by Marion Nestle
Jan 3 2012

Musing about organics leads me to the Farm Bill

Sales of organic foods continue to increase at a faster pace than sales of conventional foods.  This alone makes people suspicious of the organic enterprise.

Another reason is confusion about what organic production methods are, exactly.  If you are part of the food movement, you probably want your foods to be organic, local, seasonal, and sustainable.  You might also want them produced by farm workers who have decent wages and living conditions.

Unfortunately, these things do not necessarily go together.

  • Organic means crops grown without artificial pesticides, fertilizers, GMOs, irradiation, or sewage sludge, and animals raised without hormones or antibiotics.  Certified Organic methods follow specific rules established by USDA.
  • Local means foods grown or raised within a given radius that can range from a few to hundreds of miles (you have to ask).
  • Seasonal refers to food plants eaten when they are ripe (and not preserved or transported from where they were grown).
  • Sustainable means—at least by some definitions—that the nutrients removed from the soil by growing plants are replenished without artificial inputs.

That these are different is illustrated by a recent article in the New York Times about industrial organic production in Mexico.  The story makes it clear that organics do not have to be local, seasonal, sustainable, or produced by well paid workers.

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. Both factors stoke the demand for imports.

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. Day laborers who come to pick tomatoes in this part of Baja make about $10 a day, nearly twice the local minimum wage. Tomato pickers in Florida may earn $80 a day in high season.

The cost issues are critical.  Dairy farms in general, and organic dairy farms in particular, are entirely dependent on the cost of feed for their animals, and the cost of organic feed has become almost prohibitively expensive.  This has caused organic dairy producers to cut back on production or go out of business.  As another New York Times article explains,

The main reason for the shortage is that the cost of organic grain and hay to feed cows has gone up sharply while the price that farmers receive for their milk has not.

While the shortage may be frustrating for consumers, it reveals a bitter truth for organic dairy farmers, who say they simply need to be paid more for their milk.

Why is the price of feed rising?  Simple answer: because 40% of feed corn grown in the United States is being used to produce biofuels.

Why do farmers grow corn for biofuels?  Because the government gives them tax credits and other subsidies to do so.

But in a small step in the right direction, the ethanol tax credit program was allowed to expire last week,”ending an era in which the federal government provided more than $20 billion in subsidies for use of the product.”

One person quoted in the article connected the dots:

Production of ethanol, with its use of pesticides and fertilizer and heavy industrial machinery, causes soil erosion and air and water pollution. And it means that less land is available for growing food, so food prices go up.

Organics do not exist in isolation.  Their production is connected to every other aspect of the food system.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a food system that promoted organic, local, seasonal, sustainable agriculture and paid farm workers a living wage?

Wouldn’t it be nice if the 2012 Farm Bill supported that kind of a food system if not instead of than at least along side of the one we have now?

I will be watching to see what Congress does with the Farm Bill.  Stay tuned.

  • Kate

    “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a food system that promoted organic, local, seasonal, sustainable agriculture and paid farm workers a living wage?”

    How viable is this, with 300m+ people to feed across three climates? Easy to do when you’re in Half Moon Bay with three growing seasons, substantially more difficult if you’re in Saginaw, MI in January.

    Organic, sustainable, local, seasonal food was the default for tens of thousands of years, and people starved to death whenever the environment didn’t cooperate.

  • Cows are supposed to eat grass anyway!

  • Anthro

    This is why I’m returning to the practice of home-canning (much of it grown myself on a city lot) and backyard chickens. I also have greens and herbs growing under lights in the basement to tide me over for the winter. Because of the mild winter, so far, I am still picking kale grown on the south side of my house, although last night was probably the end of that–it finally got cold!

    The more self-sufficient I can be (in the city, no less), the closer I get to really eating sustainably. I still purchase coffee, tea, spices, some fruit, and dairy, but the dairy is very local and very sustainably (though not strictly organic) produced. My meat (grass fed bison) is from within my state and they ship, so only my salmon comes any real distance. The bison is only consumed occasionally and the salmon once per week and both in modest portions.

