“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.” - Confucius
Thanks to the convenience of the Internet, I got to watch Dave Chapman’s riveting 45-minute talk on organic farms and food. He spoke on the topic with restrained passion earlier this month at a symposium held at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. A few days later sitting at my computer in New Mexico, I heard his message loud and clear. It matched what I know from my own observations, and he added depth of understanding: there is revolution afoot in the realm of organic farms and food.
The foods being labeled and sold as organic in America are under enormous pressure in the marketplace. Chapman, associate director of The Real Organic Project (ROP), said that people have discovered that there can be a lot of money in organics. By now it’s a $50 billion industry. “We are cursed by our own success,” Chapman commented. “The money is like blood in the water.”
As with many other sectors of the economy, independent farming (organic and otherwise) is under continuing, crushing corporate pressure (Food Giants Swallow Family Farms). This form of economic imperialism is continuing to hollow out innumerable communities the Heartland, relentlessly overwhelming human-scale farms with low-paying, industrial operations.
Over the last few years as the scent of vertically-integrated profit wafted over the land, there unfolded a takeover at the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP). Corporate interests gained a stronger voice than the farmers who, over decades, established the just reputation of organic farms and foods as demonstrably superior for land, animals, and human beings.
In consequence of corporate influence, there have been two major developments in recent years: the approval of hydroponics, aquaponics, and aeroponics as “USDA certified organic,” and lax animal welfare standards that have allowed the industrial installations known as CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) to also claim the name of “USDA Certified Organic.” Chapman calls these operations (including one dairy in Texas with 17,000 cows) “animal detention centers.”
The foundation cracked when the NOP discarded a core tenet of organic farming and gardening: the recognition that soil is the source of life for plants, animals, and human beings. The NOP altered the generally understood meaning of the word organic, and began applying it to food grown without soil, food with no direct contact with the earth. Hydroponic and related high-tech systems are a significant addition to agricultural technology, and they likely have an important future. But the plants never touch the earth. As Chapman puts it, “Organic without soil, is like democracy without people.”
Displeased with corporate dilution of standards and cooptation of the healing spirit of organics, and out of recognition that human and animal health is directly related to the health of the soil, many farmers are rebelling. They are banding together through the Real Organic Project to advocate for the integrity of the word organic as applied to farms and food, and they are making a strong case. They are creating an “add-on label” – a label that qualified farmers can place on their product packaging in addition to the USDA label. That way consumers will know the food they are purchasing was grown organically in soil, and that animals have been husbanded in a more humane way.
Bonus belly laugh: For a belly laugh concerning the various names for wholesome, sustainable agriculture, check out the 5-minute video of Eliot Coleman delivering his message to The Real Organic Project's symposium. As always, Eliot has some important things to say, and then ends his brief remarks with a grand dose of agrarian levity.
Steven McFadden is a journalist who has from time to time experienced the thrill of breathing the sparkling, living airs that course through the meadows of great mountains. Otherwise he’s hard at work, rooted in agrarian cyberspace at DeepAgroecology.net. His wider work, and all of his nonfiction books, are at Chiron Communications. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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