Organic farming is often idealized — and commercially promoted — as producing a better product and treading more lightly on the land. Indeed, folks pay a premium to indulge this perception.
But two recent articles are casting doubt on those beliefs.
The Washington Post has a lengthy piece on organic dairies, which may be much larger and less bucolic than some consumers imagine. It focuses on the Aurora Organic Dairy in Colorado, which has some 15,000 cows producing enough milk to supply Walmart, Costco and other big box retailers.
It was interesting to read that “the USDA allows farmers to hire and pay their own inspectors to certify them as “USDA Organic.” It was also ironic, considering how many of the Hawaii anti-ag folks dissed the seed companies' voluntary disclosure of restricted pesticide use as insufficient.
Basically, the article is saying that the coveted “organic seal,” which boosted annual sales from $6 billion in 2000 to $40 billion in 2015, is based on “an unusual system of inspections” that are pre-announced and funded by farmers.
You mean, it's really all kind of a sham/scam? As the article concludes:
The growth of mega-dairies that may fall short of organic standards and produce cheaper milk appears to be crushing many small dairies, some analysts said.
“The mom and pop — the smaller traditional family dairies — who are following the pasture rules are seeing their prices erode,” said [Pete] Hardin, the Milkweed editor. “It is creating a heck of a mess.”
You mean, consumers who have bought the organic marketing speil, but balk at paying a premium, are undercutting the very system they claim to cherish?
My sister, who lives in Portland, likes to buy Tillamook because she sees their cows grazing on her way out to the coast. But it claims neither to be organic nor GMO free. In response to a consumer question, a dairy spokesperson noted:
Even organic feed for organic farms is extremely difficult to verify as GMO-free because of cross-pollination.
Maybe it's time to revisit the organic standards, and re-assess consumer attitudes. Are consumers truly looking for organic, or do they actually want pasture-raised? Of course, even pasture-raised doesn't pass muster for some, as we saw with the opposition to the proposed rotational-pasture dairy farm at Mahaulepu. (Btw, I ran into this piece about how very little manure leaves well-managed pastures.)
Do people even know what they want? Or like the barn-raised dairy cows that had forgotten their natural grazing instinct, are we so manipulated by marketing that we've forgotten how to think, how to assess our true needs and desires?
Meanwhile, a columnist with the Daily Camera is writing a multi-part series on the GMO crop ban recently adopted in Boulder, a Colorado county where the sensibilities are akin to North Shore Kauai. The ban was passed, despite unanimous opposition from county open space farmers, including the organic growers.
Columnist Mara Abbott, who spent five months researching the debate, starts by citing a 2015 briefing paper that Colorado State University developed for county commissioners considering the ban on planting GMO crops in the county's open spaces:
[O]rganic crops on six Nothern Colorado farms used 10 times more water, five times more pesticides and released six times more sequestered carbon from the soil than genetically engineered crops.
I was paralyzed. I had always self-identified as a good Boulder environmentalist, and figured that meant that non-organic was a non-starter (and the organic definition excludes GMOs). Now where was I supposed to buy my kale?
After all, the ban's loudest supporters claimed to be fighting for reduced pesticide use and more sustainable cropping methods. Commissioner Deb Gardner specifically cited researching carbon sequestration as a top priority of the transition.
It also turns out that "organic" doesn't mean "pesticide-free." The pesticides just come from natural rather than synthetic sources — and apparently some of those are harmful to honeybees, too. Given that the purpose of an herbicide is to kill weeds, and an insecticide to kill insects, any crop protection practice won't be completely benign. Some natural pesticides are less effective, requiring more frequent applications, and higher overall life-cycle toxicity.
This isn't to brush off the value of organic, but it is to say that agriculture is rarely black and white — and that's actually why diverse approaches are important. Really, the only way to know what is being put on your food is to know the farmer who grew it.
"It's just such a complicated web in agriculture," third-generation county farmer Scott Miller told me. "You can't just say you're going to block one thing and that is going to fix it."
Once again, we're reminded that the world is so complex. Try as we might, we can't contain it into neat little boxes of good-bad. There are no silver bullets, no one-size-fits-all solutions, especially when human nature comes into play. We want to blame the corporations, but the corporations are also us. We want to return to the good old days, but there's no turning back the clock. All we can do is move forward, and try to be honest about the issues and our own choices.
In closing, I'll leave you with this amusing little call to action from the Maui Babes Against Biotech, which typifies the simplistic, reactionary approach that underlies so much conflict:
Yup, nothing says home rule like an email blitz from thousands of miles across the Pacific.