Why Organic – Organics has spread from being a lifestyle for the Mother Earth News crowd into the world of the Cosmopolitan and Vogue crowd.


Why Organic?

Introduction + 10 steps
Growing Business, Growing Debate
Organic: What’s in a Name?
Organic Basics I: No Pesticides
Organic Basics II: No Synthetic Chemicals
Organic Basics III: Eco-Friendly
Organic Basics IV: Healthy Farmers, Healthy Communities
Organic Basics V: Humanely Treated Animals
Organic Basics VI: Increased Nutrition
Advanced Organics I: Local Matters
Advanced Organics II: Food Safety
Advanced Organics III: Yields & Global Trade
Advanced Organics IV: Pests & GMOs
Advanced Organics V: Sustainability & Real Costs
Conclusion: Making the Right Choice

Introduction
Roll a shopping cart through the produce section of your local grocery store and you’ll see an increasing duplication of foods. These avocadoes are $.99 and those are $1.49. This broccoli is $1.49 a bunch, and that broccoli is $1.99. The only visible difference is a higher price for often smaller produce labelled “Certified Organic.”

Why pay extra? Why the premium for vegetables that are smaller and less perfect than conventional ones? Is organic really safer? More nutritious? More environmentally friendly? Does organic produce taste better? How do I even know something really is organic? Is this just a fad, or a marketing scheme? Isn’t all food “organic”? Is organic food from far away better than pesticide food from next door? Can organic production meet our growing food needs? Good questions that require good answers.

If you want to skip the discussion and get right to the heart of the matter, here are 10 ways you can contribute to a sustainable, humane and ethical food production system:
1. Choose Local
2. Choose Organic
3. Buy from Farmer’s Markets & Independent Retailers
4. Choose unprocessed foods
5. Leave Factory-farmed animal products on the shelf
6. Leave exotic produce on the shelf
7. Grow Food for yourself (even a windowsill can become a small farm!)
8. Demand Precise Food Labelling (Genetically Modified Foods and site of production)
9. Stop Subsidies to Agri-business
10. Stop Urban Sprawl into farmland
To learn more about where food comes from and why we should care deeply about how it is produced, read on…

Growing Business, Growing Debate
Organic food has been on store shelves and in farmer’s markets for many years now, and worldwide the industry is growing at rates as high as 20% per year. In the 1990s no sector of the food economy grew at a higher rate than organics. Organic food is no longer solely the domain of aging, granola-crunching hippies. Growing concern about the dangers of chemicals, uncertainty regarding genetically modified organisms, and opposition to a massively globalized food distribution system, are leading many to choose organics. This hasn’t just meant an increase in attendance at local farmer’s markets – as with any shift in consumer purchasing, big corporations want in on the action. The Texas-based high-end and health-conscious grocery chain Whole Foods has opened two stores in two of the more expensive neighbourhoods in the country: Yorkville in downtown Toronto, and as of May 4, 2005, there is a new Whole Foods in the upper-middle class suburban enclave of east Oakville. Organic food is also on the shelves of mainstream grocery store chains. Loblaws has a whole line of OrganicsTM processed food, with varying amounts of certified organic ingredients.

Organics has spread from being a lifestyle for the Mother Earth News crowd into the world of the Cosmopolitan and Vogue crowd.

When an alternative philosophy such as organics snowballs into something large, the contradictions appear and criticisms multiply. Despite the ubiquity of organic foods and consumer products on the market today, many of the biotech funded professors of agriculture at schools such as the University of Guelph have opinions – at least privately – that mirror those of a Reader’s Digest story headline from 1952: “Organic Agriculture – Bunk!”

But not all criticism of organics is coming from the Monsanto-funded crowd. The growth of the organic food system as a parallel to the conventional system is seen by many as a violation of the original organic ideal. As nutritionist Joan Dy Gussow asked in a 1996 article, “Can an organic Twinkie be certified?” Or in other words, can any industrially processed food, covered in plastic, laden with preservatives, and shipped from factories miles away be considered truly organic?

Originally, organic farming principles included far more than just using natural methods. Organic farming is supposed to reflect a respect for the land, soil, animals, and socially responsible farming practices. For some, doing all of this means keeping it local. If we are shipping apples, even organic ones, from Chile or South Africa, how much environmental damage do we do in the transportation phase by the release of greenhouse gases? Many would argue that fossil fuel consumption is an integral part of the organic equation to create sustainable food systems. As well, the Chilean apple may well not be covered in pesticides, but were the workers paid a fair wage? Were they treated humanely? Again, keeping it close to home means keeping an eye on the whole package of ethical principles that is the foundation for the organics movement. These debates were the theme of the 2005 Guelph Organic Agriculture Conference: “Local Organic . . . A Global Solution.”

