Jan 13 2012
The phone rang as I was tying up loose ends for my last day in the office before Christmas. New York Times reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal wanted my thoughts on the sustainability of organic agriculture… a subject that I think about a lot. I gave her my cell phone number and asked her to call back.
She called again Saturday afternoon, as my kids and I returned home from Christmas shopping. I plunked them in front of a video and put her on speaker phone so that I could peel butternut squash for a solstice potluck that evening. We talked for a half hour or so, and she said she’d let me know when her story would run.
I didn’t hear back from her, but a friend in New York City contacted me on New Year’s Eve to tell me I had been quoted in a front page story. It dealt with important questions about the sustainability of growing organic vegetables in the deserts of Mexico’s Baja peninsula. Apparently it had legs. It was the most e-mailed story in the paper for much of the first week of 2012. It contained some of the ideas that I had discussed as I peeled squash, but only one direct quote from me. My heart sank as I read it:
Organic agriculture used to be sustainable agriculture, but now that is not always the case.
That’s not what I had said. It wasn’t even a statement I could agree with. Yet there it was, immortalized in America’s newspaper of record with my name attached to it.
I immediately fired off the following letter to the editor, which has not been published:
I disagree with the statement attributed to me that “organic agriculture used to be sustainable.” Most organic farms remain more sustainable than their conventional counterparts. If we must import produce from Mexico we should support the farmers there that grow it organically.
US produce imports from Mexico have almost tripled since 1990, driven by growing demand for inexpensive fruit and vegetables out-of-season. Most of this supply comes from conventional farms. Sourcing more of it from organic farms will not solve the important sustainability issues Rosenthal addresses, but it makes things better, not worse.
Despite growth in demand for organic products, less than 1% of farmland in the USA or Mexico is certified organic. Organic farms tend to use energy and water more efficiently than conventional farms. They pollute less. Organic farmers are often healthier, and better able to make a decent living from small, diversified farms, such as those that dominate Mexico’s organic sector. Supporting them promotes sustainability.
I have tried to reconstruct my conversation to figure out Rosenthal could have heard me say something I don’t believe. I was trying to explain that sustainability is not a black and white issue. Scientists disagree on how best to measure it, because it incorporates a broad range of environmental, economic and social considerations. When the term was coined by the Brundtland commission in 1987 it was defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
It’s an ambitious goal, seldom truly achieved. We live in a world where almost a billion people live in hunger, even as we exhaust the reserves of fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources on which we increasingly depend. We spew carbon, pollute our groundwater with nitrogen and our surface water with phosphorus, and melt the ice at the same poles where our persistent pesticides accumulate. We are failing to meet the needs of the present, even as we compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Our current way of living is clearly unsustainable, and the food system that supports it can’t be sustained indefinitely either. This concerned Sir Albert Howard, the father of organic agriculture in the west. Seventy years ago Howard was fascinated by the fall of civilizations, which he saw as an inevitable result of unsustainable food systems. He looked to the agriculture of long persistent civilizations – like China and India – for examples of ways to feed ourselves sustainably. The “practices of the Orient” that he held up as examples were built on a foundation of small, diverse, labor-intensive farms integrating animal and crop production. Few inputs were needed because resources were recycled on the farm by composting, to build soils rich in organic matter that retained water and nutrients. “Organic farming” evolved into a shorthand description for the type of agriculture that Howard advocated. The term “sustainable agriculture” showed up years later, and often incorporated similar concepts and ideas.
For many years, organic agriculture – like sustainable agriculture – was defined by principles, rather than specific practices. In his 1981 essay, Solving for Pattern, Wendell Berry called for solutions that solve multiple problems without creating new ones. He used an organic farm as an example, saying that it
is not one that uses certain methods and substances and avoids others; it is a farm whose structure is formed in imitation of the structure of a natural system; it has the integrity, the independence, and the benign dependence of an organism.
Berry concluded on a note of caution:
But we must not forget that those human solutions that we may call organic are not natural. We are talking about organic artifacts, organic only by imitation or analogy. Our ability to make such artifacts depends on virtues that are specifically human: [...] A good solution, then, must be in harmony with good character, cultural value, and moral law.
Organic agriculture,to Berry, was a human attempt at moral agriculture. And people have been known to disagree on questions of morality. While a growing cadre of farmers and eaters found inspiration in Howard, Berry, and other eloquent pioneers of organic agriculture, each had a different interpretation of what actually constituted organic farming. Money complicated things further. Growing consumer demand and premium prices for organic products motivated questionable labeling of “organic” food from farms that clearly violated organic principles. People who bought organic food weren’t always getting what they thought they were buying.
In response, organic certifiers began to emerge. They developed sets of organic standards, identifying acceptable practices based on principles, philosophy and ideals of organic agriculture. Most prohibited the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, for example. Organic certification remained voluntary, however, and different certification agencies had different standards. A person who bought a certified organic product from Kentucky could get something grown in a way that would not be allowed by certifiers in Oregon.
Beginning in 1990, the USDA began to develop a single national standard for organic agriculture. The controversial process took more than a decade, but national organic standards became legally enforceable in 2002. They dictated what methods and substances were allowed for use on organic farms, and they made organic certification mandatory.