    I would much rather do what I am doing than support very bad labor policies that go with some organics as you describe in the post. I am sorry to hear about organic dairy, but I prefer to get mine from local farms with sustainable, though not strictly organic, operations. They use some pesticides when absolutely necessary, but rarely have to do so. They grow their own feed and pasture most of the year. It’s a family farm and is less than two hours from my house. They sell at the coop for a price that is only a little more than the supermarkets and way less than organic.

    I learned how to grow greens indoors in buckets from Will Allen at Growing Power. I also learned about worm farming from him so I compost year round as well as provide “fresh meat” for my hens–and amend my soil in the spring. I share and sell my excess eggs, which covers my feed costs.

    Even if I lived in an apartment, I would do a lot of this. It feels great to be this self-reliant in a city environment! Now if only I could have a couple of pygmy goats in the back yard, I could be making my own cheese as well! Happily, we have a lot of small, dedicated cheese makers here in the dairy state within reasonable distance of my home who also retail at the coop.

    Thanks for putting these issues in perspective and for elucidating the complexities of the Farm Bill.

  • Crider

    What Go Kalaeo said. Organic dairy isn’t supposed to be done in a feedlot setting. They’re supposed to be grazing. THere is supposed to be enough pasture so that the farmer can harvest enough hay to last through the winter. At least that’s how the organic producers do it in my corner of Northern California.

    What I’m suspect over is the ‘certification’ of imported foods by that company Quality Assurance International. It seems they have captured the market for this and I have grave doubts that any food from China is really organic.

  • I’ve learned to ignore the organic label in some cases. Dairy is one of those. Eggs, too – I don’t want eggs from chickens fed an “organic” diet. Or worse, a “vegetarian, organic” diet. Chickens are not vegetarians! They eat bugs for heaven’s sake. I want eggs from chickens who get their food from scratching for it in the dirt. If that means there are certain times in the year when there are no eggs, then I don’t have eggs. This also applies to chickens I eat.

    I want milk from cows who eat grass. Yes, it does matter that the grass is organic – as in no toxic chemicals added for growth or weed/pest control. But I don’t want “organic” milk if it’s from a cow whose only relationship with grass is the bit of pasture it can see from a window.

    I shop at Whole Foods, and do you know they still have raspberries and blueberries loading up the produce section? It’s the dead of winter! The only thing I can do, is refuse to buy those berries. I wait until late spring or summer, when they are in season, and I buy them from a local farm.

    Essentially, if I’m going to be an intelligent shopper, I need to be aware of how, when, and where my food is produced. I’ve learned that I can never just assume that the label is telling me everything.

  • Margeretrc

    What @Marlene said. And @Crider and @Go Kaleo, too. If one looks, one can often–at least in some parts of the country–find organic food that is not certified (because that certification costs money.) I buy most of my produce at the local farmers’ market, which, lucky for me, happens twice a week year ’round. Most of them advertise “pesticide free” and those are the ones I support. I get my milk (yes, it’s labeled organic, but also comes from pastured cows) at the local health food store. Yes, it’s more expensive, but it’s just my husband and I, so we don’t use all that much. My eggs, also from the farmers’ market, are laid by chickens allowed to roam free and eat what chickens eat, including bugs. How do I know? The yolks are bright bright orange and they taste wonderful. I do not want eggs from chickens fed “organic vegetarian” and don’t buy them. I agree that the farm bill needs to go or at least support those farmers who raise their crops and livestock sustainably without the use of fossil fuels as much or more than it supports commodity crops. So that real food can at least compete in price with processed foods and beverages loaded with sugar and starch, which are making the population more obese and more diseased.

  • Cathy Richards

    @Crider – cows can’t graze all year in most of North America. In the winter their feed is typically stored grasses/hay (usually supplemented by grains) depending on how they are being raised. Cost of hay will be going up as hay fields are being turned into corn fields to meet the ethanol demand, making hay a scarcer item thus pricier.

    Also, I’m not sure that certified organic requires grazing, it just requires that most of the feed is certified. I’d have to check.

