Monday, August 13, 2012

Deeper thinking on organic agriculture

I'm not a farmer. I can barely keep a cactus plant alive, as I've admitted before. But you don't have to be a master gardener, let alone a farmer, to get why we'd all be better off if more food crops were grown organically and fewer were grown using industrial methods (including application of pesticides and fertilizers, brought into being and to market on the strength of fossil-fuel energy inputs; and genetic modification of plants and other organisms).

One way to see benefit in organic agriculture is to realize that when farmers apply pesticides to food crops, people end up eating pesticides. Eating pesticides is not a good thing (the -cide in pesticide means "kill" -- a pesticide is a poison). I'm going to assume general agreement on that point.

The Environmental Working Group's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce was featured recently in a SF Chronicle article, titled in the print edition of the paper Lists help you decide when to buy organic.
[T]he Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that specializes in agriculture and environmental health, has released the 2012 Dirty Dozen traditionally grown produce with the highest pesticide levels and the Clean 15, the produce with the lowest levels.

Apples, celery and sweet bell peppers top the list of produce shoppers should buy organic. Onions, sweet corn and pineapples contain the lowest pesticide levels when grown traditionally.
The full list of nearly fifty fruits and vegetables that the EWG tested is on their web site, and it's nicely sortable from most-toxic to least; or alphabetically so you can find where the fruits and vegetables in your diet rank on the toxicity scale.

I'm all in favor of summarizing this sort of information in a form people can use to make good decisions at the grocery store, for themselves and the people they feed. I get that not everybody can afford to buy all-organic all-the-time at today's wages and prices, and that in many places it can be hard to find organic produce even if one wants to buy it.

The Environmental Working Group gets this too. Here, from their FAQ page, is an on-point answer to an excellent question:
Shouldn't I try to buy everything organic?

EWG recommends buying organic whenever possible. Not only is it smart to reduce your exposure to pesticides, but buying organic sends a message that you support environmentally friendly farming practices that minimize soil erosion, safeguard workers and protect water quality and wildlife.

However, we know that organics are not accessible or affordable for everyone, so we created the Shopper’s Guide™ to help consumers make the healthiest choices given their circumstances.

EWG always recommends eating fruits and vegetables, even conventionally grown, over processed foods and other less healthy alternatives.
The thing I most appreciate in those concisely and simply expressed sentences is the part about minimizing soil erosion, safeguarding farmworkers, and protecting ecosystems beyond the artificial borders of human skin. The issues and stakes around how we humans feed ourselves are legion and complex. The effects of our choices are not limited to the health of our own bodies.

On the question of soil erosion, deep horticultural thinkers such as Wes Jackson of The Land Institute believe we've been heading in the wrong direction for 10,000 years. Here, from National Geographic in an article called Perennial Solution, dated April 2011, Robert Kunzig writes:
Humans made an unwitting but fateful choice 10,000 years ago as we started cultivating wild plants: We chose annuals. All the grains that feed billions of people today -- wheat, rice, corn, and so on -- come from annual plants, which sprout from seeds, produce new seeds, and die every year. "The whole world is mostly perennials," says USDA geneticist Edward Buckler, who studies corn at Cornell University. [...]

Today an enthusiastic band of scientists has gone back to that fork in the road: They're trying to breed perennial wheat, rice, and other grains. Wes Jackson, co-founder and president of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, has promoted the idea for decades. [...] the goal is crops that would tap the main advantage of perennials -- the deep, dense root systems that fuel the plants' rebirth each spring and that make them so resilient and resource efficient
-- without sacrificing too much of the grain yield that millennia of selection have bred into annuals.

We pay a steep price for our reliance on high yields and shallow roots, says soil scientist
-- and National Geographic emerging explorer -- Jerry Glover of the Land Institute. Because annual root crops mostly tap into only the top foot or so of soil, that layer gets depleted, forcing farmers to rely on large amounts of fertilizers to maintain high yields. Often less than half the fertilizer in the Midwest gets taken up by crops; much of it washes into the Gulf of Mexico, where it fertilizes algae blooms that cause a vast dead zone around the mouth of the Mississippi. Annuals also promote heavy use of pesticides or tillage because they leave the ground bare much of the year. That allows weeds to invade.
On the question of protecting ecosystems? There's really no question that application of pesticides to food crops damages the earth in which that food is grown. Here's Tom Philpott in Mother Jones, from an article titled USDA Scientist: Monsanto's Roundup Herbicide Damages Soil:
What Roundup is doing aboveground may be a stroll through the meadow compared to its effect below. According to USDA scientist Robert Kremer, who spoke at a conference last week, Roundup may also be damaging soil—a sobering thought, given that it's applied to hundreds of millions of acres of prime farmland in the United States and South America. Here's a Reuters account of Kremer's presentation:

The heavy use of Monsanto's Roundup herbicide appears to be causing harmful changes in soil and potentially hindering yields of the genetically modified crops that farmers are cultivating, a US government scientist said on Friday. Repeated use of the chemical glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup herbicide, impacts the root structure of plants, and 15 years of research indicates that the chemical could be causing fungal root disease, said Bob Kremer, a microbiologist with the US Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.
I'm planning to take the EWG's Shopper's Guide to the grocery store -- they've produced a single-page PDF that's easy to print and carry along in one's reusable grocery bags. Why not? If I'm going to make choices about which produce to buy organic, I'd rather make an informed choice.

But I don't want to lose sight of the fact that there's much more at stake than the poison I might inadvertently cook into my household's meals, or the poison we avoid by eating organically grown produce. There's also the toxic storm that industrial agriculture rains on every other being and place it touches. And that's bad news for all of us, big time and long-term.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Monoculture v complexity; agribusiness and deceit
One hundred trillion bacteria: the microbiome within you and without you
Mutant food: agribusiness vs. everybody else
Gardening for apartment-dwellers

Thanks to Kamakshi Sachidanandam for the image of a farmer's market in Madison, Wisconsin, via Flickr. Photo of soil below an annual wheat (left) vs. perennial wheatgrass (right) field is courtesy of The Land Institute.

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