So, the question is, in a world of marketing and hyperbole, in a world where some consumers are more confused than ever, what is organic and is it a real option?

Organic: What’s in a Name?
Basically certified organic food is produced without the use of synthetic chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides, or hormones) and helps maintain biological diversity and soil fertility. Farms that grow organic food have to have been free of chemical use for a transition period – usually three years. Certified organic food is free of genetically modified organisms, and organic farmers practice a more holistic style of agriculture that preserves natural resources in and around farms. For example, in organic cattle farming the cows have to spend time out doors grazing naturally.

There are various certification bodies around the world that verifying practices as organic. In the United States the National Organic Program was enacted as federal legislation as of October, 2002. Certification is handled by local private and non-profit agencies approved by the US Department of Agriculture. In the United Kingdom certification is undertaken by various organizations the largest of which is the Soil Association. Canada has its own mix of certification agencies, the best known is the Organic Crop Producers & Processors Inc. (OCPP), which has joined with Pro-Cert Organic Systems of Saskatchewan to create OCPRO.

It can be very confusing for consumers but there are also international standards being negotiated. Two such bodies are the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), and the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA).

Some of the most serious ecological farmers who are critics of big agribusiness actually oppose certification. They see it as a move to push small independent farmers out of business and they believe the standards are not high enough to ensure quality. Formal certification is seen by some as a barrier of entry into the field, adding red tape to the system. Formal and international standards also set up a framework whereby large agribusiness companies can lobby and push for changes. The formal certification system, as the industry grows, means the conventional grocery infrastructure and distribution channels can simply switch over to organic. This system is mainly open to large producers so again, the small, local organic producer may be pushed out. Another fear is that creating standard labels will mean consumers are again off the hook; no need to think about where or how their food is produced as long as they see that label.
“Also the organic standards are biased in favour of large corporations because they are size-neutral,” according to Ronnie Cummins of the Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association (OCA). That is they apply equally to an agribusiness giant and a small family farm. Large businesses can cover the costs of these regulations more easily.”
The solution to this dilemma isn’t easy.

For now, seeking certified organic labels is the only way you know the food was produced according to those regulated standards. In the future, if food systems become more, rather than less, localized, it will become easier to track food to an individual farm, or producer. If the food systems we rely upon eventually become more localized, resembling our food system before globalized trade and heavy processing, then maybe “certified organic” will become a meaningless term. Everything will be organic.

Organic Basics: No Pesticides
One of the most important reasons to buy and eat certified organic foods is because they are grown without the use of any pesticides. Pesticides are exactly what the word sounds like: pest killers. A less frequent word used is “biocide,” which more directly means “life killer.” Pesticides are chemical substances designed to kill certain forms of life. Insecticides kill insects. Herbicides kill weeds. Fungicides kill fungi. Algicides kill algae. And so on. But of course these chemical creations are not perfect, nor are they discriminatory. So while pesticides might kill bugs that could destroy a crop, they also kill beneficial insects that can help on a farm. In some ecosystems a pest insect may have a beneficial insect predator. Once eliminated, beneficial insects almost always take longer to return. Therefore spraying pesticides kills off the pest and the beneficial, so when the pest comes back later on, it will come back in even greater numbers because its natural predators aren’t there.

All fruits and vegetables have some pesticide residues, which are permitted under government safety standards. Set tolerance levels are based on average daily consumption levels, which are, in turn, based on risk assessment models used by pesticide manufacturers. They must carry out toxicological research in order to produce reasonable risk assessments and safe levels data. The Canadian Pest Management and Regulatory Agency (a federal body) does not have the funding to carry out independent tests and so relies on industry to provide adequate information about their own products.

Pesticide residues may be minimal on any single food item, but the problem is the cumulative affect of pesticides on ALL of our food. There is very little research on this issue as pesticide manufacturers are only required to prove that each chemical, in isolation, is safe. There is also the question of how pesticides combine in our bodies with other forms of pollution like mercury, vehicle exhaust and industrial pollution. The pesticide residue in a strawberry (the worst fruit or vegetable for pesticide residues) won’t kill you, but it is an unwelcome addition to a toxic soup we consume, or are consumed by, on a daily basis.

Independent research suggests that pesticide residues on produce may be harmful to health. Certain pesticides have been linked to prostate cancer in farmers, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, reduced sperm counts and sterility, decreased fertility, muscle spasms, eye and skin irritations, birth defects, impaired neurological development, endocrine disruption, the list goes on. But farmers aren’t the only ones at risk. Studies link pesticide exposure to a variety of syndromes and illnesses in children whose tiny bodies can’t absorb the same quantities of toxins and whose developmental processes are vulnerable to disruption. This research has been key in many municipal decisions to ban the cosmetic use of pesticides on public and residential green spaces.

