SUSTAINABLE AND ORGANIC: Two Words Everyone Who Eats Should Know, Part 1 of 2
THE POTATO HARVEST. Matt displays a bountiful harvest of potatoes freshly dug up from rich, organic soil. No pesticides here!
SUSTAINABLE AND ORGANIC. You’ve seen them in this column, no doubt heard mention of them on the news. They are two of the most important words in food and agriculture today, and especially for those who are really concerned about what goes into their food and how this affects their bodies and the Earth. In this article, we will explore the meaning behind these two words, especially what they mean to you, the consumer, who goes to the supermarket with the trust that the tomato you are buying is really just a tomato, the ear of corn just an ear of corn… What business does an animal gene have being in your tomato sauce? Or bacteria genes in your buttery corn on the cob? What business do derivatives of poisonous World War II chemical weapons have being fed to dairy and beef cows via grain feed whose milk and meat you eat? And why are they finding their way into your apple pie or hot potato? Business is the name of the corporate agribusiness’ lucrative yet deadly experimental game of pesticides and genetically engineered foods, and the test subjects are unassuming American consumers and entire ecosystems.
A HISTORY OF FOOD AND WHERE WE ARE TODAY
For food to be certified “organic” means:
• It must be grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and sewage sludge for a period of three years;
• There can be no genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or irradiation;
• There must be positive soil building practices, conservation, crop rotation, and manure management;
• All livestock must have outdoor access and pasture;
• No antibiotics or hormones may be given to the animals;
• Animals must be fed 100% organic feed;
• And detailed records of operations must be kept.
Up until the beginning of the 20th century, all agriculture was organic agriculture. Organic food, in other words, was the only kind of food ever eaten by our grandparents, great grandparents, and all our relations before them. First developed in the 1920’s, the widespread use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers really took off after World War II. It was then that a historic mass movement toward what is now known as factory farming and conventional farming began. The Future of Food, an excellent film covering the many human & environmental consequences and science of chemical and GMO farming, states: “The manufacture of nitrogen-based bombs during World War I led to the development of nitrogen-based fertilizers. Nerve gas, developed during World War II, was slightly modified to make insecticides. …New technologies promised higher yields, increased food production, cheaper prices, and greater availability.” Increasing market pressure, tempting bank loans, and governmental incentives for the family farm paved the road towards: very expensive, inefficient, and soil-compacting mechanization; priority placed on quantity and uniformity of the look and flavor of produce while quality in taste, variety, and nutrition plummeted; and the use of chemicals to achieve picture perfect produce, higher yields despite wasteful and nutrient as well as topsoil depleting farming practices, and vast acreage of monoculture production, now owned mostly by a handful of large corporations.
The next time you walk into your local supermarket and peruse the produce section, take a moment to notice some of the consequences of factory farming food systems on display. There are few varieties of each fruit and vegetable, and within each variety, they all pretty much look and taste the same. This is not what nature intended for us, our bodies, or our taste buds. Most famously, heirloom tomatoes come in a rainbow of colors, shapes, and tastes, but these gifts from nature rarely make it to the grocery stores. Organic food is not gourmet food either! It’s normal, natural food that people have been eating for thousands of years. Industrially and chemically-raised fruits and vegetables may be priced deceptively low, so they seem like a great deal compared to their (usually) more expensive organic counterparts. But what you can’t see or squeeze or smell is the hidden cost of this seemingly cheap and harmless produce, a cost that is daily exacting its toll not only on your pocketbook, but on your health and on the health of the Earth as well.
THE BENEFITS OF ORGANIC VERSUS THE HIDDEN COST OF “CONVENTIONAL”
When we begin to reprioritize the way that we look at food, it becomes obvious that there is more to the cost of, say, an ear of corn, than meets the eye. First of all, the industrial-chemical farming industry receives 22 billion dollars a year in federal government subsidies. These subsidies are financed by none other than you, Mr. & Ms. American Taxpayer. “Conventional” non-organic corn farmers alone receive 5 billion dollars in subsidies each year. This keeps the price of corn low in the marketplace, but again, you the taxpayer are paying for this price reduction.
