FIFTY YEARS AGO, organic farming was, at best, laughed off as a joke by the agricultural establishment (the land-grant colleges and federal and state departments of agriculture). At worst, it was regarded, with thinly veiled hostility, as anachronistic and bordering on un-American. If you doubt this, remember the treatment meted out to Rachel Carson after she published Silent Spring. Her groundbreaking classic on the effects of DDT still has much to teach us. We’ve come some distance since then, but not far enough.
Producing and marketing food contributes nearly a trillion dollars annually to the U.S. economy. Chemical-intensive, industrial-scale agribusiness is the overwhelmingly dominant force, with giant food conglomerates like Cargill (the largest privately held company in North America, with annual revenue of well over $100 billion) reaping most of the profits. Cargill, along with a handful of other food giants, has a strong interest in keeping things the way they are and, no doubt, capturing an even larger share of our food dollars. Huge sums of money are spent lobbying Congress to do their bidding. They argue that organic and small-scale, local, ecological food production—all enormously popular with the public—can never be more than a niche market because such methods are too costly and inefficient to feed the earth’s soaring human population.
But there is reason to question this self-serving thesis. For one thing, at present, global food production is more than adequate to provide for every human on the planet. Resolve and obstacles to distribution are what stand in the way.
For more than 30 years, our certified organic farm in Orange County has fed thousands of New Yorkers chemical-free vegetables, herbs and fruit. We’ve made a living doing this on just 16 acres of an old dairy farm with rocky, uneven ground that only knew cows, corn and hay before we came along.
Across America, thousands of farmers, young and old, are bucking the trend and doing what we do—producing quality food without degrading the land and the larger environment in the process. These new farmers’ dedication and labor breathe fresh air and a sense of hope back into small towns and depressed rural communities. Most people are delighted to live close to an organic or sustainably managed farm. But you’d be lucky to find one person in a thousand (and certainly no CEO) who would choose to live anywhere near a twenty-first century hog factory or cattle feedlot.
“Organic” is now a firmly established niche in the food market, and it’s growing every year. In 2016, sales of organic food reached $47 billion. Impressive though this may sound, it represents only 5 percent of the total food dollars spent in America.
There are a variety of reasons why that percentage should be far higher.
1. According to many studies, fresh, organic food is nutritionally superior.
Each of us gets just one body on this earth, though, judging by the number of people we know with artificial hips, shoulders and knees, the medical profession has become fairly adept at replacing at least some body parts. Consuming meat from animals fed large doses of antibiotics and growth hormones is very likely harmful to our long-term health. The same may be said of fruits and vegetables with pesticide residues on them.We may pay a little more for organic food because organic farming is not subsidized by the federal government (as are the big commodity crops like corn and soybeans) and generally requires more human labor. But eating organic should make our bodies run better and last longer—which means saving on doctor visits and medications.
2. It is no longer debatable: Food produced using organic methods is vastly better for the environment.
According to the journal Nature, researchers around the world have concluded that agriculture is responsible for as much as one third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Synthetic chemical fertilizer and pesticides are mostly fossil fuel-based; in addition to polluting our air and water, they degrade the soil and the vital microbial community that resides within it. Degraded soils erode and wash into streams and rivers and ultimately reach the ocean. Where the Mississippi empties its payload of fertilizer and pesticide runoff into the Gulf of Mexico, for example, there is a nearly 9,000 square mile “dead zone” in which algae flourish but where fish and shrimp cannot survive.
Organic farmers use compost, manure, cover crops, natural amendments, crop rotation and fallow periods to maintain and improve soil health. These practices add organic matter to the soil, which keeps the soil’s microbial community well fed and keeps carbon (the primary ingredient of organic matter) in the ground where it belongs, not in the atmosphere where it contributes significantly to air pollution and, ultimately, climate change. Soils high in organic matter also hold more water, which makes them more drought resistant and less dependent on irrigation.
Organic farmers view nature as an ally, not an adversary. They may, on occasion, be frustrated by the cards they are dealt—extreme weather, unruly weeds, troublesome pests and diseases—but they take it as a given that millions of years of evolution and natural selection embody more wisdom than they do. Over time, most recognize that when the land is cared for and its health kept a priority, it seems to respond in kind.