With or without concrete proof of harm, many people choose organic food as an exercise of the precautionary principle.

The Precautionary Principle Defined
“Better safe than sorry” best sums up the precautionary principle. In more sophisticated language, it is the notion that when the safety of a product or behaviour is uncertain and there is a risk of serious or irreversible damage to the environment or human health, we should reduce or eliminate the risk rather than waiting around to find out how serious it is and we should do this even if eliminating the risk involves costs.

Organic Basics II: No Synthetic Chemicals
Organic foods are also grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics, or hormones.

Synthetic fertilizers are produced from petroleum by-products. Depending on these chemicals means that we increase the cost of our food by requiring not just solar energy, but also hydrocarbon or fossil fuel energy which is not renewable. This threatens the sustainability of chemical agriculture as we’ll see later on.

The overuse of fertilizers can lead to long-term degradation of the soil, and algal blooms in water bodies. For example, Fifty-two percent of U.S. farms are within the Mississippi River basin, so agriculture waste and fertilizer runoff empty each spring into the Gulf of Mexico causing a massive algal bloom. This seasonal hypoxic zone is known as the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone. The fertilizer that runs off of farms in the Mississippi basin into the Gulf feed the algae. The algae grows in excess, utilizing all available oxygen for respiration and decomposition. This leaves the oxygen levels too low to sustain any other sea life, hence the term Dead Zone.

The overuse of antibiotics in agriculture and in medicine is leading to serious problems with new infections that are resistant to antibiotics. A large percentage of all antibiotic production is used in healthy agriculture livestock to speed up growth. Antibiotic resistance is a serious problem in the developed and developing world.

Organic food is also made without the use of hormones. Hormones are used in the beef industry for quick weight gain, but many are known carcinogens. A 2000 audit of Canada’s food inspection system by the European Commission documented widespread use of carcinogenic hormones, antibiotics and other endocrine disrupting substances in the meat supply. Hormones in cattle farming have come under increasing scrutiny over the years as residues remain in the meat. These hormones can disrupt the natural hormone balance in the body, which can result in developmental effects, immuontoxicity, reproduction and immunological effects, and carcinogenicity. Children and pregnant women are particularly susceptible and there are really no safe limits. According to a 1999 European study, a common growth hormone used in Canada as late as 1997, estradiol, is “considered a complete carcinogen . . . it exerts both tumour-initiating and tumour-promoting effects.”

Organic Basics III: Eco-Friendly
One of the most important reasons for many people to buy organic is concern for the natural environment. By using non-chemical alternatives, soil, water and wildlife all benefit.

Organic farming is a sophisticated knowledge system that works with nature by encouraging complementary relationships among plants and between plants and insects. Organic farmers do not aim for a pest-free farm. Rather they strive for soil and plant/animal health so that their crops and livestock are resistant to the occasional pest. There are a number of techniques that can be used to create these complementarities including crop rotation, complementary planting, encouraging beneficial insects, and natural fertilization of the soil.

Crop rotation means planting different things on the land each year or throughout the growing season so that the soil is not exhausted. Every plant draws nutrients from the soil in a particular recipe. Some are heavy nitrogen consumers while others draw potassium but fix nitrogen into the soil. Planting a nitrogen hungry plant after a nitrogen fixer means the farmer doesn’t have to add synthetic nitrogen. Rotating fields also means leaving them fallow or unused every few years so that the soil can recover its nutrients and structure. Finally rotation reduces pest infestations because they can’t count on a tasty meal of their favourite food year after year as they can with conventional farming.

Complementary planting means planting two or more things together that either help each other to grow – like nitrogen fixers with nitrogen consumers – or that help repel pests. For example, some potato beetles don’t like green beans, so putting beans with potatoes reduces the number of damaging beetles in the potato patch.

All native insects have natural predators. The insects and animals that specialize in eating the bugs that eat our food are called beneficials and can be encouraged to make their home around the farm if care is taken to give them what they need. This may mean keeping a patch of plants they need to overwinter or lay their eggs, or it may mean growing flowers they feed or drink from. Birds need forest and scrub to nest in. Toads need a water source. Keeping beneficials means keeping at least some part of the farm natural or wild. These small islands of forest, bush or meadow keep biodiversity high and give threatened species a place to live in our increasingly crowded country.

As we learn more about alternative farming, there is growing evidence that healthy soil is the key ingredient to productive crops. Chemical fertilizers do not improve soil health and can destroy the delicate balance of soil organisms that make soil a living system all by itself. Natural fertilizers like composted plant materials and animal dung, on the other hand, feed the system and keep it healthy. Good soil produces strong plants and strong plants aren’t bothered by the odd bug or fungus.

