Last week’s Catalyst featured an article entitled “Debunking the Myth of Organic Foods”, written by Dave Cully. The article was a highly misinformed rant against organic agriculture, claiming that: “organic foods are fraudulent products that are a waste of your money. They are no better for your health, worse for the economy, and often contribute to environmental degradation.” Although Cully’s argument wasn’t completely unsound, there were some major holes in his theory that I would like to address here.
It is true that the USDA organic label has done nothing but promote an industrial agricultural model within the organic food movement. However, Cully’s article overlooked one major difference between organic and conventional agriculture: the use of synthetic fertilizers. Conventional fertilizer, a compilation of synthesized nitrogen, phosphorous, and other minerals, is perhaps the greatest contributor to ecological degradation from agriculture. Soil erosion, soil salination, and eutrophication of watersheds are the most notable signs of environmental destruction from synthetic fertilizers. There is currently a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is roughly 8,400 square miles, caused almost exclusively by the runoff from conventional agricultural production along the banks of the Mississippi. Although many large-scale organic producers are far from sustainable, the use of organic fertilizers (made from composted animal manure and other organic matter) makes them much more ecologically sound than their conventional counterparts. The organic food movement may be a victim of corporate greenwashing, but it doesn’t discount the fact that organic food is inherently less ecologically detrimental than conventionally produced food.
In addition, even though the organic market has been diluted by corporate interest, we can’t assume that all organic farms are the same, as Cully’s article seems to claim. My family at home receives a weekly CSA from Full Belly Farms, a 350-acre certified organic farm located in the Capay Valley in northern California. Through crop rotation, nitrogen-fixing cover crops, crop biodiversity (over 80 different species), planting habitat areas for beneficial insects and wildlife, and only selling produce within a 120-mile radius of the farm, Full Belly fosters a holistic agricultural model that ensures the long-term sustainability of their farm. Our country needs more farms like Full Belly, farms that value the health of the soil as equivalent to the health of the produce. We can’t assume that all farms under the USDA organic label practice the same agro-ecological methods; only by getting to know your farmer can you ensure the health and quality of your food.
Finally, Cully’s article claimed that we can’t feed the world’s growing populations with organic food. However, countless peer-reviewed scientific studies have shown the opposite. Smallholder organic agriculture is more productive per unit area than conventional agriculture. As our current agricultural paradigm suggests, conventional agriculture can’t feed the globe. The “Green Revolution” has promoted cash-crop, export-oriented agricultural production, removing food from local populations and introducing it to the global market. If we want to feed the world, we need to stop subsidizing large GMO monocultures and start supporting a localized food system. A global dispersal of small-scale holistic farms is perhaps the only way to sustain our world’s populations.
Organic food isn’t the “silver bullet” that is going to save our food system, but it is a step up from the conventional model. If you want food justice, get to know your farmer.