Friday, April 15, 2011

Big O, little o, What begins with O?

Organic starts with O. But what kinds of things get sold under that label? Does is mean what consumers want it to mean? In short, no.

It has come to my attention lately that there are two different organics in today's marketplace. The big O Organics, and the small o organics. I would like to address the habit of using the word organic to discuss both of them, and how different the two really are. I'll also touch on the debate between organics and industrial farming feeding the world.

You walk into Trader Joes, you buy some fair trade coffee, some frozen organic pizzas and a couple of pounds of organic apples. Big O or little o? Definitely Big O.
Trader Joe's is a supermarket chain specializing in organic, vegetarian, and alternative foods with hundreds of locations throughout the United States, centered in organic-happy Southern California. Shoppers appreciate its image of healthful food in a small-business family atmosphere. Really? In 2005 alone, Trader Joe's racked up sales estimated at $4.5 billion. The company is owned by a family trust set up by German billionaire Theo Albrecht, ranked the 22nd richest man in the world by Forbes in 2004. He's the co-founder and CEO of German multi-national ALDI, with global revenue in grocery sales at $37 billion. -Skeptoid **
There are a lot of big names vying for the organic dollars, Organic Valley Co-op, Stonyfield Farms, Horizon milk, and Whole Foods Market are just some of them. Buyer beware, they are big corporations, with big corporation interests and they may not share your ideals about food or food safety.

It's mid-winter, you're craving strawberries and your grocery store has organic strawberries in the produce aisle. Organic how? Grown, more than likely, in a greenhouse, supplemented with light and heat, then trucked in. Or flown in possibly from South America. Neither of these is in any way better for the planet. This is another big O product.

So what's a little o product? What makes something organic, in the way that most people want? Organics that enrich our planet, organics that help small farmers and foster local food growth. That type of organic is much closer in definition to words like "sustainable" and "local." To find (and eat) that kind of organic, you can't fall for the corporate green washing. You can't take the shortcuts. You have to become the kind of consumer that carves time out of their week to shop at farmers markets. Making things from scratch and buying the scratch from local producers, or growing it yourself, are the best ways to make sure you're eating real organic food that nourishes your family and the planet.

Oh, but Jennie, you're being an idealistic hippy again, there's no way we can feed the planet with organic methods, we need to keep pushing the Green Revolution and monocrops or people will starve. (Sorry, Dad, but yea, this is me parroting you.)

The Green Revolution seems like a good idea. Let's grow corn in Iowa where it grows well, let's grow 80% of the veggies in California where they have the cheap labor to harvest it and mild weather to grow it year round, and wheat in Kansas, then we'll just ship all of it around the country to where it needs to be after harvest. Yea, that model worked really really well, with one caveat. It worked well with cheap oil. Surely I don't have to spell out what's changing now. Surely I don't have to convince you that cheap oil is never coming back. Let's look at how much oil that "ship it around the country" part uses. (The pic is a little small, but oil is the big green line. Click on the source link to see it in full glory.)


Let's look at what the Green Revolution promises, " the spread of modern farming, plant research and food processing in poor countries." I know, it sounds like a great idea, but the part they don't mention is that modern farming techniques include a delightful array of poisons, and petroleum derived fertilizers. (Petroleum being that oil thing that keeps getting so expensive.) Modern farming techniques do a few things really well. They destroy soils. They contaminate water ways. They keep petroleum companies flush with cash, as well as the big boys in seed genetics. None of those is something poor countries in need of food should be importing to their agriculture traditions.

Since the start of the Green Revolution the US has lost around 1/3rd of it's top soil. Iowa alone loses 10-15 tons/acre/year. (Where does it go? Hint, the soil, along with the fertilizers it contains, go straight to the Gulf of Mexico where they contributes to the Dead Zone.)
Those pesticide poisons are no picnic either, did you know 300,000 farm workers are poisoned every year in the US from pesticide exposure? These pesticides keep growing stronger, because insects evolve to resist, and we keep applying more and more, AND YET crop losses from insects continue to rise. Herbicides create the exact same problem with superweeds evolving to resist the poisons, requiring higher and higher application rates.
(sources: "World Hunger - Twelve Myths" Frances Lappe. I know, how old fashioned, a book.
Rodale report last year)

Let's explore the other side of this for a minute. Organic methods (little o here, we're talking manure fertilizer and diverse crop rotations) actually build soil by retaining organic matter and soil nitrogen. This better soil then goes on to provide increased protection against drought. This is not hippy wishful thinking either. This is a 27 year study. Side by side field trials, often in collaboration with the USDA. (check it out.) Solid scientific data that clearly says we need to quit with the short sighted Green Revolution and move to methods that perform better, with less inputs. The UN even agrees, (for what that's worth.) In a recent report, they conclude,
Organic agriculture can increase agricultural productivity and can raise incomes with low-cost, locally available and appropriate technologies, without causing environmental damage. Furthermore, evidence shows that organic agriculture can build up natural resources, strengthen communities and improve human capacity, thus improving food security by addressing many different causal factors simultaneously ... Organic and near-organic agricultural methods and technologies are ideally suited for many poor, marginalized smallholder farmers in Africa, as they require minimal or no external inputs, use locally and naturally available materials to produce high-quality products, and encourage a whole systemic approach to farming that is more diverse and resistant to stress.
And just last month that same agency released an advance copy of a report called "Agriculture: Investing in Natural Capital." It amounts to a blistering assault on the agribusiness-as-usual model. It succinctly names the main problems with the goal of spreading U.S.-style industrial agriculture to the global south:

Conventional/industrial agriculture is energy- and input-intensive. Its high productivity relies on the extensive use of petrochemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fuel, water, and continuous new investment (e.g. in advanced seed varieties and machinery).