These are some of the core technical ideas of organic farming. They make organic farms environmentally friendly by reducing chemical pollution and encouraging a broad diversity of plant and animal life.

Organic Basics IV: Healthy Farmers, Healthy Communities
Rows upon rows of perfect, waxy genetically modified corn is not only an ecological hazard and potential health risk, it is also, for some, a depressing state of affairs. The family farm is being swallowed up by agri-corporations (check out the amazing short animated film on this at www.TheMeatrix.com ), and this has disastrous effects on rural communities. The hyper-technology and mechanization of industrial farming means the farmer is almost redundant as are pickers, seasonal workers, and community. The modern farmer works alone often miles from his or her neighbours. The old farming community spirit that raised barns and held local fairs is a thing of the past. An important part of rural heritage is being destroyed by the Monsantos of the world. While this may be quaint nostalgia to some, it has real impacts on rural people and on the cities trying to absorb those looking for work. A return to organic farming may help to ameliorate these dramatic social changes to some extent.

“We’ve turned creative farmers into tractor drivers and hog-house janitors,” as John Ikerd, professor emeritus of agricultural economics from the University of Missouri, put it in his keynote address to the 2005 Guelph Organic Conference. “An increasing number of consumers want something more than organic; they also want to know where their food is grown and who grew it. They are concerned about freshness, flavour, nutrition, and overall food safety and quality, not just pesticide contamination. They are concerned about the impacts of their food choices, not only on the natural environment, but also, on the health and well-being of farmers and farm workers. They want food produced by local farmers, real people, by people with integrity whom they can trust.”

Organic farming brings farmers and consumers together as supporters of meaningful, healthy and decently paid work. It bridges the divide between city and country and gives everyone a stake in the environment we share.

Organic Basics V: Humanely Treated Animals
For those who are vegetarian for animal welfare reasons, it might be tough to rationalize any form of supposed humane care of farm animals that will end up as food. But organic agriculture treats animals much better than the factory farming system where chickens have their beaks clipped off, hogs are jammed so tightly together they can’t even turn around, and the whole system creates so much pollution that neighbouring communities suffer. If we are killing animals at all then they still exist as a means to an end, but for those who do eat meat, eating organic is a major step in the direction of animal welfare.

E. Ann Clark is a professor of plant agriculture at the University of Guelph, and a leading proponent of organic agriculture. “It sickens me when I think of the trauma that we are putting animals through for their whole lives to manage them under the conventional system,” she says. “Organics is miles ahead in that it obliges farmers to allow animals to have daylight, exposure to outdoors, walking around, natural behaviour; pecking, wallowing, or whatever is natural to those creatures.”

Organic animal husbandry does not force animals to fatten or produce at a rate that cripples and tortures them. They are not force fed or given drugs they don’t need. Their wastes are recycled onto the farm as fertilizer rather than being dumped into drinking water. It may not be a perfect system, but it is a far sight better than the wonton cruelty of factory farming.

Organic Basics VI: Increased Nutrition
One common claim about organic food is that, pesticide residues aside, it is simply better for you. Not everyone is convinced of this. Even organic food proponent and expert Ann Clark won’t make claims of superior nutrition.
“I’m not convinced,” she said. “I’ve seen evidence in both directions. I’ve never seen a compelling story that says grown in the same climate, same soil, with two different management regimes, organics is better. I think there are aspects of nutrition that organics may very well be favourable: in the antioxidants.”

But a study in the January 2003 Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found 52 percent more vitamin C in frozen, organic corn than in conventional corn. Polyphenols were significantly higher in organic marionberries compared to conventionally farmed ones.

Other studies have found similar things. A 2001 literature review by a nutritionist for UK’s Soil Association looked at 99 studies. Seventy were discarded because they were not involving certified organic farming. In 14 studies, seven showed a “trend toward mineral contents” in organic foods, six were inconclusive, and one showed higher levels in conventional produce.

Because many of the studies are done with different crops on different soils, comparisons are less than scientifically rigorous. But the trend is there, so many still believe the nutitional content is organics at least marginally higher.

Advanced Organics I: Local Matters
Can an organic mango count as “organic”? These products have been grown with respect for the land, without the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, but then stuck on a truck or a boat and shipped around the world burning fossil fuels along the way. Many people have a big problem with this. They believe organic should also mean local.

