Thursday, April 26, 2012

What's wrong with USDA organic?

   We've talked before about big business lobbyists distorting the organic rules to allow synthetic additives, about outright fraud followed by organic certifying agencies arguing for the safety of chemicals used on produce they're certifying as organic, about rules that allow organic "farms" to operate as confinement feeding operations without growing anything at all (and therefore not feeding anything green or fresh to their animals, etc.)  In addition to the structural problems with the USDA organic system there are, of course, also all the little stories of farmers that take the easy chemical solutions to their problems when no one is looking.  We bought some USDA certified organic buckwheat recently and noticed afterwards that the bag said "product of China."  (We need to figure out how to harvest our own buckwheat! [In 2014 we grew enough for our own limited use, and now, as of 2015, we're offering shares of buckwheat we grew as part of our Full Farm CSA].)  Of course, it's absurd for China to ship staple grains clear around the globe to the US, but it also strikes us as wishfully absurd to think that organic integrity can survive that kind of supply chain.
   But those are just the most superficial problems we see with the USDA organic system.  We could go a step deeper and argue that USDA certified organic farms shouldn't be allowed to directly support the production of chemical-intensive, genetically modified soybeans in order to use the soybean meal on their fields for fertilizer (which is quite common practice.)  Perhaps you'd want to tighten the rules so as not to allow for organic farmers to directly purchase conventional crop products like that, but where then do you draw the line?  If it's not okay to use GMO soybean meal, is it better to feed GMO grains to conventional beef in concrete feedlots or to hens packed thousands or tens of thousands to a building and process bloodmeal or feathermeal from those operations instead?  Or to even simply use that manure?  Of course, there's nothing inherently unnatural about soybeans or blood or feathers or manure, and a fully organic system would incorporate all of these things in one way or another without sending them to landfills or dumping them into rivers and streams.  The fundamental problem here may very well be that the USDA system really isn't any kind of alternative "system" but rather an inseparable offshoot designed to accommodate the mainstream consumer model.
   Before we bought our first couple of feeder pigs we read a publication by an organic agricultural extension service on how to organically control intestinal worms in organic hog production systems.  The answer was to maintain a carefully timed model that would allow for routinely medicating all sows in the first trimester to optimize the loophole in the USDA organic rules.  Organic poultry demonstrates even less systemic integrty: USDA organic poultry farms aren't given any reason to incorporate reproduction into their farms at all.  The whole process of raising breeding stock, laying and hatching eggs, etc. is simply left to the conventional mainstream and then 7 weeks later the bird is legally sold to the consumer as USDA organic.  The USDA organic response to chemical and pharmaceutical use is not to develop an alternative system but rather to outsource their use.
   So how would one develop a real alternative to our dependency on chemicals and pharmaceuticals?  We think the most important part of the answer is to shorten supply lines and rebuild connections between eaters (consumers) and the land that feeds (and clothes and houses) them.  Instead of putting a seal of approval on buckwheat from China we want to build relationships that can foster organic agriculture in our community, relationships that we can trust to deliver real integrity.  Probably our biggest and most basic objection to the USDA organic label is that it's all about replacing community-based trust with trust in bureaucratically governed certifying agencies.  The organic label is designed to replace the need to personally know anything about where or how your food was grown.  The trend in organic agriculture has certainly been overwhelming in the direction of larger scale, more heavily industrialized, and greater distances between consumers and the source of their food since the USDA rules took effect, and that's no accident.  In more respects than we can list here, the USDA rules have given the edge to the industrial-scale producers.  Is it any wonder that industrial abuses are the result?  If how food is farmed matters (i.e. if we're going to take on any organic concerns), then the first step to organic integrity is to know more of where and how and by whom food is grown.

1 comment:

Scott Vlaun said...

It has been said that "local is the new organic." Almost all the people that buy our produce have either been to our farm or know us on some level. Once you involve big government and industrial ag, it's only a matter of time before rules are bent, and standards are altered to benefit large scale producers.

As high input ag, organic or otherwise, succumbs to dwindling resources, food will increasingly be about relationships and not about labels.

Good luck, and keep up the great work.

Scott Vlaun, Moose Pond Arts+Ecology