"The Not-So-Sweet Success of Organic Farming"

By Linda Baker


Salon Staff
August 2, 2002 11:32PM (UTC)

[Read the story]

Good for the author for pointing out that shipping fruit 3,000 miles is a bad thing, even if the fruit is organic. And organic production needs to have its critics: You can't take the higher path without the constant voice telling you that what you're doing isn't good enough.

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But here in Vancouver, B.C., and elsewhere we are doing things a bit differently. We are small but you'll find the organic delivery company I work for has explicit buying policies favoring local production. True, we carry some larger brands, but if a local alternative is available we carry it too (and often we favor it). Over on Vancouver Island there is a wonderful company (a home delivery service too) that is fully bio-regional. For so long organic and bio-regional have meant the same thing and the new national and international standards have stripped the grass-roots members of their voice.

This is no reason, however, to turn our backs on organic production. Even if we fail and the conventional production methods are replaced with an organic version, we are still ahead. But as consumers gain awareness at the variety and nutritional benefits of local organic production, "corporate" organic agriculture will surely be looking over its shoulder, just as the conventional market can hear the footsteps of organic production catching up.

-- Graeme Scott

Ms. Baker's article on organic farming, the new federal standards and global organic production and import/export issues is a very good article.

As a lifelong organic advocate and consumer, I have always maintained that organic production needs to expand in acreage in order to be affordable for all consumers. With the huge growth in organic production, it seems that our hopes for fewer chemical poisons, and stopping the GMO encroachment will be achieved.

The chemical industry, Monsantos, et al. have effectively poisoned our air, oceans, lakes, rivers, streams and food chain. We need to give thanks to the small producers who have helped the organic movement along. It is unfortunate that the small farmers are not being rewarded now due to the acquisitions by large companies of small organic producers.

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Working in a cooperative environment, small farmers can expand their efforts by encouraging their neighbors to implement organic growing standards, thus offering instead of 10 acres, 1,000 acres in a cooperative manner. This will without a doubt provide the growers with more strength in the market and hopefully a good return on their hard work.

We asked for federal standards, and in October 2002 we will have them. If they are not what we want, then we can work to make changes to our satisfaction. It was always feared that if you get in bed with the federal government, in this case the organic standards, you must deal with that relationship. Perhaps we erred when we advocated federal standards?

-- L. Kelly

Well, the major problems with organic farming are that: 1) The product isn't any healthier -- notice the glee when any difference, even the most theoretical is found. 2) Most people can't taste the difference -- why bother with all the certification if you could tell? 3) Organic methods are often worse for the environment (e.g., soil erosion). Obviously the Tibetans, etc., should live in a local subsistence environment if they export to the people with the money then they will be able to afford better healthcare and education, etc., and wouldn't that be terrible. Banning supermarkets is obviously the next step -- make people go to the farm gate to buy food. More subsidies for U.S. organic farmers -- great, then you can fool lots of people, stuff the Third World export markets and encourage lots of people to produce less for more -- hey, you'd only waste the money on really protecting the environment or providing for people who are really poor. Smugness and stupidity really go a long way in the organic movement.

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-- Dave Parry

While your article on organic foods is interesting, I think it misses the point. Giant farms around the world are what supply produce to Safeway and Super Wal-Mart. Bob's local farm is never going to be able to supply these giant chain stores with enough produce to be worth the trouble. So if Super Wal-Mart or Safeway is going to start selling organic foods, it's going to have to be from the same kind of big-time suppliers that they've always used. No surprise there.

The only thing that's changed is that for people who do buy their food at giant chain stores, they will get foods from large agribusiness producers that don't have pesticides and pharmaceuticals instead of foods from large agribusiness producers that do have pesticides and pharmaceuticals. On balance, that's an improvement.

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If you want to buy locally grown foods, by all means, buy them. But surely you're not going to expect to buy them at one of these giant chain stores. You're going to go to a farmer's market and buy them from a farmer, just like you could before. What's the problem?

-- Andrew Norris

If you're interested in supporting local farmers, check out Community Supported Agriculture. Many of them grow organically, and you'll be amazed how much longer your vegetables last when they haven't been trucked cross-country.

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-- Ellen P. Kiley

Thank you for publishing this story! We are a small, urban, organic farm, close to downtown Austin, currently certified by the Texas Department of Agriculture, and in business for 10 years. We sell to the community from our on-the-farm stand. Under the new USDA regulations, which are heavy on paperwork and fees, we don't see ourselves "buying in" to certification. We will continue to grow "organically" -- oops -- won't be able to use that word! (Even though we helped educate the consumer to desire organic food.) Perhaps we'll just say "We Are Ganic!" Does freedom of speech still exist in America?

