Earth Day & The Future of the Organic Movement

Earth Day and the Organic Movement

April 18, 2012

Forty-two years ago, a new way of looking at our Earth arose in human consciousness.
It came about on Christmas Eve in 1968 when Astronaut William  Anders looked out the window of Apollo 8 and snapped a photo that he  dubbed “Earthrise.”
The photo was featured on the cover of the first “Whole Earth Catalog,”  which celebrated natural living and a back-to-the-earth credo in 1970.  It became the icon of a movement that saw the first Earth Day that same  year.
That holistic way of looking at the world—seeing us all as voyagers on a  tiny, bobbing blue and green vessel in the vastness of space—gave vigor  to another movement that came to be called organics.
On Earth Day this year, it’s time to review where that movement went, where it is likely go and maybe even where it should go.
For those deeply involved in the organics movement, this year could  prove transformative. Some of its pioneers believe that industrial  agriculture has
co-opted the movement since the U.S. Department of  Agriculture took over administration of organics, and that the movement  has lost its spirit. The USDA has even made it illegal for a farm to use  the word  unless it us USDA certified.
Most of the USDA Certified Organic produce you see in your local  grocery store is grown on huge factory farms using migrant laborers who  are often abused and exploited, paid pennies on the dollar, housed in  shanties and, because they are often undocumented, are afraid to  complain for fear of being deported. That’s if the produce is grown in  the United States.
Much of the produce marked USDA Certified Organic in your market is  imported from foreign countries where inspections to ensure harmful  synthetic chemicals, fertilizers and poisons aren’t used or may be lax.  Corporate ownership of organic brands is becoming the norm. (For a list  of corporations that own certified organic farms and their brands, see http://www.bit.ly/i6zF44.)

Beyond the Label
Eliot Coleman, author of “The Winter Harvest Handbook” (Chelsea Green  Publishing, 2009, $29.95) among other titles, grower, and owner of Four  Season Farm in Maine (fourseasonfarm.com), was a founder of the organics  movement in the 1960s and helped set up the original National Organic  Program guidelines.
Now, however, he rejects USDA certification.
Indian Line Farm in Egremont, Mass., one of the first Community  Supported Agriculture farms in the U.S. and a founder of the CSA  movement, also rejects USDA certification, choosing instead to be listed  with Certified Naturally Grown, a nonprofit alternative eco-labeling  program for small farms that grow using USDA organic methods but are not  part of the USDA program. (Disclosure: My ShooFly Farm in Lena is CNG  certified.)
The organics movement faces a dilemma, even from within: whether to  embrace “evil” Big Ag and all it entails, including greater corporatism  and devaluing of workers, or to reject the mainstreaming of organics and  its promise of a better planet.
This schism is playing out around the world. Countries in Europe and  elsewhere have rejected genetically modified, or GMO, seeds and food  because they believe these mutated strains are untested for human health  and safety and could pose a threat to the environment. However, under a  quirk of U.S. law, GMO doesn’t have to meet independent testing and  analysis to be proven safe. The foods are safe because companies that  genetically engineer them say they are safe, and they fund their own  studies to prove it. Hence, companies can market GMO food and seed to an  unsuspecting public even without labeling.
Organic growing practices do not allow GMO seeds or plants. But even  here, corporate agriculture is pushing to include GMOs in USDA organic  certification rules. (For more, see: OTA ‘Modified’ by GMO interests,  Organic Consumers Association, June 9, 2011: http://www.organicconsumers.org/bytes/ob280.htm.)
A real risk exists that, ultimately, the food and farming label of “USDA Organic” will be a distinction without a difference.

Organics’ Gordian Knot
This growing divide forces a dilemma for the consumer as well.  Certainly, Certified Organic is better than conventional chemical  farming. It’s healthier,
safer and more beneficial for the planet. But  it’s a Faustian bargain: In exchange for safe, healthy, pesticide-free  food under the guise of saving the
planet with environmentally friendly  farming methods, consumers may be dooming the planet to worse air  pollution, depletion of natural resources and
exploitation of workers,  while putting land ownership and food production into fewer hands.
Like the fabled Gordian knot that many said was impossible to unravel,  the answer for consumers is almost embarrassingly simple: Grow local,  buy local. In other words, cut through USDA and Big Ag-generated  confusion.
Here is the key to the future of organics if it is to continue in the  spirit in which it began: The organic movement must transition from an  idea of
sustainability using old growing methods to a new model that  embraces modern social change and science. In centuries past, growers  who used organic methods knew the practice worked, but they didn’t know  why. Now, with all the research into soil science that is broadening  horizons as to the vital role of fungi and microorganisms in the soil,  we know and can scientifically prove that organic methods can feed the  world for a safer, sustainable and nourished planet.
Consumers want safe food, and young people have embraced the idea. Many  have started small backyard and “boutique” farms to grow foods. This  small but growing postmodern organics movement embraces a worldwide  awareness under the moniker “ecoagriculture.” I believe this is the next  phase of organic growing.

The Power of Choice
In America, I suspect this movement will likely veer increasingly away  from pure crop production and toward a more holistic view of the  environment, such
as permaculture. Coined in 1959 by two Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren,  permaculture incorporates two concepts: “Permanent Culture” and  “Permanent Agriculture.” The practice eschews soil disruption, an  agricultural hallmark since its beginning 10,000 years ago.  To the  untrained eye, a permaculture food plot may appear to be a jungle.  However, if it is well crafted, it can serve as a continuing ecosystem  through the seasons, providing food with a minimum of human  intervention.
Consumers’ continued demand to label genetically engineered foods will  boost natural growing techniques and, perhaps, reverse the decline in  seed diversity. Demand can revive heritage foods and crops, while  shifting attention toward fruits and vegetables, lessening health  threats caused by high-fat, high-sugar, processed “food products.”
The future of organics is in our hands. We each can do our part in  keeping our precious Earth of Anders’ iconic photo blue, green and clean  by growing our own food — whether in our backyards or with our neighbors  in community gardens — and by buying organic, rejecting GMO, supporting  locally grown food and only voting for those who look out for the  consumer first.
This is the type of organic growing that those of us who  marveled at that little planet in the black void of space envisioned  some 42 years ago.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

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