In the beginning organic products were mainly available through small specialty shops, local farmer’s markets, or community shared agriculture (CSAs). But this is shifting as large corporations jump on the organic wagon. The global infrastructure that exists to ship goods and food around the world is being used to bring us exotic products and with the added value of an organic label, this is good business. Accepting exotics as part of the organic model is a point of debate in the industry with some arguing that distance, or ‘food miles,’ cancels out the environmental benefit of organic production.

Food Miles Defined
The distance food travels from the ‘plough to the plate’ or from its site of production to consumers. This measure is relevant in assessing the environmental impact of our diets because transportation uses non-renewable fossil fuels and releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is the director of the Proyecto de Bioseguridad (Biosecurity Project). She educates consumers about GM foods and argues that organics are becoming a victim of their own success. “The organic market in the United States is expected to reach $30.7 billion by 2007, with a five-year compound annual growth rate of 21.4% between 2002 and 2007, according to the Datamonitor research firm,” Ruiz-Marrero writes. This growth has led to big corporations getting into the game and they aren’t following the original rules.

In the U.S., the USDA finally set national standards in 2002, but they did so at the request of big agribusiness. “The biggest problems with the USDA organic regulations is that they say nothing about subsidized water, animal treatment, labour standards and food miles,” says Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA).

A recent study done in the U.K. estimated all the hidden environmental costs of a typical food basket and found that eating locally would save almost twice as much environmental damage as eating organically. The authors, Jules Pretty and Tim Lang, argue that “the price of food is disguising externalised costs – damage to the environment, damage to climate, damage to infrastructure and the cost of transporting food on roads.” They recommend making food choices based first on food miles (food produced within 20 kilometres of our homes is best), and only then on production practices (organic is best).

Some growers and producers are going “beyond organic.” They advocate alternative standards that bypass formal certification and use different definitions of organic food. For example, the Authentic Food standard put forward by American organic farmer Eliot Coleman includes the following criteria:
• all foods are sold directly by producers;
• fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, eggs, and meat products are produced within a 50-mile radius of their place of sale;
• seed and storage crops are produced within a 300-mile radius of sale;
• only traditional processed foods such as cheese, wine, and bread can claim they are made with Authentic ingredients.
Authentic Food standards are antithetical to big agribusiness but take certified organic to the next step.

If organic production is important to you because of its stewardship of the environment, then it has to be local too.

Advanced Organics II: Food Safety
Just as mainstream medicine will push toxic drugs as much as possible while propagandizing the fictional dangers surrounding naturopathic treatments such as herbal supplements and acupuncture, so too does big agribusiness spend vast amounts of money and resources to find bad things to say about organics.

The Hudson Institute Center for Global Food Issues in the U.S. is a pro-agribusiness, public policy think tank funded by the likes of Monsanto and DuPont. For years, the father and son team of Dennis and Alex Avery has been preaching the dangers of organic food. The Averys claim that organic food is grown in manure, which means there is much more danger of contamination from E. coli. They argue that eating organic is a “crap shoot” and those who do so risk getting diarrhea, Typhoid fever, and more.

In a recent case Alex Avery actually debated the findings with the author of an independent University of Minnesota study, twisting the results to maintain his bizarre campaign against organic food. The study was designed to look at composted manure and chemical fertilizers on organic and conventional farms. The study found less than 5 percent contamination with the pathogens under review, and that was before peeling outer layers or washing produce. Because of this the study found a higher level of fecal contamination on organic produce than on conventional. All that really can be concluded from this is that consumers need to wash organic produce to make sure it is clean, just as they would with conventional produce. The only difference being that you can’t wash the pesticides off a vegetable that has absorbed them.

About 250 people die, and 20,000 get sick, each year in the U.S. from E. coli 0157;H7. But despite claims to the contrary by the Averys, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has never made any connection between E. coli and organic food. This, according to Dennis Avery, is because the CDC is involved in a cover-up due to pressure from environmentalists.

After this study came out Alex Avery was quoted in the media as saying, “Organic food activists, which include many activist researchers entrenched in liberal university halls, have claimed organic food superiority for years in their efforts to mold society and scare consumers into buying their politically correct fare. Now their farcical facade is crumbling.”

Mark Kastel, Director of the Organic Integrity Project at Wisconsin-Based family farming supportive Cornucopia Institute said in response to Avery’s claims about the risks of eating organic: “This statement is total a fabrication and a gross distortion of the Diez-Gonzalez (author of the U of M ) study. Alex Avery will say anything in his petty little war against organic food and farming.”

The reality, according to Fred Kirschenmann, an organic farmer and chair of a private organic certification company in the U.S., is that conventional farmers have no rules about how much raw manure is used in food crops. Organic farmers do. Most organic standards don’t allow raw manure, it has to be composted or applied well in advance so the bacteria is no longer present. Organic cattle are out grazing much of the time, whereas on conventional farms you may have 5,000 head of cattle jammed in a little feed lot. That’s a lot of raw manure to get rid of and because of the expense of storing and curing it, conventional farmers are increasingly just spreading it on the crops.

