Biotech Activists wrote:
> Biotech Activists (firstname.lastname@example.org) Posted: 04/10/2000 By email@example.com
> front page of sunday's business section.
> April 9, 2000
> Organic Farming, Seeking the
> By BARNABY J. FEDER
> KUTZTOWN, Pa. -- The Rodale Institute's 330-acre
> research farm
> here got something it prefers to a bumper crop when a
> drought struck eastern Pennsylvania last year.
> Rodale plants crops with the goal of harvesting evidence that
> farming should be the wave of the future in agriculture. After
> the drought
> last summer, Rodale's parched organic plots yielded 24 to
> 30 bushels of
> soybeans an acre, well below the 40-bushel average of
> previous years
> for the research site, but Rodale could not have been
> happier. That was
> because yields on comparison plots just next to them that
> had been
> doused year after year with synthetic fertilizers and
> conventional farm
> chemicals had plummeted to 16 bushels.
> "These are very significant
> findings for farmers around the
> world," exulted Jeff Moyer,
> Rodale's farm manager. "Our
> trials show that improving the
> quality of the soil through
> organic processes can mean
> the difference between a
> harvest or hardship in times of
> The results last year also
> reinforced long-term
> comparisons, begun by
> Rodale in 1981, that document how organic farming can be
> profitable for small farmers -- even if yields are not always as
> high and,
> by some calculations, even without the premium prices that
> organic crops
> generally receive.
> Good research news from bad weather. Sales growing faster
> than any
> other segment of the food industry. Consumer fears about
> spurring interest. Low prices for commodity crops
> conventional farmers to take the organic plunge. Add it all
> up and there
> has never been a more receptive moment for organic
> So is the organic movement finally on track to becoming the
> enterprise that Rodale and other advocates have long
> Hardly. Organics are starting from such a small base in the
> United States
> -- an estimated one-fifth of 1 percent of farmland and 1
> percent of retail
> sales -- that it would take years of mind-boggling growth to
> gain a truly
> substantial share of the retail food sector, which the
> Department of
> Agriculture put at $756 billion in 1998.
> Such growth is almost inconceivable, say agricultural
> economists and
> even many people in the organic movement. One reason is
> the many
> challenges of farming organically; another is the heavy
> investment in
> current farming methods. Perhaps most important, though,
> is the
> deep-seated suspicion of many organic farmers and
> consumers about
> anything that smacks of big business.
> "Getting to 5 percent of food
> sales in 10 years would be
> miraculous," said Katherine
> DiMatteo, director of the
> Organic Trade Association in
> Greenfield, Mass. Many farmers,
> she and others said, will
> advertise organic practices, like
> not using pesticides, and siphon
> off potential organic customers
> without making the commitment
> to having their products comply
> with the certification
> requirements of monitoring
> If the industry is not on track to
> achieving market power, it is
> winning respect -- and that alone
> is something of a revolution in
> agriculture. From the 1950's to the early 1990's, farming
> chemicals was widely derided in the United States as the
> province of
> hobbyists, the health-obsessed and misty-eyed urban and
> refugees pursuing romantic dreams of rural life.
> "It's not a niche market anymore in terms of consumer
> interest," said
> Harvey Hartman, a market researcher and retail industry
> consultant in
> Seattle. Surveys by his company, the Hartman Group, found
> last fall that
> 90 percent of American consumers were either buying
> organic products
> or considering doing so, up from 60 percent two years
> Interest is stronger still in Europe and Japan, where fears
> are running high
> about the use of growth hormones, antibiotics, pesticides
> and genetic
> engineering in conventional agriculture. Sweden, one of
> several European
> countries that subsidize farmers in switching to organic
> methods, has set a
> goal of converting 20 percent of its farm acreage to organic
> farming by
> In the United States, back-to-the-earth neophytes continue
> to set up
> organic farms, making organics the only sector of
> agriculture that is
> attracting new blood. But thousands of conventional farmers
> are also
> weighing the risks and benefits of heading down the organic
> path, lured
> by premium prices that are averaging 20 percent above
> those for
> conventional crops and sometimes many times more.
> "Farmers have been losing money in conventional
> agriculture, and organic
> is looking profitable," said Mark Ritchie, director of the
> Institute for
> Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis. But the farmers
> who are
> making the switch are more of a trickle than a flood.
> One barrier may be the new national standards that the
> Department is proposing for the industry. The aim is to
> the consumer confusion caused by having more than 40
> different private
> and state groups, often with conflicting rules, certifying
> which products
> are organic. But the proposed national standard is so
> restrictive -- at the
> industry's own insistence -- that Ms. DiMatteo and other
> experts contend
> that some farmers now selling "organic" products may no
> longer qualify.