    It’s only when you get into certification for free range or SPCA regs that grazing comes into it.

    Marion – thanks for linking these two issues and keeping the farm bill on everyone’s radar.

  • John

    @Cathy There are new provisions in the Organic Rule that require a minimum number of days on pasture now, called the Access to Pasture Rule. You can learn about it here It is regarded as a good step forward, and good for the small producers.

  • Gina

    Sadly ‘organic’ has been reduced to a marketing label, exploited by deep pocketed, industrialized farm operations. Its like putting a picture of a barn and rolling hills on the package – oh, of course these eggs came from happy chickens scratching around for worms….. Seriously, its time to wake up folks.

    Get educated, get real, and most of all, get to know your local farmers – where ever you live. They are out there in every community and without your support, they will continue to struggle against the current, deceptive food system.

  • Joe

    The Invisible Hand of the Free Market is still shaking things up

  • This is a raging debate I have with myself – is the sustainable food movement a legitimate challenge to the industrialized and unsustainable food system we rely on now, or is it, and will it always be, just a niche market for people ‘in the know’ and who can afford it?

    Government via the Farm Bill would go a long way in helping a sustainable food system, but would that then leave it vulnerable to the persuasions of corporate lobbying and exhortation?

    How do we feed 300million+ people 2-3 times a day sustainably? Let alone produce enough to export.

    So many questions, so little time. The sustainable food movement is about the only progressive agenda I can think of that is working towards a sort of regression. One thing is for sure, we have to move away from an excessive carbon/chemical food production system. It’s poisoning not only our bodies, but the very planet we call home.

  • NYFarmer

    Perhaps sustainable and regional might best be accomplished when consumers are able to understand the agricultural production of their own regions. Bill raises a great point. We need to go from “niche” thinking by a few to encompass ALL stake-holders.
    My familiarity is with dairy farming. Northeast dairy farms are by and large based off of the massive and well-watered grasslands we have close to the Northeast Corridor. Pay a visit to these farms and you will find one of the most sustainable production systems in the nation. The stakeholders include the farmers, the people who work on farms and milk plants making dairy products, truckers, consumers, economic development people, etc.
    The equation should also include ‘farmer justice”. We always hear about the need to ensure that the farm workers are paid. How come the discussion doesn’t include a discussion on how farmers get paid? The discussion almost invariably seems to focus on how to cheapen input costs (here…by cutting back on ethanol production).
    Sustainability includes looking at economic models. In dairy, a tiny handful of companies have come to dominate. The dairy farmers’ share continues to drop, removing more farmers from the land. (Dr. Ron Cotterill at Univ. of CT is the expert on economic modeling in this regard) Here in NY, Cornell has detailed some 3,000,000 acres of former farms, mostly dairy…now vacant, idled, empty…barns falling down and local economies in ruins. And, we have major yogurt plants looking for pure milk to make yogurt close to the Northeast Corridor. However, without a pricing structure that will pay farmers at least what it costs to produce the milk, we are headed towards further cheapening of NY’s countryside.
    I urge the readers of this column and Dr. Nestle to move into thinking about food and agriculture with a multi-disciplinary approach. Think natural resources, ecology, infrastructure, farmers as people, workforce, transportation, regional systems, and much more. Food does not come from thin air.
    Glad to see more substantive discussion here. Great article, Dr. Nestle.

  • Pingback: Why “Organic” isn’t Necessarily “Sustainable,” and Vice Versa : Zomppa – Food Good, Social Good()

  • After doing research on sustainable agriculture and organic food for some time, I have come to the conclusion that the sustainable food movement has to have rules of its own – locally-produced with as little processing as possible with the bulk of the food dollar going back to the farmer or food grower sounds fair and sustainable to me. In terms of feasibility, it will depend on how direct the path is from farm to consumer. If the consumer or farmer have to go through loops to get to each other – no matter the demand for sustainable food – status quo (industrial ag) will prevail. So local food systems have to be put in place to support these transactions bewteen local food enthusiasts and sustainable farm operations.