Of the 12 billion bushels of corn produced in the U.S. each year, over half, 51% goes to feed livestock alone. Batting next in the corn lineup are ethanol at 18% and exported corn also at 18%. Sweet corn (canned, frozen, and on-the-cob) make up just 0.2% of all corn grown in the U.S. So we may be able to buy cheap conventional corn at the store, but we’ve already paid a much higher cost for it in our taxes, most of which went to factory farm animals, transportation fuel, and other countries’ factory farm animals & transportation fuel. Subsidies also create an unfair price advantage over family farms and smaller organic operations, whose higher price is reflected by the fact that they are not receiving taxpayer money to finance the purchase of their inputs and machinery.
Another very serious hidden cost to “cheap”, chemically-raised food are its effect on the health of those who live near places where this food is being raised. Chemical farming dumps tons of deadly nitrates and other chemicals into the waterways and groundwater of local communities every year. For example, after upstream farms have sprayed heavy doses of chemical fertilizers, heavy storm runoff brings these chemicals into the water supply in the Des Moines, Iowa area. For some Des Moines families, the amount of nitrates in their tap water is so high, they are unable to drink from their own faucets at those times of the year. Children under 6 months are especially susceptible to excess nitrite in water supplies which can cause blue baby syndrome, oxygen starvation in the brain. It’s even easier to understand how connected our planet’s ecosystems are when you travel to the Gulf of Mexico where there is now a “dead zone” the size of New Jersey linked with mass kills of fish, shrimp, and other animals affected by the water’s low oxygen levels. The runoff from chemical applications (from agriculture, golf courses, and lawns) begins over 1,000 miles away starting in the Midwest, then through the South, and ends at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
A study by The American Journal of Public Health conducted 10 years ago showed that people living closer than 2,600 feet to a site where produce is chemically raised have a 6.7 times greater incidence of brain cancer. Other studies of home pesticide and herbicide use (including those used outdoors on lawns, golf courses & landscaping, and indoors in various household products) have shown links to increases in other types of cancer, including leukemia. The use of pesticides and herbicides have also been linked in numerous studies to an increase in miscarriage, genetic deformities, reduced immune function, Parkinson’s Disease, A.D.D. symptoms in children, and brain damage. Still more studies have documented the serious health effects of chemical farming on agricultural workers including the men and women who work in greenhouses for the flower industry.
For those who eat chemically-raised produce, the hidden health costs are more than enough by themselves to outweigh the “cheap” price. If ingesting chemical pesticides and herbicides have the potential to damage our health in the above ways, purchasing foods that have been sprayed with them would not appear to be a wise investment. All fruits and vegetables that are sprayed retain a significant amount of toxic residue which is then passed on to the consumer. What you’re not paying for in food now, you may pay for in medical bills later and certainly we are all effected by the toll on the Earth.
In addition, when you compare organic and chemical produce for nutritional value, the price difference begins to make even more sense. Organic produce may have up to 83 percent more nutritional value than non-organic produce. Why is this? The non-organic stuff tends to be grown on nutritionally-depleted soil, and what you get from nutritionally-depleted soil is nutritionally-depleted fruits and vegetables. You may be paying 83 percent more for an organic tomato versus a “conventional” tomato, but you are getting what you pay for.
THE ORGANIC FARMER AT SATURDAY FARMERS MARKET. Adam awaits the next customer eager to try some knock-you-out heirloom tomatoes, dragons tongue beans, and green & blonde cucumbers in Port Washington, Wisconsin.
NATURE VERSUS GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS
If this isn’t enough to keep your organic plate full, now there is a new hidden cost to buying chemically-raised food, and it is one that is just beginning to show its destructiveness on human health and the environment. The history of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, being introduced into our food supply experienced its first major wave between 1996-1997, when GE (genetically engineered) ingredients suddenly appeared in 2/3 of all processed foods. This wave began with a Supreme Court ruling that allowed for the first time in history the patenting of life forms for commercialization. Major agribusiness like Monsanto began bioengineering seeds to resist damage by herbicides and pesticides and to produce higher yields. The corporation even changed the genetic structure of certain seeds to contain the pesticides within the seeds themselves. It should be pointed out that chemically manufactured higher yields, mostly in the form of nitrogen fertilizers, are needed by non-organic agriculture, because these farming practices inherently damage the soil and ecosystems. Lower fertility and soil health would produce lower yields each year, but the numbers are propped up by the addiction to chemicals.