Advanced Organics III: Yields and Global Trade
While those claiming that organics are dangerous represent the agribusiness-funded lunatic fringe, the most common knock against organics is that it uses more land because it requires animals to graze, crops are often farther apart, and yields can be lower. For Ann Clark at Guelph University, the underpinnings of that argument is the much trumpeted claim of conventional farmers and politicians that we have to strive for high yields to feed the world.

“That doesn’t work,” Clark says. “People are dying of hunger and suffering from malnutrition for reasons that have nothing to do with crop genetics or yield levels in Canada. We could double our yields and they wouldn’t be any better fed. The reason they are hungry isn’t because our yields aren’t better, but because they don’t have the money to buy the products and there are lots and lots and lots of reasons why that is. One of which is subsidized over-production of food by the first world that dumps it on the world market and depresses prices below the level that some farmer in Ethiopia or Malaysia could make a living at so that drives them out of business. That is the whole basis of the Cancun debacle for the WTO where the Third World was saying, “no, we are not going to play games with you guys any more because you are destroying our farmers with these massive subsidies of farmers, your farmers, and then dumping it on the world market.””

The Soil Association in the UK reports that: “The most recent broad comparison reported by the Scottish Crop Research Institute notes, ‘Generally the loss in yields per hectare is 5-10 percent for crops and 10-20 percent for livestock.’ Any shortfall in organic yields are compensated for by more efficient use of energy and other resources, higher nutrient levels in the crops produced and strong ecological benefits. Furthermore, observed differences in yield returns between conventional and organic production may not in fact be due to inherent differences in the methods of farming, but may instead be related to the differing levels Research and Development funding for the two methods over the last 50 years.”

Yield levels in organic agriculture are increasing all the time to the point where the differences between conventional and organic are minimal on some crops. Considering the billions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies, and private investment that have gone into increasing conventional yields, versus the pennies from back-to-the-landers that have gone into organic farming, the ratios aren’t too bad.

The last fifty years have witnessed the greatest yield increases in food production since we began farming some 10,000 years ago. Despite the production of massive surpluses of some foods, 1.2 billion people (about one fifth of the global population) suffer from lack of food. Ending hunger is not only about making lots of food, it’s about making sure everyone has fair access to food and industrial agriculture has not accomplished that noble goal. Indeed, because it depends on unfair terms of trade to expand markets, it has worked in exactly the opposite direction. Organic producers don’t need to put poor farmers out of business to thrive and they are proving to be nearly as productive as conventional farmers but without long term damage to the land.

Advanced Organics IV: Pests & GMOs
The creators of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) argue that they are providing an invaluable service to humanity because they can produce plants that are immune to certain pests or herbicides so that a farmer can spray the crop and only kill the weeds. Their websites and propaganda are full of horror stories about the threat to the human food supply posed by pests – a favourite scare tactic is to refer to the Irish Potato Famine that killed one million people in 1846-50. They would have us believe that without agri-business food production and biotech, we risk mass starvation at the whim of Mother Nature.

A closer look at the Potato Famine demonstrates quite the reverse. Ireland was a colony of England. English landlords controlled most of the land and forced peasant tenants to farm for them in return for tiny plots of land they could use to grow their own food. The potato was an import from North America that gained rapid popularity among Irish peasants because so many calories could be grown on small plots of land. One species of potato was favoured for its high yields. By the mid-1800s, 3 million of Ireland’s 8 million people ate nothing else. When the fungus struck in 1845, crops were devastated and people began to starve. Ireland produced food throughout the famine for export to England. This expensive export food was not available to the masses because they couldn’t afford to buy it or keep it since they owed it as rent to the landlords. As Catharina Japikse argues, “the Irish starved not for lack of food, but for lack of food they could afford. To buy food, many sold or pawned everything they owned. Often, this included the tools by which they made their living. Other people ate the food intended for rent, and the landlords quickly evicted them. By the next planting season, many farmers had no land to plant on, nor tools to plant with. Those who did often had nothing to plant. There were few potatoes, and no money with which to buy seed.” The blight returned in subsequent years resulting in one million deaths and another million or so forced emigrations over the period.

The famine proves that mono-cropping (farming one crop intensively) creates a situation of vulnerability. Had the Irish grown a variety of food crops or even a variety of potato crops, many more would have lived. It also proves that starvation isn’t always about the availability of food but about access. Finally, it demonstrates that social conditions are as important as the technical details of farming in human food production systems. Organic farming techniques do not lead to Irish-style vulnerability so why isn’t it the food production system of choice?