-- Carol Ann Sayle

After reading this article, I was impressed by the depth of research, but dismayed by the lack of attention paid to one of the crucial components in the demise of organic agriculture: the corporatization of the health food store. As more local chains get sucked into the Whole Foods/Wild Oats abyss, the relationships with local producers of organic produce becomes lost. Having worked for one of these local little fish for the better part of a decade, I've seen firsthand how the quality diminishes as local farmers are shut out of the game in favor of large-scale producers and distributors who offer lower prices and fewer places to order from for the produce manager. The constant pressure to stroke the bottom line has left the entire philosophy in the dust. Fortunately there are still places that cherish the relationship with the local farmer. They realize that something labeled organic but grown 1,500 miles away is far inferior in taste and quality to something grown within the same bioregion. Yes, the CSA's and Farmers Markets are blessed resources, but so are coops and truly local health food stores. No longer can we simply look for a single word to know where to practice our capitalistic democracy. Again, we must research, look deeper, to find those to support who truly embrace what we stand for. Keep it local. Eat closer to the Earth you call home.

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-- Tom Donnelly

Considering you guys are the press, I was relatively pleased with Linda Baker's article on the work that I do and the issues about the organic world that concern me. A few minor inaccuracies notwithstanding, for the record I would like to clear up a few specific points mentioned in her story:

First of all, I buy my food from a combination of certified and noncertified organic producers. Whether or not a farm is certified organic is not as important to me as whether I know what the farmer does, but there is nothing inherently wrong with certification -- quite the contrary, on the whole; if anything, it's a plus. It's just not the end-all of whether a farmer is really a good organic and sustainable producer, and to many small producers it's not worth the effort. It is ironic that certification is now essentially diametrically opposed to much of the ideals of the founders of the organic movement; if you know everybody to whom you sell, you don't need to be certified. The social/community aspect of the organic mission has been forsaken in the name of corporate profit, and that's sad. But overall, the fact that more people are becoming even partially informed about some tenets of organic farming is good -- it means fewer toxins being poured into the environment, and that's a very good thing. The vanguard idealists of the organic movement will always exist; it may just be that they need to now surpass the moniker of "organic" to get their message across amid the whole sea that is becoming the middle of the organic bell curve.

Second, I would not say that most processed organic food is devoid of nutrition or has been stripped of its goodness. Some has, and it is too bad that standards have not been written to regulate what you can actually do to the food and still have it called organic. In my opinion, "organic food" should be a relatively special term, as opposed to the term "made from organic ingredients," which could be used more liberally.

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Finally, while huge corporations do in fact contribute to wanting monoculture and huge demand for quantity -- both factors that go against the founding principles of organic -- these corporations in and of themselves are not necessarily to blame for making the demands they do on organic farmers. They, like many aspects of human society, want to continue in their operations with the least amount of disruption as possible. Teaching them that organic is a fundamentally different approach to production and distribution of food is a big job, and one that has not been done well enough. Without wanting to name too many names or go into confidential specifics, I personally found my interactions with the people at General Mills and some other major companies to be among the most professional, cooperative, personable and serious operations anywhere. It is more the fault of certifiers and certification standards for not keeping the bar high enough in the first place. These companies see themselves as very exigent and want to do an excellent job, and generally express a willingness to comply with standards, as long as that is what they think they have to do to be seen as excellent. If they argue for a compromise of the standards and the certifier or the government regulator caves in, that cannot be blamed solely on these companies.

Thanks for your attention, both to my comments here and to these important issues in general. I might suggest that you delve into the world of genetically engineered foods in another story. This is a global threat to agriculture, the environment, and human health whose impact dwarfs the negative effects raised in Linda's article.

-- David Gould

It was great reading an article about David Gould -- but with all due respect (and I do respect David -- having worked with him over the years) the article seemed much more about him and his opinions than about issues affecting either organic farmers or organic consumers. That is what is going on here? Isn't it? Organic farmers asked for a law, received it and are scrambling to understand its impact. Consumers have questioned whether or not products are truly "organic" (how do I know? they say) for the past 30 years and this new USDA law is supposed to reassure them. This law is also intended to support the international trade of organic products from people and places who produce them to people and places where they are not produced.

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I spoke to an American farmer two days ago who can only sell his organic soy beans into Japan -- Americans will not pay for the quality he produces. The concerns expressed are legitimate but it seemed like a bit of a whine-fest. My observation (after 14 years in "organic") is that as an industry we have not taught our consumers how to be connected to their food, it's producers or local farms. We have not applied for educational grants to get this message out, we have not implemented programs that ensure children know the difference between a frozen peanut butter sandwich with the crusts cut off (lord preserve us all) and a perfect fresh peach. We pay less for food (organic or not) in this country than in any country in the world. Our farmers cannot make a living -- even the large ones. Agriculture is so dysfunctional it makes a Hollywood marriage look healthy.