> Other hurdles are deeply rooted. "Everything in agriculture
> has been built
> around a simplified rotation of one or two crops," said Rich
> Welsh, an
> agriculture economist and rural sociologist at the Henry A.
> Institute in Beltsville, Md. To grow more crops in rotation -- a
> requirement for organic certification -- farmers would need to
> develop an
> array of new markets and systems for storing and
> distributing their
> Labor could also be a barrier to growth, at least in the
> United States.
> Rapid expansion could leave the industry short of qualified
> inspectors to
> certify organic products. And many organic crops require
> weeding by hand or other labor-intensive care.
> "When we got started, we thought it was a good thing that it
> needs more
> people," said Thomas Beddard, of Chambersburg, Pa., who
> Lady Moon Farm with his wife 14 years ago. Now, having
> become the
> East Coast's biggest organic vegetable grower, with 400
> acres split
> between Florida and Pennsylvania, he frets about the
> consequences of
> his success.
> "It's clear we are reliant on poor immigrants and that the
> work is brutal,"
> Mr. Beddard said.
> Perhaps the biggest barrier is the difficult transition from
> conventional to
> organic production. When they stop using chemicals on
> their land,
> farmers initially get sharply reduced yields. Research by
> Rodale and
> others shows that it takes three to five years for organic soil
> to be built up
> to high fertility levels and perhaps longer for farmers to learn
> how to deal
> with the weed, pest and disease problems they have to
> confront without
> chemical help. During the first three years, under nearly
> certification rules, the crop cannot be labeled as organic
> unless it is grown
> on previously unfarmed land, meaning that the farmer cannot
> sell it for a
> premium price. Some farmers also struggle to figure out how
> to market
> their crops.
> "One of the hardest things about the organic industry is
> getting the
> information you need to get into it," said Gary Reding, a fifth-
> Indiana farmer who is converting 250 of his farm's 600 acres
> to organics.
> For all the hurdles, experts say, organics could easily
> achieve an
> influential share of 10 percent or more in some parts of the
> industry. In
> fact, they already account for nearly one-third of all herb
> according to the Agriculture Department, and high
> percentages of
> specialty grains and vegetables.
> More important, although once dismissed as clownish,
> negligent farming,
> the organic movement is now seen as an innovative
> standard setter that is
> pulling all of conventional agriculture toward higher
> standards and more sustainable practices. This year, for the
> first time, the
> Agriculture Department has budgeted $5.5 million
> specifically for
> organics research; state universities are scrambling to get
> their extension
> agents, who advise farmers, up to speed.
> "The trend is to adopt a lot of organic practices in
> agriculture," said John Diener, who has put 20 percent of his
> farm in Fresno County, Calif., into Greenway Organic Farms, a
> 2,000-acre partnership with two neighboring farms. "We've cut the use
> of commercial phosphate fertilizers on the conventional farm by
> two-thirds since we started with organic."
> And organic farming could be essential to maintaining small farms in the
> developed world. The premium prices that organic products command
> can help small farmers earn enough to stay afloat as agriculture in general
> moves toward the industrial model of ever-larger farms producing food
> as cheaply as possible, often under contract to a meatpacker or food
> inding ways to make small organic farmers efficient has been a
> focus for Rodale and most other organics researchers.
> "We're coming from the premise that it's bad for 10 percent of the
> farmers to produce 80 percent of the food," Mr. Moyer said recently, as
> Rodale planned to plant this year's crops.
> Organic farmers might never have a better chance to gain public support.
> Their market centers on a growing demographic group -- wealthy baby
> boomers drawn to what Mr. Hartman calls "healthy lifestyles." These
> people are willing to pay more for products that they believe are healthier
> or fresher, better for the environment and more humane for livestock.
> Many people also see supporting small, local farms as a social good.
> Some big companies are also throwing money into raising organics'
> profile. General Mills acquired Small Planet Foods, the producer of
> Cascadian Farms and other organic brands, and H. J. Heinz recently
> bought 19 percent of the Hain Food Group, which makes a variety of
> organic and "natural" products.
> "Visibility with consumers has been a limiting factor," said David
> Neuman, vice president of sales and marketing for Nature's Path, which
> distributes organic breakfast cereals and other foods, primarily to
> natural-food stores. "General Mills put $15 million into marketing
> Sunrise, their new organic cereal, last year and they did $40 million in
> sales," Mr. Neuman said -- an amount more than his company brought in
> for all 30 brands it sells. "They can force-feed the distribution system."
