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Bringing the Organic Revolution Home

Spring greetings!

This has been an upside-down winter season in so many ways. February's record breaking warmth came to a crashing end as temperatures plummeted the first two weekends in March, sending wind-chill readings well below zero. Then a howling nor'easter blizzard put back most of the snow that had halfway melted in February. Welcome to climate chaos.

Keeping up with all the political chaos has been a challenging distraction. Turmoil continues to infuse the organic community, as we are faced with the likelihood of a new Secretary of Agriculture who has a shady history of agribusiness corruption and also is a climate denier. The prospect of slashed appropriations for important agriculture and rural development programs worries us all, while we gear up to lobby for sorely needed improvements in the next Farm Bill. What will happen to the prospects for helping farmers transition to organic if funding for conservation programs and the organic certification cost share, for example, is eliminated?

Meanwhile, attacks from within continue to escalate, as reported in the latest issue of the Organic & Non-GMO Report. On-line conversations with respected organic farmers about the proposed organic check-off program reveal anger and resentment at the economic success of the organic industry that they feel has left them behind. Just as rural folks all over the country have felt betrayed and left behind by a century of policies that have sold them out to industrialized, mechanized, corporatized, concentrated agribusiness behemoths—whose stated goals are cheap food, cheap labor, and a depopulated countryside.

It is true that corporate agribusiness has noticed that their customers want organic food, and are scrambling to deliver it to them. I too have grave concerns about the increasing consolidation of control in the organic industry, as graphically documented by Professor Phil Howard. But unlike some of my organic activist friends, I don’t believe that this systemic failure, which is common to every industry you can think of, can be fixed by 'strengthening' organic standards. Nor will imposing tougher standards discourage cheating—but it will discourage small enterprises who lack the compliance staff employed by the corporate oligarchs from entering the organic market.

In this vein, activists concerned about the rise of the organic hydroponics (or bioponics) industry have recently ramped up their rhetoric. At the NOFA-VT winter conference last month, one lunch time round table discussion asked the question, "Can the USDA be trusted with organic certification?" The inflammatory question was prompted by a belief by the session's facilitators that the National Organic Program (NOP)'s allowance of soil-less organic production was a result of the corrupt influence of the multimillion dollar hydroponics industry. In his latest communique, Dave Chapman gives a dire warning of the potential disappearance of soil-grown tomatoes, peppers, and berries from the organic produce aisles of supermarkets.

This can't be a good thing, any more than the depressed prices for organic grains and soybeans due to imports coming from places like Ukraine, Turkey, and India bodes well for the possibility that US farmland under organic management will exceed 1% anytime soon. Knowledgeable consumers will prefer soil-grown produce for good reasons, and I would agree that all hydroponically grown fruits and veggies—organic or otherwise—should be clearly labeled as such. I don't believe that container grown “bioponic” systems should carry organic status in the market—especially if unlabeled as such. But I do have some concerns that the overly simplistic demands of the anti-hydroponic activists fail to consider.

Rather than focusing on the growing medium, I would suggest that if the soil-less plant population in the "bioponic" greenhouses is a strict monoculture, as it appears in the photos I've seen, it violates the organic requirement for introduction of biodiversity into the operation[1]. Using new growth media every year does not look to me like it can meet that criterion. Biodiversity is not an issue for aquaponics systems, which require diverse plant-animal-microbe interactions to succeed—and in my view epitomize ecologically harmonious and therefore truly organic systems. But such systems are still lumped with large-scale hydroponic monoculture by the activists.

I also consider the idea of helping eaters make more ecologically and seasonally appropriate food choices to be an important goal. The demand for fresh berries or table tomatoes in the dead of winter, soil grown or not, should not be encouraged (except as a rare treat) in a temperate climate. I personally try to avoid purchasing anything that comes in a plastic clamshell package (not always successfully). Even if I didn't grow or gather my own tomatoes and berries to freeze, can, or dry for the winter, I would only buy these things from neighboring organic farms in season. If I have a yen for a salad in wintertime, kale, cabbage, and carrots augmented by dehydrated cherry tomatoes fills it nicely.

The call to "keep the soil in organic," while heartfelt, is also a bit misleading. Soil-grown forage, tree fruits, and grains--not to mention most staple but not so pricey veggies—will never be cost-effective in hydroponic greenhouses, and even at half a billion dollars the organic hydroponics sector still accounts for less than 1/80th of the $43 billion plus organic industry. A significant luxury niche yes, but hardly threatening to remove soil from the foundation of agriculture.

Soil and agroecosystem health remains central to what I call the true organic vision in Organic Revolutionary. More recently there has been increased attention to the concept of “regenerative” agriculture, meaning practices that do more than just maintain soil quality, but improve it. Regenerative advocates emphasize the benefits to the climate of increasing soil organic content, sequestering carbon and providing myriad benefits to water retention and crop health among others. An important idea, to be sure, but proponents sometimes forget to mention, or even deny, that organic farming IS regenerative—even tilled organic beats no-till GMO in some studies. Some even go so far as to advocate for a whole new certification and enforcement system for products of regenerative agriculture, at the same time suggesting that the USDA organic label is not to be trusted.

The increasing power and political clout of the burgeoning organic industry can be seen as both a threat and an advantage. On the one hand, the overwhelming domination of our food system by large agribusiness firms does pose a threat to the true organic vision of a human scale, equitable, decentralized food system. On the other, the economic performance of the organic industry commands respect among Congressional budget slashers, and may be our best hope of emerging relatively unscathed from the miasma (a fancy word for swamp) that is DC politics today.

It may already be too late to avert extreme suffering from the ecological disasters that threaten our children and grandchildren. Even the US military recognizes that climate change-induced drought is a major factor in today's bloody Syrian conflict. It is clear to many that changing the way we farm is the most immediately feasible route to avoiding the worst of the impending catastrophes. Right now the "organic" label is still the best incentive we have for farmers who would like to get off the toxic treadmill and farm in a more regenerative way. Anything that gives the "agribusiness as usual" crowd the ammunition to call it fraudulent will be used against us.

Consequently, my theme of "organic farming for the planet" is evolving to focus more on the question of how we can create greater solidarity among diverse food system players in the face of the enormous power of agribusiness as usual. Solidarity does not mean uncritical acceptance where we disagree, or rolling over when observing injustice within our ranks. It does mean that we avoid public relations campaigns that sow public confusion and mistrust by fear-mongering and innuendo.

Having been a global thinker for a long time, my own game plan now calls for acting more locally. Last month I helped organize an initial meeting of a Solidarity network for Vermont. I now try to turn out more often for demonstrations and rallies, contact my legislators, contribute to support the indigenous water protectors, and work with local friends and neighbors—even those whose politics are not aligned with mine—to build greater resilience in our community.

As you engage in your own way, as you are able, please ask yourself if your actions might serve to heal or to widen the divisions that now threaten the future of humanity. Perhaps by working together we can find a way to regenerate democracy.

[1] See NOP Guidance Document 5020 on Natural Resources and Biodiversity Conservation, effective 1/15/16.


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