Blame Industrialized Agriculture, Not Organic Farmers

To the Editor:
Roger Cohen’s Op-Ed Article in the New York Times on September 6, “The Organic Fable” calls for a response.

As a farmer I am deeply offended by Mr Cohen’s article. Not because he differs with me in his opinion, but because he did not do the necessary research before he grabbed his pen and used it to offload some grudge he has against people with wealth and their options to choose what to eat.

The New York Times is a reputable newspaper but allowing a journalist that unquestionably has considerable experience and reputation in war correspondence to opine on agriculture and food is questionable. Mr. Cohen might unwittingly have exposed another agenda of his newspaper by strongly endorsing the industrialized food system.

Mr. Cohen stated that organic agriculture will not feed the world and is just food for the rich. I suggest that Mr. Cohen read a document titled: “Who-will-feed-us“?

That report, published by the ETC (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration) states that:

“Only 30% of the world’s food supply is produced on industrial farms while half of the world’s cultivated food is produced by peasants. More than 12% comes from hunting and gathering while more than 7% is produced in city gardens.

“The notion that there is a tremendous exchange happening between countries for food crops is incorrect as 85% of the people in this word live on a domestic diet. Eating locally and organically has a positive side effect as it allows farmers to maintain a great variety of livestock species and plant varieties, while maintaining the local plant and animal genetic diversity.

‘Food crops are sold outside the traditional industrial marketplace. Much is grown for self reliance and the remainder is bartered or sold at local marketplaces. Breeds are still adapted to local conditions and seeds, from locally bred varieties, are saved for next year’s crops creating a tremendously diverse gene bank in the process.

There are about 1.5 billion peasant farmers on 380 million farms; 800 million more urban gardens; and 410 million gathering the hidden harvest of our forests and savannas; 190 million in animal husbandry and well over 100 million peasant fishers. Many of our world’s farmers are women. Better than anyone else, peasant farmers feed the hungry; if we are to eat in 2050 we will need all of them and all of their diversity. “

The notion that adopting our industrialized approach to agriculture will feed the world is terribly flawed. To secure the world food supply we need small farmers to maintain their sovereignty and have them continue to use sustainable indigenous practices.

Instead of saddling peasant farmers with debt to pay for expensive seed with dubious results we would be better to provide them with tools that reduce spoilage of post harvested food. This would greatly improve their ability to be self sufficient. This can easily be accomplished without the use of expensive biotechnology or dangerous chemicals.

In the US, we employ some of the most innovative means of agricultural production but we still fail to feed the hungry. The industrial food chain, including non-local organic, wastes over 50% of the food product before it reaches peoples’ plate. The industrial food chain is highly inefficient and wasteful.

Fifty million Americans go to bed each night hungry. We have a huge problem with obesity, heart disease, and diabetes and more frequently these problems are found in our young people. It seems that our policy makers support industrialized agriculture enhanced by bio technology for other reasons than to feed the people with healthy, nutritious food.

Regarding Mr. Cohen’s statement that organic food is expensive, I partly agree with that statement but this is largely because organic farmers are not part of the greasing of the wheels whereby industrialized agriculture is a constant welfare recipient of farm subsidies. Secondly, organic farms are far apart and bringing these foods to market is more costly.

Organic farmers only receive a small premium at the farm gate. The extra cost is eaten up by distributors and retailers. Mr. Cohen, instead of chastising, you should thank the people that are willing to spend the extra dollars to eat organic. They helped create a completely new industry that will eventually be able to compete in price with conventional food. Their willingness to pay a premium infused a demand for research and manufacturing of new tools and products used in organic weed, insect and disease management.

Growing food organically has become a lot easier over the past 20 years. Our cost have decreased and our yields have increased. If you don’t believe me, come and take a look at our farm as we are confident that our yields are equal or higher than our conventional neighbors. Yes, it takes more labor, but don’t we all want more jobs that are meaningful as well?

Industrialized agriculture, while boosting yields for a few generations, does irreparable social and economic damage to communities while harming biodiversity. Overuse of fertilizer and herbicides has not only caused a dead zone in the Gulf coast; most Midwest farmers rely on filtered town water as their own wells are no longer safe to drink from.