> Lately, supermarket chains that once had no interest in stocking organic
> products have been scrambling to line up reliable suppliers in the highly
> fragmented industry, especially for the produce aisles. They are
> competing with upstart retail chains like Whole Foods and Wild Oats
> Inc., which heavily promote their broad selections of organic goods.
> In addition to that generally supportive climate, organic farmers are
> getting a boost from having what appears to be the perfect public enemy:
> genetic engineering. Critics of biotechnology, with the support of many
> organic farmers, have popularized a David-versus-Goliath image of small
> organic farms threatened with extinction by the products of giant
> agribusinesses like Monsanto, Novartis and DuPont. Drifting
> bioengineered pollen will pollute organic crops, they say, and insects will
> destroy what is left after feeding on transgenic corn and developing
> resistance to natural pesticides.
> The Agriculture Department -- the public-sector face of the agricultural
> establishment -- helped spotlight the confrontation. Ignoring advice from
> the organics sector, it issued proposed national organic food standards
> two years ago that would have allowed ingredients from genetically
> altered plants and animals. After being inundated with 275,000 negative
> comments, the agency issued a new proposal this year that would ban
> transgenic ingredients.
> he controversy lured many biotechnology supporters into
> denigrating organic farming. They have argued that the public
> should accept biotechnology because farming without it -- especially
> organic farming -- is too inefficient to feed the world.
> The arguments assume that feeding the world is a priority for everyone in
> agriculture. That may not be the case for organic farmers.
> In contrast to the Internet world, where it seems as if every small
> enterprise would be thrilled to be bought out by a large, wealthy
> competitor, organic farming circles are engaged in constant, bitter
> debates over whether big farmers, giant food processors and
> supermarket chains should be welcomed into the business. Many fear
> that such a development -- which could accelerate growth rapidly -- will
> erode the price premiums upon which they rely for survival.
> "There's a fundamental conflict because, to a lot of people, this is
> supposed to be the alternative to the industrial agriculture system," said
> Charles Benbrook, a consultant in Sand Point, Idaho, who has been a
> prominent proponent of organic farming. "Is this about getting better food
> grown in an environmental way to the most people possible, or is it about
> creating an alternative food system that is small, local and sensitive to
> issues like social justice?"
> If feeding the world organically becomes the main objective, many
> people in the organic sector say that the blanket opposition to genetic
> engineering might soften before long. Some organic farmers say genetic
> engineering has already created some products that they should be
> allowed to use, like Ecogen Inc.'s pesticides extracted from
> genetically-altered bacteria grown in fermenters. Such products, the
> proponents say, are simply more efficiently produced forms of sprays
> that organic farmers already use.
> Others say genetic engineering should be considered where breakthrough
> gains for sustainable farming might be achieved, such as inventing a
> perennial form of wheat that could be mowed rather than harvested and
> replanted each year.
> "Among organic farmers the views about transgenics range from 'no,
> never' to 'not yet,' " said Brian Baker, policy director of the Organic
> Material Review Institute, a nonprofit group in Eugene, Ore., that rates
> the acceptability of materials for organic farming.
> The partisans of the small and local have the high ground when it comes
> to poetic thinking; some of them talk, for instance, of developing a
> society based on "foodsheds," just as the ecology of rivers is based on
> watersheds -- but the marketplace seems to be moving away from them.
> Many organic farmers on the East Coast say they are under heavy
> pressure from larger operations in California and imports from Mexico.
> "All the same patterns that affect conventional agriculture are happening
> in organic," said Jim Crawford, whose New Morning Farm in
> Hustontown, Pa., is the headquarters for the Tuscarora Organic Growers
> Cooperative, which represents 20 farms in the area. "We're not even
> selling that we are organic at this point. We are selling freshness, quality
> and nearness to our markets."
> Mr. Crawford added that sales to restaurants in the mid-Atlantic corridor
> had jumped from zero to 60 percent of the co-op's total revenue in the
> last four years.
> Even the nation's biggest organic farmers, like the Lundberg
> family in
> California's Central Valley, have no intention of betting the
> entire farm on
> the organic business.
> "About 55 to 60 percent of our sales are organic," said
> Bryce Lundberg,
> whose family currently grows organic rice on about 6,000
> acres near
> Richvale, Calif. Although organic sales are way up from the
> 1970's, their
> share of the total farm revenue is down from 75 percent
> because major
> weed problems forced the Lundbergs to sharply reduce
> production for several years.
> "It's a little more profitable, but much higher risk," said Tim
> the Lundbergs' vice president of sales and marketing.
> "There's years
> when you could lose everything."
> Charles Margulis
> Greenpeace Genetic Engineering Campaign
> 1817 Gough Street
> Baltimore, MD 21231
> tel 410-327-3770
> fax 410-327-2990
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