Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Sustainability of Organic Ag?

There's a fascinating article in the NYTimes about the problems that have arisen as big organic agriculture has grown: Organic Agriculture May Be Outgrowing Its Ideals

Check it out!

Some of the most interesting excerpts:

The upsides for the economy of some of the parts of Mexico that export organic produce to the U.S.: "They also point out that the organic business has transformed what was once a poor area of subsistence farms and where even the low-paying jobs in the tourist hotels and restaurants in nearby Cabo San Lucas have become scarcer during the recession."

The limits of the organic label: Organic produce has to be grown without synthetic fertilizers, hormones, and pesticides, but "the checklist makes few specific demands for what would broadly be called environmental sustainability, even though the 1990 law that created the standards was intended to promote ecological balance and biodiversity as well as soil and water health."

Attempts to modify "organic" to embody a larger sense of sustainability: "And last year the Agriculture Department’s National Organic Standards Board revised its rules to require that for an “organic milk” label, cows had to be at least partly fed by grazing in open pastures rather than standing full time in feedlots."

The many players involved in these large-scale decisions about the food system: "But each decision to narrow the definition of “organic” involves an inevitable tug-of-war among farmers, food producers, supermarkets and environmentalists."

Consumers' narrow understanding of what's good about organics: "While the original organic ideal was to eat only local, seasonal produce, shoppers who buy their organics at supermarkets, from Whole Foods to Walmart, expect to find tomatoes in December and are very sensitive to price."

The inevitable limits of seasonality (which we just can't accept!): "Few areas in the United States can farm organic produce in the winter without resorting to energy-guzzling hothouses. In addition, American labor costs are high."

Water scarcity and American dominance: Organic farming in Mexico depletes already suffering aquifers, "Many growers blame tourist development — hotels and golf courses — for the water scarcity, and this has been a major problem in coastal areas. But farming can also be a significant drain...The logistics of getting water and transporting large volumes of perishable produce favors bigger producers. Some of the largest are American-owned, like Sueño Tropical, a vast farm with rows of shade houses lined up in the desert that caters exclusively to the American market.
While traditional organic farmers saw a blemish or odd shape simply as nature’s variations, workers at Sueño Tropical are instructed to cull tomatoes that do not meet the uniform shape, size and cosmetic requirement of clients like Whole Foods."

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