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What is radical about organic?

Editors note:

In 1972, Richard Merrill wrote Radical Agriculture, an influential book at the dawn of the organic movement. Here is what he is saying now.

“History is not a cycle, but a spiral.”
-H.G. Wells

By Richard Merrill

Unfortunately, people tend to be cynical about the future. Maybe they envision some sort of dystopia, or believe in Armageddon. But, to believe in sustainability, you have to be optimistic.

One problem is that “sustainability,” although a compelling term, is rather vague and overused. Sustainability implies knowing what’s good for the future. But all we can really do is set our intentions about what we would like to see, and make assumptions about what the future may hold. Since humans don’t seem adept at predicting the consequences of their actions, we really can’t know which course will be sustainable.
Also, sustainability is not some check list of practices like a third-party certification. It’s an ever-changing notion, which needs to be continually redefined as their future unfolds. Maybe we ought to call it “survivable” agriculture.

What we do get out of all this fuss is that a farming practice cannot promote sustainability without simultaneously addressing environmental, economic and social concerns. That much we know.

As we become more and more urbanized and more of us move into the cities, we become more ignorant about where our food really comes from. Food is taken for granted, and farming is a form of lost knowledge …a gap in the collective memory.
Consider the beguiling claim that our modern agriculture gives us cheap food. If you look into it, we really pay for our food at least five times before it gets to our tables; at the check out counter; through taxes that subsidize corporate farms; by the cheap labor of the agri-food industry; in the public health costs of chemicals, animal fats and simple sugars in our diet, and finally, in the cost to our soil, water and other natural resources caused by chemical farming and containment livestock production.

If we could calculate a life-cycle cost of our food using these collateral expenses, then that “cheap” head of lettuce or pound of steak would have a much higher price tag.
We need to educate the public about the true cost of their food and the benefits of organic agriculture to their future, to their health and to the health of the world around them. This is a problem for public relations and public education. I believe activities leading up to the 2012 Farm Bill are just such an opportunity. We may never have a better chance.

"we really pay for our food at least five times before it gets to our tables,”

Finally, if we really care about the future of agriculture, then we must pay attention to a problem that is being completely ignored. In the early ‘70s the issue of population growth was debated everywhere. Somehow it has disappeared from public discourse. As long as we have a growing population demanding to eat off the top of the food chain, no type of agriculture we can imagine seems truly sustainable. Whether we like it or not, the human population problem needs to be in the dialogue about the future of agriculture.

The limits of a fossil fuel agriculture are still with us, but conservation and the harnessing of renewable energy is improving…slowly. The amount of energy used in agriculture reached a peak in the early ‘80s and has actually decreased by over 30 percent since then, due mostly to the wider use of diesel fuels, improved production practices, especially no-till and a reduction in the use of farm chemicals.

Unfortunately, even as farmers use less energy, their energy costs increase. So in spite of good behavior, the math is not encouraging, especially for the small farmer.
The major difference between energy use in organic and non-organic agriculture is the energy in chemical fertilizers and synthetic fertilizers. Everything else is about the same. This suggests a question: In the future, should organic certification require some use of renewable energy during production?

Title IX of the 2008 Farm Bill made unprecedented specifications for funding renewable energy systems on farmlands; more and more examples are appearing throughout the country. In the 2012 Farm Bill, these funds need to increase dramatically.
Liquid fuels are a major consumer of energy in agriculture. The environmental effects of corn-ethanol make it clear that it is only a temporary solution with the convenience of an existing corn infra-structure, and long-standing corn subsidies keeping the illusion alive. Hopefully, a variety of regionally-adapted bio fuels from both on-farm and off-farm sources will eventually prevail.

Agroecology is succeeding

Going back to the early ‘70s, I remember thinking that natural ecosystems have been working successfully for millions of years. Maybe we could learn something from them. Thus, in Radical Agriculture I suggested that farms might be made more sustainable by managing them as cultivated ecosystems. My major professor at the time, a very well-respected ecologist, questioned this idea, because it would require a radically new way of thinking about farm management. People, he said, would have to think like ecologists.

Fortunately, my teacher was wrong. The genie of ecology had been let out of the bottle by the emerging environmental movement. It was whispering into the ears of a whole new generation of farmers and scientists - not only about a radical new way of approaching farming - but also a rationale for resurrecting traditional long-term farming practices. The organic and, especially, biodynamic farming methods are certainly ecological in approach, but the science of ecology gave alternative agriculture a more acceptable and mainstream exposure… especially to academia.

But there was a price to pay. Now you would be driven crazy by the practices of industrial agriculture, not because it was the other side doing it, but because they made no ecological sense. This is why, today, we see agro-ecological research flourishing.
The rural sociologists and ag economists talk about social collaborations and networks for sharing knowledge and experiences. The agro-ecologists describe symbioses, biological webs, and managed bio-diversity for ecological stability. To me, these are just two sides of the same coin. A diversity of interactions is at the heart of our future agriculture.

