably be glad to deliver organic food to upscale consumers.
And why not? The higher prices will mean higher profits.
The energy-intensive, distant, large scale, corporate-controlled global food
distribution system doesn't provide decent work, good nutrition, wholesome
flavor, or knowledge. It will be happy to offer organic as an option, and will
keep working to increase its share of our food dollars. ( Currently 78 cents of
each dollar spent on food in the U. S. is taken by those who buy from the
growers and sell to the eaters. And, the middlemen's take is increasing
For sure, in the short run, our nutrient and energy needs can be met with food
from far away, but what about our other needs. For most of human history,
gathering, growing, preparing and eating food has been an important and central
activity. It provided useful work for the majority of people, a context for
relating to ecosystems, and education in the processes of nature.
If the organic food system falls into the same patterns of scale, distance and
control as the conventional food system, human beings will have very little work
to do as the scale of operations in increased, and as production is moved to
regions with the lowest labor, land and energy costs. We will lose our
connection to the natural processes and knowledge upon which we depend for our
survival. With genetically engineered plants, animals and hormones we've seen
that the larger the entity that produces or markets our food is, the less
democratic control we have over its actions or products.
It is clear to me, that if we are to have any hope of creating an ecological
food system, with anything like democratic control, that food system has to be
local and organic.
We vote for the food system of the future with our actions and our money. If we
understand what is really important about it, we will grow and eat more of our
own and give less money to those who profit from economies of scale and by
distancing us from our most important connection to the envrionment-the food we
*Organic farms are being targeted as the disposal sites for otherwise unwanted
manure from conventional farms. I've had quite a few calls from Texas and other
far-away places offering "organic fertilizer" - really composted steer manure -
to NOFA farmers. A letter from Brazil asked if we were interested in worm
compost produce by small-scale enterprises there. Just this week I got a letter
from the Philipines offering cocopeat, made from coconut hulls, and tauted as a
mulch, soil conditioner and a subsitute for peat moss. A second-law efficiency
check on any of these, shows a very inefficient system.