So -- please take your next "organic" inspiration and talk to organic farmers and organic processors and organic consumers. Those of us who run around the world telling people how to "be" organic are not always directly impacted by the effort to create and sell that food. I work for a number of smaller organic producers (families) who are not controlled by mega-corporations or corporate farms. I also inspect -- just like David. I continue to look at this as a work in progress -- a struggle, surely, but a focused working effort to improve our world. We need help getting the right information out far more than we need the criticism of a well intended but (occasionally) jaded inspector. I inspect too, I agree with most of it -- but lord -- you have an audience that needs information to re-create a connection to food production and its effects on this planet and our lives. How can you help us? Would you rather it all stop and the thousands of acres under sustainable production go back to chemicals and polluting killer methods of farming? What is your message?

-- Gay Timmons

I remember a moment in 1991 when Dan McGrath, organic advocate in Oregon, warned a conference full of sustainable agriculture folk like myself (a natural foods grocer) that we'd lose the term "organic" to the corporatizing behemoth lumbering our way. He gave us five years. We got a few more.

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By 1994 we knew that nationwide certification was not the only way for us -- those small farmers, grocers and clean food eaters who loved locally grown, fresh, pesticide-free, environmentally sane produce -- to go.

However, we also knew we'd lose our niche completely to those who would say "organic" was only about residue or some other narrowed interpretation, and had nothing to do with inputs, intents, labor, morality, spirit, or style -- and they'd make the certification laws accordingly if allowed.

That, in turn, inspired continued participation in the process of shaping standards that are now becoming international law, and thousands of organic pioneers stick with the grueling work today, molecule by molecule and issue by issue, to fight off the encroachment of the marketers, who see "organic" as nothing more than the latest sales pitch.

What's even more remarkable is that people who typically eschewed institutional government -- radical, hippie organic farmers with a sense of duty to both civilization and the planet -- found themselves swallowing their distaste and joining the Ranks of Legislation in order to preserve the larger Public Good.

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Painted as "sellouts" by those who only follow ideologies, but never live nor develop them independently, these folks are true heroes. I hope you focus on some of them someday.

The space constraints of your article make it seem that the perils of the certification road were unseen by organic supporters. This is somewhat unfortunate, for it can lead to the conclusion that the organic process is out of control, and "taken over" by the insensitive, abandoned by the believers.

Don't get me wrong -- the jerks are there, and the good guys aren't running the show -- but it's a dialogue in process, and far from over. There may be some battles lost, but the war is still undecided.

Folks who've been in organics for a long time have always known the contradictions inherent in the style of centralized certification that bureaucrats demand in our public's name. These are fascinating, and they illuminate many of the flaws, as well as the strengths of our political process.

But blaming ANY devolution of small farming on the government, organic or not, and not including the general grocery-shopping public as a prime cause is missing the reality altogether.

Most people want cheap food. They want it as clean as they can get it, though the "ease factor" is important. The majority of them do/can/will not care enough to spend more than a certain amount, and that percentage is both an influenced and a calculated one, used in planning organic market expansion, returns on investment, and even national policy (i.e., Europe).

Finding a steady source of good clean food has NEVER been easy. Even those with money to hire armies to steal it (or the means of its production) would probably, on balance, calculate that it would have been cheaper to grow their own -- if they wouldn't have had another Fat Cat like themselves to contend with, that is.

It was that small public "few" -- different from most -- needing MORE than cheap food that created organic agriculture. In fact, in the longest run, organics is proof that grass-roots market emergence can be a reality . Passion, commitment, intelligence, and will on the part of producers and consumers CAN result in trends of creative change and unexpected success.

If folks are truly concerned about getting something that is organic in the original sense of the word, they'll go back to what the organic folk did ten years ago: scour farmer's markets and small grocers for the small amount of locally grown organic produce whenever possible; choose the alternate certifications like Demeter or "The Grocer's friend" (I sell some of these in my store under the label "UnConventional"); insist that produce departments divulge the locales of growers (not easy!), and keep their eyes peeled for the next unsanctioned wave that heralds not what's hip, but what they deeply want and need.

The rest of our shopping dollars should be HAPPILY spent on corporate organics (if we're very lucky -- not all have access, even to these), knowing that perhaps only 2 percent of arable land in the U.S. is even quasi-organic, and that highly polluting, endocrine-disrupting chemicals continue to pour onto new ground in all countries at an alarming rate, used in desperation by folk driven to maximize food output through hunger and need.

Huge corporations have amassed the capital necessary to make large changes quickly -- for good, as well as for ill -- and we should not abandon the tools needed to turn this ship around just because we're afraid of the horsepower. Once we avert the iceberg, perhaps we can find the brake, and maybe even get off the boat.

People (and maybe even enough!) can continue to do this. We'll support the organic farmers still fighting the legislative battle to put more land into clean production. And then we might all join together in my long-used phrase:

"So what if they're jumping on our bandwagon. At least they're playing our song ..."

The road isn't compromise-free. The struggle to make it so is an interesting one. Thank you for an article that puts us one step further along that walk. I look for many more to come.

-- Cynthia Beal


Salon Staff

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