Food production that depends on synthetic (and often toxic) chemicals implies an attitude of superiority, domination and an alarming disconnect between man and nature. Such hubris is costly. Despite what the manufacturers tell us, it is a fact that neonicotinoid insecticides, in widespread use since the 1990s, are a primary reason for the huge decline in bee populations, something even the most advanced technology cannot create a substitute for. Bees are important pollinators of at least 30 percent of our food crops. Populations of the iconic and much-loved monarch butterfly have dropped by 80 percent in less than 20 years. This is directly attributed to widespread use of Roundup, the Monsanto Company’s ubiquitous herbicide that efficiently kills the milkweed that monarchs depend on to complete their life cycle. (Another Monsanto product, Agent Orange, a highly toxic defoliant, was widely and indiscriminately used during the Vietnam War. Its effects still plague many American veterans as well as Vietnamese 50 years after the war.)
3. Chemical products used in conventional farming can pose serious health risks for farm-workers and others,
Farmworkers exposed to dangerous chemicals suffer from cancer, birth defects, reproductive health problems and neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s Disease, at much higher rates than the general population. Because most agricultural workers in this country are “undocumented” migrants (they are usually the only people willing to do this work) and have a muted voice at best, this dirty little truth is conveniently brushed under the table. The federal government has no comprehensive system in place for monitoring chronic illnesses among farmworkers resulting from exposure to pesticides. There is little doubt, however, that worker productivity declines, health care costs increase, and humans suffer and die.
Case in point: Before President Donald Trump was elected, the federal Environmental Protection Agency was on track to ban the use of chlorpyrifos, a pesticide created by Dow AgroSciences, a subsidiary of chemical manufacturing giant Dow Chemical, that is highly toxic to birds, fish and a wide range of insects, including bees. It has also been linked to developmental problems in children. Under the leadership of Trump-appointee Scott Pruitt, the EPA abruptly changed its stance in March 2017, allowing the use of chlorpyrifos to continue. Coincidentally, in April, more than 50 farmworkers outside of Bakersfield, CA, were exposed to spray drift from a nearby field treated with this endocrine-disrupting chemical and almost immediately succumbed to violent nausea and vomiting. Coincidentally, too, Dow AgroSciences contributed a million dollars to President Trump’s inaugural committee, and the company’s chairman and CEO, Andrew Liveris, attended a post-election Trump rally, held nowhere near a sprayed field.
4. Factory farms subject animals to cruel conditions and may concentrate toxic byproducts in the environment.
Over 90 percent of the meat, milk and eggs we consume comes from “factory farms,” also known as CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), where animals are treated abominably, most spending their short lives in cages or on concrete pads in highly confined spaces. They are regarded not as sentient beings that experience pain, fear and privation in much the same way we humans do, but as mere units of production. (The industry prefers the term “livestock units” (weight) over naming different animal species. One beef cow, for example, is equivalent to eight hogs or 400 chickens.) Between 2002 and 2012, despite a steady increase in organic production, the number of livestock units on factory farms in this country actually increased by 20 percent. In the past 20 years, several states have relaxed environmental rules for factory farms, creating toxic epicenters of pollution. During the same period, the largest commercial meat and milk processing companies pressured livestock producers to consolidate and operate more intensively. Inevitably, the big guys got bigger and the smaller, conventional livestock farms have all but disappeared.
5. Studies have found no significant yield differences between conventionally and organically grown corn, wheat or soybeans.
Researchers at UC Berkeley analyzed 115 studies comparing yields of organic versus conventional farms. Their results, published in 2014, found organic yields lagging behind conventional yields by, at most, 19 percent—a much smaller yield difference than previously estimated. Yield disparities varied depending on crops grown; no yield differences were found for leguminous crops like peas, beans and lentils.
For 38 years, the Rodale Institute, in Emmaus, PA, has been conducting trials that compare the yields of organic and conventionally grown grains (corn, soybeans and wheat). They’ve found no significant yield differences—except in drought years, when the organically managed plots easily out-performed their conventional ones.
If just half—or even a quarter—of the enormous amount of money that has promoted industrial agriculture and funded the development of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers over the past 50 years had gone to research on organic and sustainable farming methods, one has to wonder if today there would be any yield differences at all between these two very different approaches to commercial agriculture.
In our current, degraded global environment, a strong case can be made that even a modestly lower yield would be a small price to pay for shifting to agricultural methods that promote sustainability and ecological health. I think future generations would vote for that.
My big beef is against large-scale, corporatized, chemical-intensive agribusiness and its monopolistic grip on our food system. I’m a fan of small, local farmers of all types, regardless of whether some use chemicals or not. To my mind, there should be many more of us. We all work hard to make a living; we all want good health for our farms and ourselves; and we can all learn from each other. I believe each one of us who works the land and is in touch with nature every day understands the importance of looking after this awesome, living planet of ours. It’s just a matter of remembering this and leaning toward the light whenever we can.