By Jeremy Spitz
Picture your organic salad being assembled in an industrial refrigerated plant in San Juan Bautista from ingredients shipped, in refrigerated trucks, from a combined 26,000 acres of farmland in California, Arizona, Colorado, and three Mexican states. Then picture it being put back in trucks and shipped, using diesel fuel, to your supermarket and 74 percent of the supermarkets in the country.
If that doesn’t sound very organic to you, think again. This is the story of 70 percent of the organic lettuce sold in the United States and of the interesting-if somewhat oxymoronic phenomenon-of industrial organic agriculture.
Lately, concerned activists have begun to criticize the rampant industrialization of the organic sector in food production, a movement that began as fundamentally anti-industrial, raising the question: if this is organic, is organic enough?
Many consumers have begun to move away from organic foods, spawning movements such as "beyond organic." Many more have attempted to raise awareness about the importance of ecological sustainability, and the importance of the "Buy Fresh, Buy Local" campaign.
According to Phil Howard, former post-doctoral researcher at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) at UCSC, these are, "important efforts working to achieve goals that are no longer attainable through ‘organic’ as defined by the USDA."
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) began certifying products as organic on Oct. 21, 2002, bringing uniformity to a widely diverse agricultural niche. In doing so, according to Dr. Howard, the USDA helped pave the way for the "mainstreaming" of the industry.
To obtain USDA organic certification, produce must be farmed in accordance to a national list of synthetic and non-synthetic substances. Land must be farmed "organically" for three years before a USDA inspector can dub the farm and the produce organic.
"Prior to this organic certifiers came up with their own grassroots standards, which varied," Dr. Howard said in an e-mail to City on a Hill Press (CHP). "This patchwork of standards made it difficult to market products nationally, and kept production, processing and retailing at a smaller scale."
Tim Galarneau, coordinator of the Food Systems Working Group-an organization that works for organic, local, and sustainable food on campus-believes that establishing national standards has opened the door for food business giants to profit from the good consciences of consumers.
"The USDA certification of organic was the invitation for corporations to come in and join the movement because the activists and the people who believed in it did such a good job," Galarneau said.
Galarneau recalled a story of an ecological farming conference where an agribusiness man thanked the organic pioneers in the audience for creating the fastest growing niche in the food industry and subsequently handing it over to corporate America.
It is no wonder big business has taken an interest in organic. According to the Organic Trade Association, organic produce represents the fastest growing food industry, with a retail growth rate of 23 percent (compared to the one percent growth rate of conventional food) and totaled $14 billion in sales in 2005.
Many environmental and food activists, including Galarneau and Dr.. Howard, say that industrial organic farmers place profit over environmental ethics.
"The industry is still looking at farming in terms of economic sense instead of ecological sense," Galarneau said. "It’s merely a substitutional system and not a radical departure from the way we have been producing food for the last 100 years."
Dr. Howard agreed that there are flaws in many industrial organic products.
"There are some problems," Howard said. "These include a loss of some of the ideals of the organic movement, such as improving the economic viability of small-scale growers, eating whole foods rather than processed foods, and being as self-sufficient as possible."
Samantha Cabaluna, a spokeswoman for Earthbound Farm, the organic colossus described in the first paragraph, feels that industrial organic has made important contributions to our food system and addressed certain aspects of the organic ideal.
"An important part of the organic ideal was to convert as much land as possible to organic," Cabaluna said. "I think it’s also important to make organic food available."
According to its website, Earthbound Farm has avoided the use of 313,000 pounds of pesticides and 10 million pounds of synthetic fertilizers on its nearly 30,000 acres, an environmental victory by any standards.
Marisol Asselta of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) acknowledges that increased consumer demand and an increase in the amount of land farmed organically are steps in the right direction.
"There are a lot of people here in Watsonville that help to grow food, but they don’t have access to it," Asselta said. "So when you hear about Wal-Mart and other places starting to offer organic produce, on one hand they are cutting down the chemicals that people are being exposed to, and it is more affordable and more accessible because not everybody has a New Leaf or a farmer stand in a walking or short driving distance."
Like many food activists, however, Asselta believes that the organic industry needs reform.
"But on the flip side you’ve got people who are in the larger industry who are working toward loopholes that will make it more profitable for them," Asselta said. "It becomes about semantics at that point."
Alternatives to an Alternative
The sign above the Live Earth Farm booth at the Santa Cruz downtown farmers market reads "Beyond Organic." Amy Kaplan, an apprentice at the 40-acre farm, believes that Live Earth has stuck to a philosophy that larger companies have been accused of forgetting.
"We’re sticking to the original organic philosophy of ecological agriculture, of farming in partnership with nature," Kaplan said.