Organics has one major failing in our current political and economic system: a lack of proprietary possibilities. In short, people may make money, people may even be getting rich, but no companies can make the billions of dollars in organic agriculture the way Monsanto can, selling farmers genetically modified seeds (that they are not legally allowed to collect from the subsequent crop and use the next season) that can withstand Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup. Biotech giants have created a circle of endless profits not unlike the government funded pharmaceutical model of selling expensive drugs for suppressing disease symptoms, rather than focusing science and resources on disease cause and prevention.

Clark argues that while there is no clear evidence that genetically modified organisms are harmful, where it has been studied “there is a suggestion of harm.” There is simply not enough independent science to determine whether GMOs are safe. They have been foisted on the general population without long-term studies or any attention to the precautionary principle. “I would prefer to err on the side of caution with respect to my own family, and so we actively avoid anything that might have GM in it,” Clark said.

Clark argues that the only reason so much money is poured into genetic engineering research is because the results are proprietary, i.e. someone will make a lot of money. Many of the problems supposedly solved by GM are caused by dysfunctional production systems to begin with, not by inferior plant or animal genetics. The easiest way to solve pest problems is by avoiding them with ecologically sound methods. But Monsanto can’t make money from farmers who do things like rotate crops and intersperse crops with plants that draw beneficial insects.

“Industry has a vested interest in not believing the organic story and not buying organic,” Clark says. “All the solutions they are selling, whether genetic, chemical or managerial, are all symptom-oriented solutions, and they are specific so the real cause will not be reduced.” Organic farming, like naturopathic medicine, looks at what is causing a given problem or disease. By addressing the cause, the problem can be eliminated. But biotech companies – like pharmaceutical companies – want to make money on an ongoing basis so do not want weeds and pests and diseases to go away. On the contrary they want to ensure the problems persist so they can continually sell their expensive temporary solutions.

“Organics is problem avoidance by design,” Clark says. “And if everybody actually adopted it, then it would put these companies out of business.”

Given the proprietary nature of biotech research, companies are willing to spend millions of dollars at agriculture colleges such as the University of Guelph, to maintain the mythology. Thus many of the professors on staff have their research funded by companies like Monsanto, and they are less than amenable to the organic philosophy. This top-down, industry-centred philosophy of agriculture is in direct opposition to the bottom-up, community-based organic food movement.

Clark illustrates the way industry continues to make money while avoiding real solutions with the example of the Monsanto product Roundup: “Roundup deals in symptoms. Weeds are a symptom of a dysfunctional system. If the system was right, if you had complex rotation and your cultivation practices were right, you wouldn’t build up a huge population of weeds such that herbicide tolerance becomes an economically rational trait. Monsanto depends on those weeds coming back year after year so they can sell product. If, God forbid, Roundup actually worked at the causal end it would put Monsanto out of business within a year.”

Advanced Organics V: Sustainability & Real Costs
Conventional and biotech farming comes with hidden costs and finite limits. Limits are set by the fact that growing our food absorbs more energy in some cases than it gives back in food calories. Hidden costs are those that are not included in the price of food because they are passed on to the public and to future generations. Each of these facts about contemporary agriculture suggests that its time to change food production before change is thrust upon us.

A comparison of different corn farming systems shows that old-fashioned farming without animals, machinery or chemical inputs produces 11 calories for every 1 calorie expended. Using animals to plow reduces the ratio to 4.3 calories produced for every one expended in work. Introducing mechanical farm equipment lowers the ratio further to 3.7 and adding heavy chemical inputs results in only 2.8 calories produced for every one expended. Corn is a particularly calorie-rich food. A head of lettuce produced in California and shipped to Canada actually consumes 36 times more in fossil fuel energy than it gives back in calories. On average, when processing, packaging and shipment are included in the calculations, food consumes 10 times more energy than it gives back as calories. In the last 50 years of intensifying agriculture through mono-cropping and chemical inputs, total energy required has increased faster than productivity. In other words, the system is not sustainable because it costs more and more energy to get fewer and fewer food calories.

As Ann Clark argues, we cannot possibly continue indefinitely on the road of expensive inputs that conventional farming requires. “The practices used to produce high yields today in conventional agriculture are not sustainable,” she said. “We’ve unrealistically been expecting things of our land that we won’t be able to do when we no longer have cheap energy.”

To that end, world geo-politics, and Peak Oil and Gas (the point at which oil and gas production will begin to decline), may in some manner push the world – like it or not – into sustainable agriculture practices. If that happens as some predict it will then organics will no longer be peripheral to conventional agriculture, organics will become the convention.

