By Donella Meadows
–May 21, 1998–
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has heard the people. Maybe. Sort of. For awhile, anyway.
The USDA has been trying to draft a definition of “organic,” so consumers can know, when they see that word on a food label, that it means something. Some states, such as California, New Hampshire, and Vermont, have strict organic certification standards. Other states have none. Anybody can slap “organic” onto any tomato and ask for a higher price. So a federal standard seems necessary.
But the proposed standard, when it emerged from Washington, raised a wave of wrath that has the USDA wondering what hit it. Over 200,000 furious letters poured in. The outrage centered on the “dirty three” — genetically engineered life forms, foods preserved by irradiation, and crops grown on land fertilized by sewage sludge. The standard would have allowed these foods to be labeled organic, as long as they haven’t been exposed to commercial fertilizers or synthetic pesticides.
The overwhelming response, especially impressive because there was no big money behind it, shows that people want “organic” to mean more than pesticide-free. At a minimum it should mean food we trust, un-meddled-with, healthy to eat, raised in an environment healthy to live in.
The USDA got the message. It has announced that the “dirty three” will not qualify for the label “organic.”
Hurray for democracy, I thought when I heard that. Then I heard more and restrained my enthusiasm.
Organic farmers around me pointed out that there are still problems with the federal standard. It doesn’t rule out raising animals in “factories.” It requires fees and paperwork that could bury small farmers. It doesn’t allow a state to set standards stricter than the federal one.
Then I saw a letter from Monsanto to the USDA. Monsanto is suspected to be one of the forces that pushed gene-spliced crops into the organic standards draft. The letter suggested that the USDA hold off on that idea for a few years, until Monsanto can convince people that these crops are safe.
And letter came from Michael Ableman, who raises over 100 different fruits and vegetables on 12 acres at Fairview Gardens in Goleta, California. His organic farm employs 17 people and feeds 110 subscribing families, plus drop-in purchasers at the farm stand. It is also an education center, where kids watch worms make compost and learn to tell the weeds from the lettuce.
Ableman wonders how organic growers could have been so eager to push for national standards. “It was as if a spell was cast over independent-thinking, self-sufficient and contrary farmers…. Did we forget we were dealing with a government whose policies consistently encourage industrial chemical agriculture?”
To Ableman the issue goes way beyond the “dirty three.” He doesn’t want to find “the products of corporate ‘organic’ farms on supermarket shelves, shrink-wrapped next to the Cheerios. It is sobering to see that the vast organic farms of Gallo, Pandol, or Tanamura, though an improvement in some ways, are in many other ways indistinguishable from their chemically farmed predecessors.”
“We should honor any farm that eliminates poisons from its growing practices,” Ableman says. “But too often we are still left with the same linear corporate production system, the same factory consciousness.”
“We need to start asking questions again. How far does food travel from the field to the plate, and at what cost in terms of electricity and fossil fuel? Whose hands grow and harvest our produce and are they paid a living wage? … How do we make pure food available to all, not just those who can afford it?”
Ableman doesn’t expect Washington to answer questions like these. Instead of federal certification, he calls for community certification, “ … carried out by individuals who look each other in the eye at farmer’s markets, in community programs, and at produce stands. It is based on honor and trust. No federal program will ever match the integrity of such a system.”
My first response when I read this was “Yay!” I am no fan of the industrial system that values bigness and cheapness over fairness, health, environment, community, or caring. I watch airlines, banks, phone companies, hospitals swallow each other up and grow huge, distant, and inhumane. I don’t want food that comes out of such a system, even if agribusiness learns from organic farmers how to grow crops without pesticides. I want fresh, local, unpackaged, unprocessed food, raised by folks who care. As gardener Ruth Stout once said about the idea of people working in her garden who do not love gardening, “I wouldn’t permit it! Who wants to eat THAT kind of radish!”
Then another part of me said, “Hold on. Aren’t we GLAD that agribusiness is seeing the virtues (and profits) of chemical-free farming? Wouldn’t it be a boon to the environment, if organic methods went mainstream?”
It would. As Michael Ableman says, we should honor any grower who adopts greener methods. We should sanction a nationally agreed-upon label — “pesticide-free” or “grown without harmful chemicals” or some such.
Then we need another word for the kind of agriculture Ableman does, neighborhood agriculture, kept to a scale that preserves respectful relationships with employees, customers, farm animals, and the planet. Seems to me the folks who invented it should get to keep their own word for that kind of farming — “organic.”
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1998