Kaplan explained that large-scale organic farms have used tactics in farming that bring profits but place stress on the land. Such tactics include farming monoculture plots (single-crop harvesting is much easier, and subsequently cheaper) rather than growing multiple crops, and adding inputs into the soil to replenish chemicals like nitrogen. Such tactics are all approved under the definition of organic farming.
Many people hoped that the move toward producing organic food would be the radical change they once envisioned, but these people are now being forced to create new labels to describe a more complex idea than simply farming without pesticides.
Live Earth Farm operates a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, an alternative produce model in which boxes of fresh mixed produce from the farm are delivered to "shareholders" via neighborhood drop-off locations.
"We grow over 30 different crops, tree-fruits, berries and vegetables," Kaplan said. "CSA people want a box of produce that’s diverse. They want their lettuce and their carrots and a little bit of everything."
Kaplan explained that at Live Earth, farmers move the crops every year and alternate the plots with cover crops to help maintain the soil’s health.
Monocultural plots are an intrinsic value of industrial farming, but there have been serious ecological problems associated with them, especially when organic farming is applied. They leave entire crops more vulnerable to destruction by a pest or disease, especially considering organic farms’ ban on pesticides. Also, they have been known to deplete soil nutrients, increasing the need for fertilizers, natural or synthetic. This forces farmers to focus on input substitution rather than creating a functioning healthy system-the aim, according to Kaplan-of the original organic philosophy.
Like many small farmers, Heather April, who is finishing up the six-month Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) program at UCSC, believes that sustainability should be the overall goal for farmers. According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, "It is agriculture that follows the principles of nature to develop systems for raising crops and livestock that are, like nature, self-sustaining. Sustainable agriculture is also the agriculture of social values, one whose success is indistinguishable from vibrant rural communities."
Mike Nolan, another CASFS farm apprentice, feels that small-scale is an important factor in achieving a sustainable system.
"You walk around a conventional thousand-acre farm and an organic thousand-acre farm and you’re not going to see too much of a difference," Nolan said. "It’s production-based, and not really focused on soil health. Here these small-scale, local seasonal farms focus on soil quality; it’s about the local ecology."
Jim Leap, the UCSC Farm operations manager, feels that true sustainability would be a big leap in ecological progress.
"If we truly wanted to be sustainable here we’d be growing food for people that would be very directly connected with this community and working on this farm," Leap said. "We’ve made a lot of progress in 20 years, but we still have a long way to go."
Think Globally, Shop Locally
Marisol Asselta, the ‘Buy Fresh, Buy Local’ Coordinator for the Central Coast division of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), is the passionate face behind the omnipresent blue bumper stickers seen around Santa Cruz.
"In the Central Coast the ‘Buy Fresh, Buy Local’ image is the second-most recognized in our markets, next to organic."
According to Asselta, buying locally-grown food adheres quite well to the organic ideal.
"When you are able to directly support [farmers] as much as possible, you are cutting down on transportation costs," Asselta said. "You are helping the ecological footprint a lot because the food isn’t being shipped 1,500 miles, which is average for your normal vegetable in the supermarket. If you are interested in protecting the environment you are definitely helping in that area."
At a farmer’s market, the grower receives about 90 cents on the dollar, according to Asselta, whereas they might only pocket eight to 10 cents on the dollar at a supermarket because of middle men, distributors and product mark-up.
Asselta believes that buying locally is just as important as buying organic.
"There is that sense of security, building a community, keeping the money in your local community, helping people whose jobs depend on it," Asselta said.
Finding the Organic Ideal
According to Galarneau, "The traditional food model is going to collapse on itself." Instead of continuing to purchase foods as most people currently do, Galarneau says that we need to change our mindset away from the notion that "if we can get it cheaper, it must be better."
"We have a sense of entitlement to cheap food that is harmful to those who grow it because it undercuts the market," Galarneau said. "The customers need to define the relationship with their food, or large corporations will provide one for them based on market values."
In order for a truly sustainable food system to be implemented, food activists, including Mike Nolan and Jim Leap, agree that the change would have to be monumental.
"There needs to be a lot of education, a lot of change in the way people eat and the way people think about food in order for it to really happen," Nolan said. "But it kind of has to happen."
Gregg Jacobson, a 30-something engineer and UCSC grad, shops for produce at Trader Joe’s, Safeway and the Food Bin. Jacobson says he would be willing to pay more for food that was ecologically sustainable.
"Pesticides make it easier to produce huge crops, but do we really need that much food?" Jacobson told CHP as he shopped at the Food Bin. "Any farmer who takes care of the earth, I’ll support."
Leap expressed concern over consumers’ willingness to change the ways in which they shop for food.
"A farm can be sustainable, but it would be a completely different lifestyle that 99 percent of the population is not willing to accept," Leap said. "Our expectations are just way too high in terms of lifestyle and material goods and incomes. We have to completely revamp the way we act as a civilization."