A couple of weeks ago I headed to Baltimore for Natural Products Expo East — the annual trade show that features speakers, seminars, and parties to inform and celebrate the hugely successful natural and organic products industry. In years past I have attended these events as a contractor for OTA, but this year I was wearing my journalist/blogger’s hat, and was invited to participate in the New Hope Network Blogger Coop.
The trade show itself occupied several floors of the Baltimore Convention Center, with an estimated 28,000 visitors and over 1400 exhibitors displaying all manner of products, from fresh produce to personal care and textile products, drinks, snacks, dehydrated super fruits for use as ingredients, condiments and microwavable meals. Supplements and protein/energy bars are always a large category. Many exhibitors also proudly display the green and white USDA organic seal on some or all of their products. My trade show browsing (and sampling, of course) was largely confined to the upper floors housing the newest exhibitors, some with exciting “hot” product introductions.
My real focus however was on the information sessions and speakers, starting with the first keynote by Paul Hawken. Hawken is one of the original visionary/entrepreneurs of the organic movement, a founder of the iconic Erewhon company, and an importer of high quality garden tools through Smith & Hawken. My most treasured—and well used—possession is a Smith & Hawken garden fork, an award given to me by NOFA in 1985. Blessed Unrest, his most recent book, accompanied my long train ride from Vermont to Baltimore.
The focus of Hawken’s speech was Project Drawdown, which is to be published in book form in 2017. A team of researchers has been helping document those activities that can most quickly achieve drawdown, defined as “that point in time when the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere begins to decline on a year-to-year basis.” The good news is that there are multiple pathways to get to drawdown, chief among them various land management strategies that include agroforestry, kelp farms, and intensive planned livestock grazing. Hawken stated it clearly: “The only way we bring carbon back down from the atmosphere is through photosynthesis.”
It was exciting to hear about the mounting scientific evidence, hard facts and numbers, that support Organic Revolutionary’s message about the urgency of increasing the area of land under organic management. But during our brief conversation after his talk I was a bit taken aback to hear Hawken suggest that “organic farming has no meaning.” He was, of course, echoing the common belief that “industrial organic” production is little better than conventional agriculture.
Is the science behind improved carbon sequestration in organic systems conclusive? Maybe not, but several studies do show that organic content of organically managed soils—even under normal tillage regimes—produces more stable soil organic matter, at greater depths, than does conventional no-till management. And even absent significant improvements in soil carbon, the energy savings and other environmental benefits of organic farming are clear. Later that day, for instance, The Organic Center presented a life cycle analysis study showing that conversion of wheat, soy and corn operations to organic management would result in a 60% drop in energy consumption. And then there’s the fact that organic systems prohibit use of synthetic nitrate fertilizer. In addition to requiring enormous energy inputs to produce, when applied to crops such synthesized nitrate is more likely than organic nitrogen sources to dissipate into the air as nitrous oxide, a gas that is over 300 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide.
So simply ending nitrate fertilizer manufacture could mean a huge difference in our prospects for avoiding roasting the planet and cooking human civilization in decades to come.
The great GMO labeling war erupts again
I made sure to attend Expo information sessions about the new GMO labeling law that has caused so much consternation among my Vermont activist friends . OTA teamed up with the Just Label It campaign to share information and help strategize for the best possible outcome as USDA begins to develop the devilish details of regulations.
The next morning USDA representatives were on hand to explain their implementation game plan and the legal constraints imposed by the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, as the new law is officially titled. They are planning to publish an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the near future, specifically to gather public input as they begin the regulation drafting process. More information about opportunities for public input is available here: https://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/gmo.
Listening carefully and asking a few pointed questions, it became clear to me that USDA has a lot of discretion in how it crafts its rules. The concerns of those who want unambiguous on-label disclosure of GMO ingredients will be taken seriously—my experience as a USDA regulation writer, chronicled in Organic Revolutionary bears this out. While this law does leave much to be desired, it actually improves in some respects on the now defunct Vermont GMO labeling law. Our task must always be to stay informed and maintain public pressure. Some of that pressure will have to be applied to food companies to choose greater transparency over obfuscation.
Simultaneous with these detailed legal discussions, just outside of the convention center a protest was being staged against the “organic traitors” who helped pass the second “DARK” act. A large display was positioned showing names, phone numbers and photographs of organic leaders accused of cutting a deal with the devil of Monsanto. The level of verbal vitriol employed by some activists is not only misplaced, but actually plays into the game plan of the agribusiness-as-usual forces who oppose food system transparency. Sadly, such warfare rhetoric seems to fit right in with the tenor of public discourse in presidential politics these days. When we fight each other, Monsanto wins.