Organic agriculture had gone from being a fuzzy concept, based on high ideals but open to dramatically different interpretations in practice, to being a clearly defined set of practices. National organic standards drew a line in the sand, transforming shades of grey into black and white, organic and not organic. A colleague of mine compares being an organic farmer to being pregnant… you either are or you aren’t. There’s no part-way about it.
Sustainable agriculture, meanwhile, remains open to all sorts of different interpretations. Systems and practices can be more or less sustainable. When somebody tells me they don’t farm organically but they farm sustainably I have to ask what they mean by that. Everybody means something different. Even when people agree on the goals of sustainability, they can disagree on how best to accomplish those goals, or measure progress toward them.
This is what I tried to explain to the New York Times reporter as I prepared my squash. Organic agriculture and sustainable agriculture are based on similar principles. They both used to be fuzzy ideas, but that is no longer the case for organic agriculture, which became more cut-and-dried with the introduction of national organic standards. Apparently she heard me say that organic agriculture used to be sustainable, but isn’t always anymore.
This bothers me, because it suggests that I think there was a golden age of sustainable organic agriculture, which is now behind us. The New York Times story uses me to bolster its thesis that growth of the organic sector is compromising sustainability. In fact, I think it’s the other way around: Each farm that transitions to organic agriculture makes our food system a little more sustainable. Choosing an organic product over a similar conventional product is a vote for sustainability.
The New York Times article deals specifically with the problem of aquifer depletion beneath the deserts of Mexico’s Baja peninsula. Conventional agriculture is responsible for most freshwater use globally, and must shoulder much of the blame for the fact that aquifers the world over are being drained faster than they are recharged. This is clearly unsustainable. It’s happening in Mexico, but it’s also happening in California, the Midwestern US, India, China, and the Middle East. Just about every country growing irrigated grain is depleting aquifers to do it.
Since some of the farms in the Baja Peninsula are organic, the problem is presented as an example of growth in the organic sector promoting unsustainable practices. Ironically, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization recently released a report called Sustainable Options for Addressing Land and Water Problems that identifies organic farming as part of the solution to such problems. Organic standards don’t regulate irrigation methods or acceptable water sources, but they do promote practices that improve water use efficiency, build soils that retain water, and reduce pollution of remaining water resources. The Mexican organic vegetable farms highlighted in the article happen to use trickle irrigation, which uses up to 75% less water than sprinkler or flood irrigation systems. They aren’t required to do so by organic standards, but the fact that the farmers can fetch a premium for their organic produce may have allowed them to invest in more sustainable technology. Michael O’Gorman, who used to manage an organic farm in Mexico, describes the irrigation practices used by organic farmers in the Baja peninsula as “some of the most inventive and advanced water saving systems in the world.”
O’Gorman offers his own perspective on the particular farms highlighted in the New York Times article:
The group doing all of Del Cabo’s production in the southern end of the peninsula is one of the oldest grower-owned organic cooperatives in the world. It is owned by the same 151 families (average acreage less than 10) that were given ownership by organic farming pioneers in the early 1980s. It was started, and remains, as a social enterprise to give Mexican farmers a dignified alternative to waiting on tables and cleaning any of the nearly 500,000 luxiorious hotel rooms that American and European tourists inhabit daily[...] In fact the reason why organics developed in this part of Mexico is because the big conventional growers had no interest in the small fields that were owned by Mexican families. Del Cabo growers are religious about organics.
Americans like tomatoes. We eat — and import — more of them every year. In 1981 the average American consumed about a pound of tomatoes each month, of which just 3 ounces were imported. Today the average American eats more than a pound and a half of tomatoes monthly, and a half pound of that is imported, mostly from Mexico. Even our American-grown tomatoes are mostly tended by farm laborers from Mexico and other Latin American countries, who often work in indentured servitude to bring us cheap fruit. The brutal environmental and social costs of America’s conventional tomato industry are detailed in Tomatoland (2011), by award-winning investigative journalist Barry Estabrook:
Fields are sprayed with more than one hundred different herbicides and pesticides. Tomatoes are picked hard and green and artificially gassed until their skins acquire a marketable hue. Modern plant breeding has tripled yields, but has also produced fruits with dramatically reduced amounts of calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin C, and tomatoes that have fourteen times more sodium than the tomatoes our parents enjoyed. The relentless drive for low costs has fostered a thriving modern-day slave trade in the United States.
Those who tend our crops suffer the health effects of direct exposure to herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and fumigants, whether they are in Mexico or the USA. In the 1990s a team of anthropologists led by Elizabeth Guilette studied effects of pesticides on children from farming families in the Yaqui valley and foothills of northwestern Mexico. Families in the valley used conventional farming practices with numerous pesticide applications; those in the foothills practiced traditional farming without pesticides. Children from conventional farming families in the valley had much poorer motor skills, less endurance, and worse memory than those who grew up in the foothills without pesticides. Evidence of the effects Guilette and her team observed included representative drawings by her four year-old subjects:
As a father of young children, I find these images heartbreaking. I want to be able to choose healthy foods for my kids without hurting other kids in the process. Thankfully, I can grow my own tomatoes, or rely on local farmers to grow tomatoes for me using low-input season extension technology, for about half the year. If I must have fresh tomatoes in January then I can choose organic to support farmers — wherever they are — who step off the pesticide treadmill. This won’t fix all of the problems of our industrial food system, but it can make it a little more sustainable.