It does not stop with fruit and vegetable seeds. Today’s factory farm animals raised for dairy, eggs, and slaughter are routinely the subject of various genetic experiments. Chickens are genetically altered to grow bigger and produce meat that is more tender, with the result that some of the chickens grow so unnaturally big that they can no longer stand up or turn around on their own. Cows are injected with genetically engineered growth hormones to produce more milk and beef.
These genetic experiments are now being conducted on the public at large who eat GE foods. The scientists and spokespeople for the major biotech companies assure us that there is no need to worry, that genetic engineering is perfectly safe and will prove to bring nothing but benefits to mankind and agriculture as a whole. However, the track record on GMOs and their health effects thus far speak much differently. For example, rBGH, a genetically produced growth hormone that is routinely injected into non-organic dairy cows, has been linked to 400-500% higher risks of human breast, prostate, and colon cancer. Conscious companies such as Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and recently Dean Foods have pledged to not use milk containing rGBH in their products.
The Future of Food documents massive recalls of certain grocery products containing traces of “Starlink”. This genetically modified strain of corn meant to be fed to animals but “not fit for human consumption” was discovered in tests on several different food products. One woman in the documentary reports having a severe allergic reaction to consuming a taco shell contaminated with the genetically-modified corn.
One of the more alarming studies on the potential environmental effects of genetic engineering involves a recent study conducted on genetically modified medaka fish. A study conducted at Purdue University by researchers William Muir and Richard Howard in 2000 found that the fish, who were genetically modified with human growth hormones to grow bigger faster, did just that, but with many devastating side effects. Only 2/3 of the GE fish made it to reproductive age, and the female non-genetically modified medakas preferred the larger but now genetically-inferior GE medakas. The researchers plugged their results into a computer and figured out that if just 60 of these transgenic fish were introduced into a wild population of 60,000 medakas, the population would become extinct within just 40 generations.
After a series of storms and roving sea lions tore open floating tanks that held genetically modified salmon in fish farms on the Northeast coast, thousands of the salmon found their way into the Atlantic Ocean. What effects will this mistake have on larger ecosystems? One possibility, named the “Trojan Gene Hypothesis” by the Purdue researchers, is that the GM fish could outcompete the natural, unmodified salmon for food and mates and eventually bring about the extinction of the natural salmon and possibly devastate the entire salmon population. Since GE salmon have an increased likelihood of diseases and a diminished awareness of predators, it is possible they won’t last long enough in the Ocean to create such a disaster, but as of yet nobody knows for sure what the outcome will be.
Today, the effects of genetically modified foods on the environment and on human life are still being tested, and much is unknown as to the potential consequences. We do know that not only have GMO crops failed to deliver on their promise of higher yields and resistance to pests, but because of cross-pollination of commonly genetically engineered crops like corn, soy and canola, the diversity and integrity of our food supply is now being threatened with contamination. Cross-pollination occurs when pollen from crops in neighboring fields is carried by the wind or by bees and mixes with neighboring crops, thereby forming a cross-breed of the two crops. Because of cross-pollination and field contamination via GMO seeds falling off of trucks into farmers’ fields, many thousands of acres of crops across the U.S. and Canada have already been contaminated. Monsanto has even sued several farmers, claiming that since they own the patent on these seeds, even if the crops finds their way into a farmer’s field without the farmer knowing about it, that farmer is infringing on Monsanto’s patent and thereby owes them money. The Organic Consumers Association is advocating for a change in laws to hold the accountability on the seed corporations, not the farmers whose fields were contaminated.
