It seems that the mythology of “Organic” farming somehow being wonderful for the environment, for everyone’s health, for the farmers, the animals, the children and whatever other cliche you would like to insert is starting to come apart. The New York Times recently ran an article about the realities of “organic” farmed products and the environmental impact that comes with them.
I was disappointed by how apologetic the article was, but it still made an important point about where our food actually comes from. Indeed, the “ideals” that the Times refers to never really were embodied by the organic farming movement in any meaningful way. The entire idea really comes down to a philosophy that certain things are bad simply because they are man-made, while others are acceptable. There’s no science to it at all and there never was.
Organic Agriculture May Be Outgrowing Its Ideals
TODOS SANTOS, Mexico â€” Clamshell containers on supermarket shelves in the United States may depict verdant fields, tangles of vines and ruby red tomatoes. But at this time of year, the tomatoes, peppers and basil certified as organic by the Agriculture Department often hail from the Mexican desert, and are nurtured with intensive irrigation.
Growers here on the Baja Peninsula, the epicenter of Mexico’s thriving new organic export sector, describe their toil amid the cactuses as â€œplanting the beach.
Del Cabo Cooperative, a supplier here for Trader Joe’s and Fairway, is sending more than seven and a half tons of tomatoes and basil every day to the United States by truck and plane to sate the American demand for organic produce year-round.
But even as more Americans buy foods with the organic label, the products are increasingly removed from the traditional organic ideal: produce that is not only free of chemicals and pesticides but also grown locally on small farms in a way that protects the environment.
The explosive growth in the commercial cultivation of organic tomatoes here, for example, is putting stress on the water table. In some areas, wells have run dry this year, meaning that small subsistence farmers cannot grow crops. And the organic tomatoes end up in an energy-intensive global distribution chain that takes them as far as New York and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, producing significant emissions that contribute to global warming.
From now until spring, farms from Mexico to Chile to Argentina that grow organic food for the United States market are enjoying their busiest season.
“People are now buying from a global commodity market, and they have to be skeptical even when the label says ‘organic’ that doesn’t tell people all they need to know,” said Frederick L. Kirschenmann, a distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. He said some large farms that have qualified as organic employed environmentally damaging practices, like planting only one crop, which is bad for soil health, or overtaxing local freshwater supplies.
Many growers and even environmental groups in Mexico defend the export-driven organic farming, even as they acknowledge that more than a third of the aquifers in southern Baja are categorized as overexploited by the Mexican water authority. With sophisticated irrigation systems and shade houses, they say, farmers are becoming more skilled at conserving water. They are focusing new farms in microclimates near underexploited aquifers, such as in the shadow of a mountain, said Fernando FrÃs, a water specialist with the environmental group Pronatura Noroeste.
They also point out that the organic business has transformed what was once a poor area of subsistence farms and where even the low-paying jobs in the tourist hotels and restaurants in nearby Cabo San Lucas have become scarcer during the recession.
To carry the Agriculture Departmentâ€™s organic label on their produce, farms in the United States and abroad must comply with a long list of standards that prohibit the use of synthetic fertilizers, hormones and pesticides, for example. But the checklist makes few specific demands for what would broadly be called environmental sustainability, even though the 1990 law that created the standards was intended to promote ecological balance and biodiversity as well as soil and water health.
Lets stop and consider the greater context here: there are eight billion people in the world. That’s a lot of people to feed. Thankfully, we can feed them all. The fact that not everyone gets enough food is not due to a lack of capacity to produce it but more because of localized socioeconomic and political issues in getting it to those who need it. We grow enough food in the modern world to feed everyone. Not only that, we do it at a very reasonable cost, which results in people generally not having to spend the majority of their income just to get their daily nutritional needs filled.
For example, if you’re in the United States, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. If you work one hour a day at the minimum, you can make enough money to keep yourself reasonably well fed. And not only that, but in first world countries, the average citizen can afford to buy things that are imported out of season. Better yet, our food rarely carries serious pathogens and when it does, it gets recalled rapidly. We don’t suffer from periodic famines. The worst thing most of us will ever suffer through is a regional drought or frost driving the cost of a particular type of produce up for a few weeks.
