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The Eco(Happy)-View Beyond Organic

Chile Pepper Field in China

Organic foods have become quite the trend, even as they fell squarely into the “green luxury” camp, the idea that green living is something you can only afford once you have a certain level of income. Just recently, after a (meta-)study out of Stanford concluding that organic produce is not nutritionally better than the “conventional,” there has been quite the buzz…
Now, jumping onto trends is typically a rather bad idea for a consideration of the #ecohappy perspective, which requires a deeper look. This discussion, however, is only too good an illustration of the need for an “eco-view.”

After all, what is happening?
At its core, researchers decided to have a look at previous studies to determine whether it was true, as many a buyer seems to believe, that organic foods are better for you. Better, in their view, obviously talks about the positive – nutritional content – and the potentially harmful – pesticide residues.
On both counts, they found organic produce not to have significant benefits.

Here already, an “eco-view” looking at the connections is missing, however.
For one, nutritiousness of foods may not only be a matter of the macronutrients and vitamins that have so far been looked at, but also of micronutrients (e.g. secondary phytochemicals) that have not usually been analyzed – certainly not with enough knowledge to tell what amounts to significant differences. Also, there is considerable range within, not just between, both “conventional” and “organic” farming practices and their conditions, which affects the foods (and was noted in the press release linked to above).
Secondly, and more importantly, pesticide residues being below the levels considered harmful by the authorities is all well and good, but there are still fewer pesticides on organic produce. This is all the more important as “conventional” produce is not only likely to have more pesticide residue, but also from multiple pesticides – and the combined effects of them are not being analyzed in considering their effect on health.
Moreover, pesticide use is not only an issue for the consumer, but also for the health of farmworkers, farming communities, and environments. (And such considerations are valid, just not in the scope of that study, as a main author also mentions in the press release.)

It is here, in the wider ecological perspective, that a critique of organics would be thought-worthy, at the same time at which it becomes a(n even more) damning indictment of “conventional” industrialized farming.
The usual considerations, and those thoughts for which the usual marketing of organics draws so much ire, are these: Organic agriculture, in its rejection of most modern chemicals and such technological advancements as GMOs, produces lower yields than the most modern of industrialized farming, and it does so at – and asking for – high prices. Consequently, it does not help in feeding the world (at a time when the world population is still growing rapidly, and the demand for meat-rich diets, requiring yet more productivity, even more so). Rather, it produces luxury products for the well-off hipster set driving SUVs to Whole Foods to put wild-caught sustainable salmon next to organic Chanterelle mushrooms from France into their hemp “I’m not a plastic bag”-shopping bag.
To add insult to injury, even organic produce increasingly comes not from the small family farm down the road – which, in most places, does not even exist anymore – but from big(ger) and predominantly monocropping, mechanized, operations.

It is undoubtedly from such a perspective, at least the former part of it, that a commentator such as Roger Cohen (in the New York Times) talks of The Organic Fable and is elated that the myth of organic being better were finally disproven. Finally, reason to see organic produce buying as nothing but classism – and modern agriculture as the happy communism that wants nothing but to feed the world, then?

Unfortunately, the baby is thrown out with the bathwater in the wholesale buying – hook, line, and sinker – of the myths about “modern” agriculture.

That “modern,” “conventional” agriculture that we keep being sold as absolutely essential for feeding the planet, and not least the poor, has two problems: It has no future, and it should not have because it bears quite some of the guilt for producing the poor.

What we are shown in industrialized farming are wide fields full of corn, grown using the most advanced technologies, to the point where the very biological means of production are changed at the genetic level and raised in just the ways that promise the highest yield in the shortest possible time.
Plants are not biological beings anymore, they are a production factor; the soils they grow in are but a growing medium – one that is often replaced in greenhouses by more-easily-controlled rock wool – not a living source of fertility; animals are not conscious and feeling fellow beings, but just means of producing meat.
Yields may, in fact, be higher – though research has shown that “alternative” agricultural methods can have similar yields – but only when conditions are just right for just the single variety of a crop being produced – and yields shouldn’t be the only consideration; food should be.
“Drought-resistant” GMOs sounded good, but they are no match for the current drought. Herbicide resistance similarly sounded good, but of course it breeds resistance in weeds. As a result, “superweeds” are – let’s say it as it is – being selected for, and the need for herbicides does not decrease, as was promised – if the herbicides weren’t used prophylactically, anyways.
Moreover, a large proportion of the input required comes from petrochemicals – it is derived from fossil fuels. It’s been said before, but it bears repeating:
We are, in effect, eating oil… and not too little of it.
The total energy balance in the most traditional of agricultural methods is a positive one – you put in energy in the form of human and animal labor, plants do their magic in combining water and carbon dioxide into sugars (read: energy), and you gain more energy that is available to animals (including us) than you put in. It doesn’t work otherwise, after all – unless you have fossil fuels.
With industrialized agriculture, the usual statistic says that we put in 10 calories of (fossil fuel) energy for every calorie of food energy we gain. In effect, we produce a loss – and it cannot go on like this forever. Peak Oil beckons – and already, many farmers have been looking to make a switch simply because the fuel required to run their machinery has proven too costly to operate.

