Insights by Goldie
The future of organic

Sound Consumer | September 2004

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

It's a common myth that from the time our ancestors began cultivating crops and domesticating animals until the mid-20th century that all agriculture was organic.

While that's an appealing and romanticized view, it's simplistic and not accurate. Before the 20th century, agriculture was essentially non-chemical, but there were many agricultural practices in this country and other parts of the world that had wreaked havoc, wearing out soils and leaving a damaged environment. There were, however, always "oases" of dedicated practitioners who would be considered "organic" by today's organic and sustainable standards.

J.I. Rodale, the founder of Organic Farming & Gardening magazine in the 1940s, introduced the term "organic" to this country, but it evolved with earlier researchers in Europe. It was coined to refer to a qualitatively different, biologically based, whole-systems agricultural attitude and practice. There was an avowed effort to respect, understand and work with the forces of nature, and document non-chemical, carbon-based (i.e., organic) systems for soil-building, crop production and animal husbandry, which were shown to be productive and sustainable over time.

Post-WWII agriculture

Synthetic pesticides emerged after World War II out of the defense industry. The first modern pesticides were derived from nerve gases developed by the Germans during the war. The United States acquired a host of secrets from captured chemical factories that allowed the creation of organophosphates, a family of powerful pesticides still used today.

An enormous surplus of nitrates and other weapons-grade chemicals at war's end was converted into powerful farm fertilizers. Petroleum-based compounds were patented and chemical industries applied their warfare research to conquering nature down on the farm.

Mainstream agriculture underwent extraordinary changes. The new synthetics jump-started American agriculture and, for a few years, resulted in huge increases in production, even though declining soil fertility meant the use of increased levels of such fertilizers.

Rachel Carson's seminal work in 1962, "Silent Spring," revealed the impact these dangerous pesticides were having on the planet. In that sense, Carson was midwife to the birth of the environmental consciousness of the 1960s and 70s. Her findings especially resonated with the nascent organic movement.

Organic yesterday

At that time the chemical-based system already was proving to be unsustainable and dangerous. Early organic farmers continued to develop their skills. More interest was shown by consumers seeking better and fresher foods. New farmers dreamed of making a living on the land and the need grew for developing markets. That led to a need for written standards to verify how their product was different from the usual fare.

Throughout the next couple of decades, standards were developed and some became codified into law, as in Washington state. The Organic Foods Production Act was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1990 and finally, in 2002, national standards were in place.

But rather than viewing it as finished business (as many producers may have wished and as many consumers may have thought), organic standards were, are and probably ever shall be, evolving and changing. The regulatory journey continues.

Organic today

Certified organic farmers and ranchers, as well as organic foods manufacturers and processors, wholesalers, retailers and organic consumers — as well as the organic researchers and all who participate, at various levels, as regulators of organic standards — all have important roles to play in the still unfolding drama that is the organic agricultural phenomena today.

It is important to view this as a whole system, with many variables that affect, and will continue to affect whether you or I — or our children and grandchildren yet unborn — will be eating organic foods five, 10, or 50 years from now.

Organic tomorrow

For several years now, organic is the only sector of U.S. agriculture with positive growth. Even in very mainstream supermarkets, certified organic foods are in place. Still, in the past two years since organic standards became national, there have been several serious problems within the federal regulatory system. I've written about these and refer you specifically to our Web site archives and, for additional information, to the archives of the Organic Consumers Association at www.organicconsumers.org.

The relationship between farmers, consumers and regulators at the U.S. Department of Agriculture is difficult, but not cause for a divorce — even though it has been referred to more than once as a dysfunctional marriage.

Far more disturbing, however, is the threat of genetically engineered seeds and animals, especially the biopharmaceutical and industrial plants and animals being developed and readied for market. This makes long-term predictions about the future of organic farming problematic. (See A primer on biopharming, Sound Consumer, September 2004).)

These realities hang over us as consumers and will negatively affect the future of all agriculture, not just organic. But for certified organic, which strictly forbids any genetically engineered substances, it's unclear whether, how or if organic producers can continue to co-exist effectively with genetically engineered agriculture.

Federal and state regulations have failed repeatedly to address these issues honestly. The government's action and inaction encourage and support the continued growth of genetically engineered agriculture to all our peril.

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