Sure, we take all this for granted, but considering what it has been like for most of human history, the fact that you can reliably go buy a meal for a few dollars, that it will be free of pathogens and that it’s always available and not subject to periodic shortages is pretty damn impressive.
We did not get to this point by forcing all foods to be grown in small mom and pop farms. Such local food is great when you want something that’s as fresh as you can get and happens to be in season, but make no mistake, it’s a luxury. We could never feed all of society by such small operations and doing so would not have any real ecological advantages. All human activity will have some impact on the local ecology, and agriculture is no different. That does not mean the impact has to be unacceptably large. However, the best way to keep that impact to a minimum is by efficiently farming the land, using the most modern practices and technology available.
“Organic food” is not about small, local mom and pop farms. Most people seem to think that if food is “organic” it means that a friendly old man in overalls grew it while chewing on a blade of grass and whistling a tune about how he loves the land. It’s not. Farming is a business like any other business and farmers will use the tools they have at their disposal to produce as much as they can with as few resources as possible. The farms are located in the most favorable areas. That means that fruit and vegetable farms are often located in tropical areas where they can provide fresh product to market all year long.
On large farms, efficiency is very important and great efforts are taken to get as much product from the given area as possible. They’re run and managed like the industrial-scale operations they are. Many, but not all, of these large farms are owned by families. Thanks to modern management and farming methods, these farms are productive enough to make their owners very comfortable financially.
It is much harder for anyone to support themselves on a small farm. Many of the smallest local farms are not full time operations. The owners may have other jobs and keep the farm as a “hobby farm.” Those which do work small farms full time may have to concentrate on a specialized sector in order to remain commercially viable. Some manage to make small farms economically viable by operating them as a specialty product provider, such as a winery a nursery for ornamental plants. Others make money by having a store that provides other products. A few may capitalize on Halloween hayrides or pick-your-own events.
There’s nothing wrong with these small farms that cater directly to consumers looking for the novelty or nostalgia of such products, and many do provide excellent fresh products and make great pies. Yet they may give some the wrong impression of what farming really is. They are not the food producers that provide the staples which keep the world fed.
Those who do work small, low-production, low-income farms as their primary means of getting by are subsistence farmers. Thankfully this practice has largely vanished from industrialized nations, yet it remains common in many parts of the world.
When a farm decides to go “organic,” they are simply giving up some of the tools at their disposal to grow foods. Many types of fertilizer suddenly become forbidden. Tractors, tilling and irrigation are generally not affected, but the types of crops, fertilizer and insect control uses are. In some cases, the organic farmer will be required to buy materials that are chemically identical to forbidden compounds simply because they come from a certified source that is regarded as “natural.”
Since some of the tools are now taken away it becomes harder to grow food reliably and at high capacities. Some other commodities become more important. If fertilizer is less concentrated, more water may be needed to get the nutrients to the roots. If more of a crop is lost to pests, larger areas must be planted for the same yield. If crops yield fewer fruit per plant, more plants are needed. Not using one tool means all the others will tend to be more taxed. It may require more labor, more energy, more land and more water. It costs more too. Farmers don’t do this because they’re stupid, of course. They do it because they know that consumers are stupid and will pay a premium for this stuff.
Before buying some of that overpriced organic food, stop and think about the bigger picture. Do you really think Old McDonald is the one who feeds the world? Farming is an industry and if you want everyone to be fed, you wouldn’t want it any other way. Modern society requires that most people work in fields other than agriculture. We need farmers, but we also need doctors and dentists and mechanics and engineers. Trying to force society back to the days when a farm fed only a few local families is not going to help the environment or our food supply.
This entry was posted on Monday, January 2nd, 2012 at 6:35 pm and is filed under Agriculture, Bad Science, media. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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