In place of the industrial model, the report calls for what it terms "green agriculture," characterized by low-tech, high-skilled methods like "restoring and enhancing soil fertility through the increased use of naturally and sustainably produced nutrient inputs; diversified crop rotations; and livestock and crop integration."

It's time we stopped supporting the Green Revolution, it's time for ag subsidies to end. It's time for small o producers to get the support and recognition they deserve. Most of all it's time to stop falling for the big O green washing. Organic doesn't have to mean expensive, it doesn't have to mean increased deforestation and it certainly doesn't have to mean switching one poisonous chemical for another slightly less poisonous one. Little o organics are cheap as dirt, bursting with local flavor, low in petroleum costs and great for the environment.

**More on that skeptoid article. First off, it's a little old, it's more than 4 years old, which is a bit too out of date for my tastes, I reference it only because someone I respect emailed it to me. Further more, I completely disagree with some of the statement contained in it. Namely the following bit;
Some supporters of organic growing claim that the danger of non-organic food lies in the residues of chemical pesticides. This claim is even more ridiculous: Since the organic pesticides and fungicides are less efficient than their modern synthetic counterparts, up to seven times as much of it must be used. Organic pesticides include rotenone, which has been shown to cause the symptoms of Parkinson's Disease and is a natural poison used in hunting by some native tribes; pyrethrum, which is carcinogenic; sabadilla, which is highly toxic to honeybees; and fermented urine, which I don't want on my food whether it causes any diseases or not.
The authors squeamishness over humanure as a fertilizer is laughable considering he spent considerable time lambasting the logical absurdities of others and pointing towards solutions that have decades of study to back them up. Urine is sterile, very few diseases can transmit through urine. The few that can, are not going to survive fermentation. He talks about solutions with decades of track record, urine has been used as a fertilizer since ANCIENT times. That's a heck of a track record. Why on earth do we flush perfectly good liquid ammonia down the pipes, then turn around and pay out the nose for synthetic versions of it? Utter foolishness. Further more, small o organic farming uses complex systems to minimize the need for inputs. Chemicals like rotenone and sbadilla, while possibly organic in the big O use of the word, are not used by any of the organic growers I know. Those could be held up as a sign, "Organic, you're doing it wrong."

More from that skeptoid article
Organic farming produces less food, and requires more acreage. Many so-called environmentalists generally favor organic farming, at the same time that they protest deforestation to make room for more agriculture. How do they reconcile these directly conflicting views? If you want to feed a growing population, you cannot do both, and soon won't be able to do either.
Here I feel the out-of-date is showing clearly. You can't take a monocropped field of something, switch the type of chemicals you use (to organic versions) and then make claims about production. That's the big O way of looking at things. The little o way of looking at things is to grow a variety of locally adapted crops that coexist harmoniously and in some case help one another out. This decrease the amount of land and the amount of intervention (chemicals) that you have to use. Additional tools in the little o belt are things like varieties that are adapted to local pressures, planting practices that are hand based rather than machine based and selling to markets that are local. Local varieties that are adapted to local pests/diseases will lower the chemical/petroleum-based inputs needed. Marketing to locals means the crops don't have to survive a long commute, or survive a long display in a grocery store, meaning more freedom for the aforementioned variety selection.

Planting and growing and harvesting practices that are human based instead of machine based is how we "so-called environmentalists" reconcile those views. But wait, isn't that inefficient? Well, it depends on what you're measuring. In terms of human-hours, sure, maybe. But let's look at the realities of modern times, petroleum prices are rising fast, and so are the numbers of unemployed. In my mind it makes more sense to use the solutions that could put more people to work and put less money in the hands of OPEC. Giant fields of one vegetable harvested by a guy in a large machine (powered by petroleum), is not the way to go anymore.

And more over, a lot of the slash and burn ag that goes on is for things like palm oil production, which is used heavily in big O processed foods and beauty products. Or to grow corn for animal feed. Very rarely is rainforest cut down to grow food that locals will be eating.

1 comment:

Jon Lorisen said...

Great read and very true. The risks of monoculture are enormous and the real benefits non-existent. It may look efficient and effective, but only if you continue to use the same flawed economic models so favoured by western capitalist corporations - pass the damages and energy costs on to future generations and to public taxpayer money.

If these business had to pay ALL of the costs of their flawed business models, they wouldn't be in business.

Another good example of lack of biodiversity is the pine beetle devastation of western North American forests. Clear cutting old growth forest has removed the natural resilience of the system.