The evidence is overwhelming that the industrial food chain does not, and will not adequately provide for a growing number of people on this planet at a time when we are experiencing many climatic changes making raising crops and animals even more difficult.

A diverse farm with stable soil farmed organically will be able to deal much better with climate extremes than a farm practicing monoculture with synthetic inputs. Healthy soils are able to absorb excessive rainfall. Hurricane Irene would have not been as much of a disaster if we would have adopted sustainable forest and farming practices whereby the soil is not only a source of food, fiber, and feed but also the reservoir that absorbs and holds a much needed fresh water supply.

Mr. Cohen wondered why organic farmers are against GMO’s that could possibly enhance varieties to make them better resistant to crop failure. While this might be the case in a few small instances, GMO’s are designed to do one thing very well and this is to ensure proper trademark protection on seed. Eighty-five percent of the GMO seed is specifically designed to be herbicide resistant and others are both Roundup (glyphosate) resistant.

Only a few varieties contain an additional gene that releases a toxin called Bacillus Thuringiensis to kills insect pests (and beneficials for that matter). But the main trait of GMO seed is that almost all of them contain the gene that makes the plant glyphosate resistant.

On the Organic and GMO report it states that: Research indicates severe problems associated with human and bovine health when glyphosate is used as an herbicide.

In a paper published in the European Journal of Agronomy in October 2009, Huber and co-author G.S. Johal, from Purdue’s department of botany and plant pathology, state that the widespread use of glyphosate that we see today in agriculture in the United States can “significantly increase the severity of various plant diseases, impair plant defense to pathogens and diseases, and immobilize soil and plant nutrients rendering them unavailable for plant use.”

Further, the authors state that glyphosate stimulates the growth of fungi and enhances the virulence of pathogens such as Fusarium and “can have serious consequences for sustainable production of a wide range of susceptible crops.”

The authors warn “ignoring potential non-target detrimental side effects of any chemical, especially used as heavily as glyphosate, may have dire consequences for agriculture such as rendering soils infertile, crops non-productive, and plants less nutritious. To do otherwise might well compromise not only agricultural sustainability, but also the health and well-being of animals and humans.”

Monsanto, the owner of Roundup and many GMO seeds has successfully eliminated on-farm production of seed. Farmers today are completely dependent on seed as an off-farm input. This is good for Monsanto, but not so good from a national security perspective.

No nation should put all their eggs in one basket by allowing the narrowing of the genetic pool as the only effective tool nature has developed in overcoming natural disasters is diversity. We have learned as farmers that we will need to live with an emerging grim reality; the weather is erratic whereby droughts and floods are quickly becoming the new normal.

Lastly Mr. Cohen, the Stanford University study misses the point anyway. The amount of nutrition in food depends greatly on when it was harvested (ripe vs. unripe), how long ago it was harvested, how it was stored, what kind of soil it was grown in, etc. This is difficult to measure.

What I look at is, is our present system of industrial food production working? Most people would answer, no. Just because one study found that conventional food and organic food may not differ much as far as vitamins and minerals go does not support the continuation of the status quo.

Who is trying to change this broken system? The smaller scale, sustainable farmers in association with their committed customers are changing the way food is produced, processed, and distributed. These farmers and customers connect with the fewest steps between the fields and tables as possible.

Together they create farms that will continue to thrive for generations by the way they treat the farm crew members, soil, plants, and animals and the relationship with their local communities. And guess what, working together also greatly reduces the cost of organic food. Our members pay an average of 40 to 50% of what they would otherwise have paid at Whole Foods. Our customers are getting two carrots for the price of one.

Yes, we will agree that for now organic food is not accessible to everyone yet, we have a long way to go. But we could make it possible for everyone if we had the political will. Access to safe and nutritious food should be the main focus of our Farm Bill.

“Organic, schmorganic” is one way to look at our present situation. Another is to embrace what small sustainable farmers are trying to do and what was at the heart of the original organic movement, make a positive change in how we provide food for all of the people in our communities.

Jean-Paul Courtens
Roxbury Farm
Kinderhook, NY

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