Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Organic Food Production

This week Blog about what the term "organic" means in the U.S. Is it good or bad for the food industry and the consumer that the term was legally defined by the federal government? Are organic foods better for people and the environment than traditionally produced food? What are the drawbacks to organic food production? How do you feel about the "big business" of organic i.e. retailers like Whole Foods??? Make sure you are supporting your claims with valid evidence....Include anything else that interests you...

Holy crap - like I could put everything I think about "organic" food production into one blog topic. I read entire books on this subject, have spent the last three years of my life selling organic farm and garden supplies and am preparing my grad school application to get a PhD in sustainable ag!

Seriously though, I recently posted about a series of independent short films about sustainable/organic food production and its impacts. I really liked one of the points made in Ripe for Change, that for not just organic production, but for sustainable production, you look at other factors than just using non-synthetic inputs, especially socio-economic and ecological factors. For example, most of our world concerns about hunger really are issues of poverty and distribution rather than food production.

Some of the biggest drawbacks to defining organic is the abuses that can then take place when the letter, but not the underlying intent, of the law is followed. For example, many big-ag corporations and farms are simply substituting non-synthetic pesticides and fertilizers for their synthetic forms and are otherwise carrying on as normal. Loop holes for increasing organic herd size were abused by several large scale dairies seeking to produce organic milk. Lack of action by the USDA-NOP in response to complaints about label-violations for large scale organic dairy producers such as Horizon and Aurora (producers of "organic" milk for Safeway, Costco and large markets) has resulted in a class-action lawsuit for misrepresentation and other violations.

It really boils down to the fact that a lot of truly organic production relies on integrity, which is hard to legislate.

Many large scale organic productions still rely heavily on petroleum for fuel and transportation. Is it really organic when it traveled several thousand miles? Can we trust the so-called organic practices of Mexico or China? Is it better to buy locally produced, uncertified produce from a farmers market or certified organic in the supermarket imported out of season from a foreign country? Is the food still as nutritious when not all of the practices are followed? Are the farm laborers being paid a living wage?

Unfortunately, the grass isn't necessarily greener on the other side depending on one's practices. Many of the natural and organic inputs used in organic and/or local farming such as rock powders and natural pesticides and fungicides, such as sulfur and copper, are strip mined and shipped to distributors before ending up in the soil or on plants. Also, natural sulfur and copper are dangerous compounds which must be used with as much care as their synthetic counterparts - breathing masks, gloves, goggles and long-sleeved clothing are recommended to as protective gear for the home user, and required for the commercial grower. People have a mistaken notion that natural equals safe to which I reply, "Arsenic is completely natural and will kill you just as dead."

The lack of good research into organic productivity is finally changing. A recent 13-year study at the University Wisconsin published in the March-April 2008 issue of Agronomy Journal found that organic cropping systems can be as productive, or nearly productive, as conventional systems.

Conventional food producers would have you believe that food is equally tasty and nutritious. However, over 40 studies, summarized by The Organic Center, keep proving that organic produce is more nutritious than it's conventionally produced counterparts.

However, the spirit of the eco-farm movement continues. Permaculture, biodynamic and local and sustainable ag are current hot topics for research. These farming regimes are the answer for improving farming practices in marginal areas around the world where the Green Revolution failed to improve local agriculture, and in some cases increased the rates of soil erosion, desertification and removed local farmers from the land.

Even the United Nations has changed it tune about importance of organic production in their most recent FAO report, Organic Agriculture and Food Security. Here are some highlights from the report:

  • Global food supply is sufficient, but 850 million are undernourished and go hungry
  • Use of chemical agricultural inputs is increasing; yet grain productivity is dwindling to seriously low levels
  • Costs of agricultural inputs are rising, but commodity costs have been in steady decline over the past five decades.Knowledge is increasingly provided through fast information technologies, but nutritionally related diseases are rising
  • Industrialised food systems cause deaths through pesticide poisonings and high numbers of farmer have committed suicides, while millions of jobs have been lost in rural areas.
In contrast, organic agriculture offers an alternative food system that improves agricultural performance to better provide access to food, nutritional adequacy, environmental quality, economic efficiency, and social equity. This is crucial if agricultural production in developing countries is to rise by 56 percent by 2030 to meet nutritional needs, as stated in the Report.

Want to learn more? In addition to the eco-farm links above, check out the following links for more info:

Want to eat local/organic food but don't know where to find it or what to do with it?

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