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Searching for the "O" Word at the Summits

Another week, another summit. A couple of weeks ago it was the Organic Confluences Summit, but then there is also the Slow Living Summit, and just recently I attended the UVM Food Systems Summit. Does this mean that those conferences we used to go to are no longer high enough? All of these events deal with alternative approaches to agriculture and the food system, but only one of them includes the word "Organic" anywhere in its title or even descriptive material. Why is this? One might get the impression that the "O" word has somehow lost its relevance to the revolution happening in food system studies and discussions.

In my Prologue to Organic Revolutionary, this is what I identify as a concern that helped me persist in publishing this book: Today’s young food activists and aspiring farmers often accept as a given that the organic label, now that it has been taken over by its former enemy, has lost its meaning. They believe that ‘industrial organic’ is no better than conventional chemical-intensive agriculture, and that ‘local is the new organic.’ The ‘O’ word, once verboten amongst agricultural policy makers, is now considered meaningless by those who were formerly its passionate advocates.

The UVM Food Systems Summit, which I attended on June 14th, had the subtitle of “What makes food good?” and many excellent speakers and workshops. I stuck with discussions led by friends and colleagues, including the one overtly organic panel, with Nicole Dehne, Certification Director of Vermont Organic Farmers, and three very articulate and well informed certified farmers. Lisa Trochia-Balkits, Green Mt. College MS in Sustainable Food Systems graduate who is currently working on her PhD in the social ecology of food, led a thought-provoking discussion about how the Greeks are self-organizing mutual aid to feed people in the midst of their twin austerity and refugee crises. Tom Gilbert of Black Dirt Farm, an innovative farmer and composter, offered scads of details about the benefits of his system of closing the nutrient cycling loop with the help of a few hundred hens and a high tech worm composting system employing millions of well fed but otherwise unpaid workers. The high point for me was a keynote by M. Jyahi Chappell, who packed a lot of information about food justice (and the lack thereof) into a brief presentation.

The Slow Living Summit, which I attended last year, was similarly devoid of any mention of the "O" word in its various presentations, including one on "resilient" agriculture by Laura Lengnick, author of an excellent book by that title. Since then we have also seen the ascendance of "regenerative" as a term favored by the activist community. Both of these are worthy concepts, and ones that totally overlap with the objectives and practice of organic agriculture. Unlike these terms however, “organic” has a legal definition and detailed rules that give researchers and policymakers -- not to mention the general public -- a clear basis for measuring and comparing its outcomes. Isn't this a prerequisite for doing credible scientific assessments?

Another distinction without much practical difference is often made between agroecology and organic agriculture. One concern I heard from IFOAM leaders last year in South Korea was the tendency of self-identified agroecologists to disparage the organic industry, and charge that it is replicating the evils of the corporate agribusiness-industrial system.

This article from Common Dreams discusses 'From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems,' a recent report by The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems. This report, like several other recent international expert white papers, extols agroecology as the path to planetary salvation. No argument here, as the science of agroecology certainly encompasses organic principles and practices. Later in this piece we find a single mention of organic agriculture:

"The underlying problem is the concentration of power in food systems...A small number of dominant agribusiness firms control the majority of chemical fertilizer supplies, pesticides and input-responsive seeds, for example, while power is highly concentrated at every node of the commercial food chain...These dominant actors are able to use their power to reinforce the prevailing dynamics that favour food systems geared to uniform crop commodities and massive export-oriented trade. Through lobbying policymakers, influencing research and development focuses, and even by co-opting alternatives - such as organic agriculture - these vested interests are able to perpetuate the self-reinforcing power imbalances in industrial food systems." (emphasis added)

In other words, "organic agriculture," unlike "agroecology," has sold out and is now owned by the "vested interests" who are destroying the planet. This is a trope that is widespread in activist and academic circles. Like any other false dichotomy, it is, well, just plain wrong. Worse, it creates a wedge that divides those working in different spheres but towards common visions against each other, rather than supporting each other to counter the agribusiness overlords who control the global commodity food system. Those "dominant actors" are happy to profit from their niche organic brands, while diverse and multifaceted organic market entities are attacked as "impure" by the agroeco-academics and activists.

It's time to acknowledge the good work done by the organic industry to establish organic agriculture as a credible, holistic, science-based production system. Thanks to this now 40+ billion dollar industry, millions of people have learned that we do not need to destroy the planet and our own health in order to adequately nourish everyone in our planetary family.


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