In a similar vein, conventional food production does not account for all of its costs to the environment and human health. Large-scale animal husbandry and vast mono-cultured farms produce enormous quantities of waste. Fertilizer run-off and manure dumped into water systems contaminates water for human and animal use downstream. Pesticides sprayed over fields affect neighbours as well as neighbouring wildlife. Abuse of soil systems leaves them sterile for future generations while cattle feedlots contribute to soil erosion. The pollution that results from transporting food and inputs is also not accounted for in the cost of food but gets passed onto everyone in the consequences of global climate change. When resources are used up or destroyed but not paid for by the users, the practice is called externalizing costs.

It is indisputable that organic farming is much better in terms of internalizing the true costs of production. Conventional agri-businesses – like most corporations in our system – don’t account for environmental costs. Indeed, as Joel Bakan puts it in his book, The Corporation, corporations are externalizing machines. This means that the cost to human health, the natural environment, and so on, are not something that big agribusiness takes into account on the balance sheet. The rest of society is meant to bear those costs.

“Organics is much better in terms of internalizing its true costs of production,” Professor Clark says. “Much of the apparent competitive advantage of conventional agriculture is based on externalizing some of the true costs. That is to say, imposing the costs on the environment and on society rather than including them on your own budget sheet. Whereas organics is essentially designed to include them, so I think the direction that society is going is to oblige people and industry to internalize their costs and organics is ahead of the game on that.”

As global warming and pollution become bigger problems, it is possible that legislation in many countries will crack down on conventional agriculture, energy production, manufacturing, and so on, forcing them to internalize their costs. When that happens, organics will be waiting with a paradigm to guide the future economic system.

Making the Right Choice
Obviously organic produce offers many advantages to individuals and to society at large. But our contemporary food production system is complex and making the right choice isn’t as simple as looking for a label at the supermarket. This list of decision tools can help you make the best of difficult situations when choosing the food you want to eat and thus, the kind of world you want to live it. They are ranged from simplest and easiest through to harder, more sustained commitments to rational and ethical food production. If you manage only a couple of steps, great! If you can manage the whole list, you are a food saint! In any case, the planet and the future are worth some effort and a few sacrifices here and there…

1. Choose Local: the golden principle of sustainable food shopping is to eat as much from your immediate area as possible – organic or not! This may require leaping to step three since supermarkets aren’t great at labeling food in terms of precise origins.
2. Choose Organic: within the range of foods available to you locally, seek out organic products as much as possible – you may have to move to step three to do this with any regularity since most supermarkets in Canada buy organic produce from large producers in the US in order to guarantee year-round supply.
3. Buy from Farmer’s Markets & Independent Retailers: organic and natural food specialty shops are becoming more common but even if you can’t find one of those, search the net for farmer’s markets near you.
4. Choose unprocessed foods: the more food is processed, refined and packaged, the more energy it consumes and the less sustainable it is. Commit to reducing or eliminating processed foods from your diet.
5. Leave Factory-farmed animal products on the shelf: even if you’re not moved by the moral question of humane treatment of living things, factory farming is an environmental disaster. Seek organic meats, poultry, eggs and dairy products.
6. Leave exotic produce on the shelf: along with learning to prepare foods for yourself so that you don’t buy them processed, you need to consider eating within your local means. Having the odd avocado or kiwi is not the end of the world, but subsisting on a diet of Californian, Mexican, Chilean and South African produce all year long is a recipe for global disaster.
7. Grow Food for yourself (even a windowsill can become a small farm!): there is no comparable joy to producing your own food – and no comparable frustration when it goes wrong. Whether you have a farm, a yard or a windowsill, try growing something to eat. It will increase your appreciation of the farmer’s skill and reduce your impact on the planet all at the same time. Paying organic prices gets easier when you know how hard farming is.
8. Demand Precise Food Labelling (Genetically Modified Foods and site of production): Get active in demanding product labeling legislation for food. We deserve to know what we’re eating and where it comes from and it’s the only way we can make informed decisions. Write to your MP and to your supermarket of choice. Organize a campaign in your area.
9. Stop Subsidies to Agri-business: Our government does this to win votes – let them know that if they keep it up, they will lose more votes than they gain. Find out about conventional farming in Canada and support programs that will make subsidies unnecessary – the farmers are not our enemies, the system is.
10. Stop Urban Sprawl into farmland: make a commitment to live in the city and protect green belt agricultural areas near you. That suburban subdivision on what used to be farmland makes sustainable farming and eating local harder for everyone. As well as choosing your residence wisely, you can be active in saving farmlands and promoting support for local farmers so that staying in business is better business than selling out to developers.


Leave a Reply