The European Union has required that all foods sold in Europe containing GMOs be labeled. Labeling of GMO food is not mandatory in this country, in part because of the strong lobbying power of big agribusiness. One of the surest ways to avoid eating GMOs is to buy organic. Certified organic foods do not contain any GMO ingredients, although it is still possible that cross-pollination can contaminate even organic crops. Three counties in California have passed referendums banning the growth of GMO crops in the entire county. Perhaps the best way to eat the most organic, nutritious, and delicious food is by growing your own or sharing with a friend who does!
OLD MCDONALD HAD A FARM VERSUS THE FACTORY FARMING OF ANIMALS
Finally, one of the greatest health debacles of our age besides the rise of pesticides and GMOs is the factory farming of animals for meat, dairy, and eggs. Almost all non-organic meat, dairy, and eggs consumed by Americans today comes from animals that have been raised in the most filthy, squalid conditions imaginable. Millions of cows, chickens, and pigs are fed the ground up bits, blood, and waste of other animals, kept in pens where they have barely enough room to turn around for their entire life, fed drugs to make them produce more meat, milk, and eggs, and are then brutally slaughtered in assembly line-type facilities. Europe has banned the sale of non-organic American beef and poultry since 1988 because of the use of growth hormones and antibiotics which have been linked to adverse health effects for both animals and humans. Yet, most Americans still do not know where their meat comes from, what it is fed, and what drugs it still contains once it reaches their plate. In addition to all of this, because the animals are fed pesticide-heavy grains, the amount of pesticides found in meat is up to possibly 10 times higher and in dairy possibly 4 times higher than the levels found in fruits and vegetables. In contrast, organically-raised cows, pigs, and chickens are guaranteed access to the outdoors, are given no drugs to enhance production, and are fed only 100% organic food.
ORGANIC HEALTH INSURANCE: YOU’RE IN GOOD HANDS
Sure, organic foods are more expensive than non-organic foods when it comes to dollars and cents. But as you can clearly see, you get what you pay for. Like anything else you spend money on, it is an investment: an investment in your health, an investment in a healthy planet, and an investment in the security of your food supply. What you are paying for is the superior quality, flavor, and nutrition of a product that has been grown closer to what it was intended to be. You are investing in a system where animals are treated more humanely, and are actually guaranteed access to the outdoors. Buying organic is, in many ways, better than buying health insurance, because it is a health insurance that protects not only you and your family, but also helps preserve a healthy future for our planet and the many beings who call this planet home.
TO BE CONTINUED: TRANSITION TO AN ORGANIC & SUSTAINABLE FUTURE
The word “sustainable” could best be defined as “giving back what you take from the Earth, and then some.” It refers to practices, including growing food, building homes, energy sources, and transportation, that could be carried on indefinitely in their current form. Organic agriculture, as it is currently practiced, is more sustainable than non-organic farming, because it returns far more of the nutrients and organic matter taken from the soil through practices like composting and crop rotation, and is less reliant on non-renewable fossil fuels.
Even organic farming, however, is still far from being entirely sustainable as it is widely practiced. This is because the majority of organic farming still relies on fossil fuels to power its tractors and trucks for distribution, and because the use of tractors to till the soil and traditional row-cropping methods are still contributing to the compaction and erosion of topsoil at rates that cannot continue much longer. Ecology Action, with whom we took a 3 day workshop on Biointensive gardening and mini-farming in November 2006, estimates that we have as few as 40 years of usable topsoil left. Both organic and non-organic farming are contributing to the rapid depletion of this disappearing source of our sustenance at relatively equal rates.
What is the solution to this? How can we ensure that we feed ourselves and our children in a way that preserves and even builds precious topsoil? Those are the questions that will be the main course for next week’s dish. Until then, the hot potato is in your hands. Pass it on!
TO FIND organic farms, CSA’s, farmer’s markets, restaurants, grocery stores, and organic fruit, flowers, veggies, herbs, eggs, meat, & dairy near you or to order online, you can do a search by typing in your zip-code at www.localharvest.org
A great comparison on sustainable versus industrial agriculture can be found at www.sustainabletable.org/intro/comparison. You can also take the red pill and watch The Meatrix animations, a hilarious play on The Matrix series, about factory farming at www.themeatrix.com.