Meanwhile, though, we are losing the natural fertility of soils that agriculture has always been depending on (and still does somewhat – better yields are still achieved where soils are better).
We are also losing the diversity of food species and varieties that had (been) developed, in adaptation to local tastes and local conditions, over the millennia that humans have been an agricultural species. In their stead, we get ever-fewer “highly productive” varieties and breeds that are often said to be less nutritious, but better suited for industrial systems of farming and sales in the supermarkets – and they do not even create food security for most.
Even traditional agroecological systems of food production, which have been providing humanity with its nutrition (and many raw materials) throughout all but the last few decades of history and all but the recent “globalized” society, making it necessary to re-consider what we should be calling “conventional,” are being given up.

Potato fields in the Ecuadorian Andes
Potato Fields in the Ecuadorian Andes. – Try and “industrialize” here… but, the productivity is high, thanks to traditional varieties and methods! . Photo by author

This may be the real sick joke in the support for industrialized farming:
It is sold as the only way to feed the world when it is in fact not concerned about food, but about finance.

There is no more culture in “conventional agriculture,” no farm in industrial farming, it is all just another part of the industrial machine driving towards financial profits.
Sure, edibles are the main product – but they are not the end product, and not always eaten: Corn and soy, two of the dominant crops, are also (if not predominantly) grown as commodities and raw material for further production. They end up as part of the “food-like substances” that populate supermarket shelves and contribute more to obesity than to proper nutrition, or they are used as feedstock for animals such as cattle, which are ruminants that are made to eat grass, or even salmon, which are hunters naturally eating other fish… and more and more, crops end up as raw material for the production of “renewable” “bio-“fuels.

Fine thinking: first you put ten calories of oil into the production of one calorie of energy in the form of crops, to then put the part of that which becomes available as fuel into your tank – and then you feel good about producing biofuels?
(Mind you, these numbers may not hold up – it may all be better. Even so, fuel commands higher prices than food for the poor, so the problematic effect on food security/access remains.)

Not even the farmers are better off.

Concentrating on single commodities, they are ever more dependent on the ups and downs of those commodities’ prices on global stock markets. – Surely you didn’t think that food (and farmland, by the way) would be excluded from financial speculation nowadays, only because it’s said to be all about feeding the world?

“Poor” farmers in developing countries indeed turn out as poor. Rather than continuing with food-growing for their own subsistence, for communities, and with a chance, perhaps, to increase their incomes if they could also produce something for wider markets, they are promised greatly higher yields and nice profits growing crops for cash – but end up, just like farmers everywhere, needing so much money for hybrid (and increasingly, patented) seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, fuel… and then to serve the debts they have incurred in order to finance those purchases… that the only way to survive is when you can get bigger and outright industrialize (which is not what the poor can do) to maybe stay on top, after a fashion (usually, in the “rich” countries, thanks to subsidies).

Growing food for consumption and sales, then and there, might no longer be viable, by the way, because the oil-fed and export-subsidized moloch of industrial agriculture produces food so “cheaply” that the locally, “alternatively” produced can’t compete…

In the end, then, it is much better for a person looking for a better life, a higher standard of living, to go looking for any kind of job in the city, whether it be collecting recyclables in the dumps or sitting and sewing cheap clothing (let alone working in an office), than to stay on as a farmer. It is a trend that is visible all around the world.

Somebody has to grow the food, though – and when most of the world’s food is grown in only a few regions, food supplies are particularly threatened by weather extremes, and food availabilities by transport disruptions. With the decline in diversity, pests and diseases are greater threats. And even if you earn more money – if the food is too expensive, you will starve.
Already, we have seen protests, not least, the Jasmine Revolution / Arab Spring, topple regimes – and rising food prices gave the first impulse to the protests.
Yet, the value of farmland as residential or industrial land is still higher than it is as land producing food; water and labor achieve higher profits when they are used in the making of meat rather than cereal, smartphones rather than salad. Fuel for SUVs still commands higher prices than food to feed the poor – let alone the profits it makes over letting people feed themselves.

Chile Pepper Field in China
Tradition and creativity in a chile pepper patch among fields in semi-rural China. Photo by author

However, time and again, with crisis and war, but also for health and pleasure, we have seen that family kitchen gardens may end up being the ultimate source of food security.

There is a lot to talk about and do, beyond even organics, and far beyond the simplistic debate on whether industrial or organic farming were “the” solution, looking further from there, at the synergies that are possible, between healthy diets and agro-ecological growing of food, between the flourishing of communities and the truly agri-cultural potential of their lands, and ultimately even between a new conversation focused on real human needs and our true sources of happiness and the multiply better lives and futures we seek and can create.

About these better ways, a lot more will also be said and shown on these pages…

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