To understand the importance of organic agriculture, we need to look beyond the difference between the possible pesticide contamination of conventional produce and the possible blemishes of organic produce.
Organic farming and gardening work by using the processes that have allowed the Earth to evolve to its current beautiful and exciting state.
Photosynthesis, the growth, death and decay of an incredible variety of organisms, constant change and the nearly total recycling of materials are the processes of nature and of organic agriculture.
This agriculture uses sunlight, carbon dioxide, water, minerals, local waste products and the genetic information in seeds to build and maintain complex ecosystems. These ecosystems produce food while they build topsoil and fertility, hold water, protect diversity and create beauty and pleasant work.
This contrasts with the focus on the product in our current food system, which in striving for the perfect marketable fruit or vegetable, is willing to use toxic materials and methods such as monoculture, widespread irrigation, and annual agriculture on the dry high plains to produce its product. The results of this approach are soil erosion, depletion of aquifers, pollution of wells, a decline in the diversity and stability of our ecosystems, and one of the most energy- intensive food systems in the world.
Long-distance food shipping, modern packaging, processing, freezing and food-irradiation techniques have put an ever greater amount of energy, time and space between the plant absorbing sunlight and the reversal of that process in our bodies, as energy is released from the food.
Our current food system (and therefore our ability to live) is dependent on Chile's political stability, Mexico's pesticide regulations, California's water resources, Kuwait's oil, a small and shrinking number of farmers, and the very few corporations which control any given commodity.
This focus on product has produced farmers who grow a square mile of wheat and then buy all their food from the supermarket. Peasants in Mexico labor to grow winter vegetables for us on land that used to produce corn and beans for them. Many can barely afford the imported American fast food they now get to eat. The traditional small farms of old and New England, with vegetable gardens, small orchards, chickens, cows and a few pigs, produced most of the fertility for the farm and the food for the farmer's family, with surpluses of several kinds for their neighbors. This agricultural model is nearly forgotten and almost extinct.
Our current system uses fossil fuel-powered factories instead of leguminous plants like peas and clover to obtain nitrogen. We grow lettuce (which is 95 percent water) in the desert and then use oil to move it 3,000 miles to our mouths. We use millions of pounds of chemicals that are toxic to much of the life on our planet, but the apologists for the chemical industry say it's okay because there is little or no residue left on our food. The cheapness of taxpayer-subsidized chemical fertilizers, pushed by industry and their government partners, has caused materials like food wastes, animal manures, and leaves to change from being valuable resources, to being garbage—now a global problem.
The real key to organic gardening and agriculture is a healthy soil, full of living things (6 billion to a teaspoonful) and decaying organic matter. The understanding and care needed for good garden soil is symmetrical with the understanding and care needed by our Earth.
I wrote and delivered this essay in the winter of 1991, nearly a quarter of a century ago, early in the decade-long series of my Living on the Earth radio pieces on WSHU from Fairfield, CT. It was included in the collection Living on the Earth: Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful Future published in 1993. I'd certainly use a few different details now: perhaps Mexico's political environment, China's pesticide regulations, and fracked natural gas. And California's water resources are worse than ever.
I dedicated this essay to NOFA/CT as the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Connecticut was then known. At the time, CT NOFA was a small, all-volunteer organization that educated and advocated for a local and organic food system, certified organic farms in Connecticut and was just beginning its education and advocacy program in organic land care. NOFA was a pioneer in this work.
Think for a minute about the changes in the food and farm landscape in Connecticut (and nearly everywhere else) since that time. I believe that there is more local food availability now than at any time since the 1950s.
In the past 24 years, there has been tremendous growth in local, small and sustainable farms, in farmers markets, community and college farms, and many more young people are actually interested in growing food. There are more community gardens and school gardens as well as a greater focus on food justice and sustainability. Enthusiastic believers in good food, social justice and ecological care now bring these issues to the educational, environmental and faith communities who are joining in this work. Farmers and gardeners are growing food in inner cities, in the suburbs and in traditional farm country.
CSAs or farm-share programs, food delivery businesses and farm stands connect growers and consumers in new ways. Federal, state and municipal programs, local agricultural commissions, food policy councils and non-profit organizations support this growth in many ways. Producers and consumers alike are excited by the increasing diversity of foods grown or produced here. There are more kinds and varieties of vegetables available, many year round, as well as cheeses, fruits, grains, meats, other dairy products and fungi. Nearby food is fresher, tastier and better for the climate. It has helped to create vibrant communities around farms and markets, as people learn more about our essential connection with Earth.
Meanwhile, in the intervening years, genetically-modified seeds have become the norm in the industrial system. The first round of herbicide tolerant crops is failing to perform (because nature works like nature and evolves) so soon our industrial food crops will be sprayed with a cocktail of not one, but two toxic herbicides.
Agricultural suppliers, commodity traders, meat processors and food marketers have consolidated to gain market share at the expense of farmers, consumers, democracy and the planet. They all seem to have unlimited money for lobbying and marketing and to make sure we don't know which foods come from genetically-modified seeds.
This evermore distant, industrial, capital intensive, high-tech food system marginalizes and impoverishes farmers for the benefit of the folks who control the inputs as well as the space between the soil and our mouths. This system has also caused an enormous increase in the very expensive chronic diseases which are diet related: diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and some cancers. Besides the confined animal feeding operations, food processors and fast food operators, other beneficiaries of this system include the venture capitalists who buy and sell restaurant chains like so many monopoly pieces in order to take advantage of cheap food inputs and tax benefits. In contrast, this year, Illinois corn farmers, growing on some of the best farmland in the world are projected to lose money on every acre they harvest. Wisconsin dairy farmers are going out of business because of plummeting milk prices which approach just half of their production costs. Clearly something is very wrong.
The industrial system and its allies are now in a full court press to convince us that its way is the only way to feed ourselves. It is exciting that so many people are involved in the critical work of re-creating a local, sustainable and just food system. It is likely to take much of our energy for the rest of our lives to make this happen. However, the vision of a triumphant industrial system that destroys biological and food diversity, worsens climate change, pollutes the planet with excess nitrogen, drives farmers out of business and greatly increases health care costs, is bleak indeed.
So grow some or more of your own food, find farmers or a community garden in your area, learn to eat and cook local, seasonal food. These are the most powerful things we can do for our health and the health of the planet that our grandchildren will inherit.