Alternative agricultural research has changed its focus

In the early ‘70s, criticism of agricultural research was focused on what was and wasn’t being studied. Organic / sustainable agriculture was definitely out of the loop. But today, there are 10 alternative and sustainable agriculture programs at land grant colleges in the U.S. and dozens more at NGO’s and other private institutions all carrying out research. This is very encouraging.

With the growing holistic approach to agriculture, the concern today is less with what is being studied and more with the design of the experiment, or how they are being performed. There will always be a need for short-term, specialized experiments at research tracts outside the farm gate. But only as a supplement to long-term and multi-disciplinary research with the farm itself as the trial. We need, as Wendell Berry put it, “to solve for pattern”… find solutions that solve multiple problems, while minimizing the creation of new ones.

Regional food economies have matured

The regional food economies first discussed in Radical Agriculture have evolved into a more sophisticated framework … the foodshed. While watersheds describe the flow of water supplying a region, foodsheds describe the flow of food feeding a region. The foodshed is a collaborative network of farmers, processors, distributors, and food retailers all cooperating to improve the ecological and economic health of a particular region. Foodshed collaboration mapping, and organization are now taking place in several areas including Albuquerque, Seattle, San Francisco, Grand Rapids, and Sudbury, Ontario.

Foodsheds have several advantages. They promote food sovereignty, support small farmers and community economic development, enhance genetic diversity, establish a strong connection between consumer and farmer, and provide a higher quality. There is one caveat, however.

Up to now, it seemed that if you bought food locally, you would reduce the carbon footprint of food transportation, which often brings food from thousands of miles away, that is you would reduce the food miles. However, recent studies have shown that what people eat is far more important than the miles the food has traveled…that eating lower on the food chain is preferable to eating local. Energy is consumed mostly in production, especially red meats and dairy. There are other advantages to foodsheds, but lowering food miles and carbon footprints seems less important than we thought.

So, to the question at hand: is organic agriculture radical?
Well, if we ride the spiral of history 30-some years before the early 70s, to the early 40s, we find J.I. Rodale starting the organic movement in America. His idea that there was something unhealthy about synthetic chemicals in the food chain was certainly a radical notion, and his founding of Prevention Magazine during that period made public something that not even the medical establishment was thinking about… the relationship between diet and health. In the early ‘70s, the Rodale Institute was underwriting renewable energy projects, and defining itself in terms of sustainability… definitely radical initiatives. And today, the Rodale Institute is still operating the longest running field trial in the United States at the Kutztown plots, and is one of the few groups researching soil carbon sequestration.

Viewed from afar, we can see the radical metric change with each whorl of the historic spiral. First, synthetic chemicals and public health, then energy and sustainability, now the carbon footprint. With each revolution the concern became more basic, harder to change, more radical, and the organic practitioner was always there.

“...what people eat is far more important than the miles the food has traveled…”

 I believe that it is just as accurate to judge what is radical, by how the established order reacts to something as much as what is actually done.

 Case in point: the 1997 release of the National Organic Program Proposed Rule created a national reaction that was both vociferous and prolific. By April 1998, the USDA had received nearly 300,000 comments on the proposed rule, more than any other legislation in U.S. history.

The sheer volume and overwhelmingly negative evaluation of the contents of the rule caused the USDA to retreat and reevaluate its position. The rest is history. That was organic agriculture at its radical best.

So where do we go from here? How do we ride the historic spiral towards the 100th anniversary of the U.S. organic agriculture movement? I can only speak for myself in terms of my personal agenda and priorities.

To the builders I say: build us a variety of renewable energy systems that integrate with food production. Create entrepreneurial models for selling locally-grown foods to supermarkets.

Build the ecological framework for agricultural research, especially humus management, rotational grazing and habitat management for pest control and conservation. Find ways to build a more pro-active organic certification process. It’s got to be more than just what not to do. We need metrics and ways to account for improvements to the soil and farm habitat; the conservation of natural resources and the harnessing of renewable energy. And how do we account for social justice and animal rights? Its time to put our certificate where our mouth is!

   To the warriors I say: stay on top of the GMO’s and the seed/chemical company integrations; challenge and resist the contained livestock operations, and, especially, protect the organic ideal. As more people look to promote the merchandising of organic food, we need to be careful that the original purpose of the organic label doesn’t get lost in the green marketplace, and that it’s founding ideas of stewardship don’t become reduced to a mere certificate of intent rather than a guidepost for a more progressive agriculture.

To the weavers I say three things; first, continue to create your networks of scientists and farmers. We need to articulate alternative agricultural with an alternative extension model. Second, weave your fabrics of collaboration throughout the foodscape. In the end, its not about saving energy…its about food sovereignty and creating a firm connection between people and their food source.

Third, invade cyberspace, move to D.C., organize conferences, write books and articles, … do whatever it takes to educate us and get us organized around a radical change to the 2012 Farm Bill. Specifically, a repurposing of the existing and outdated farm subsidy program… the engine that keeps the prevailing agriculture moving.

For me, there seem to be three truly sustainable things. The renewability of solar energy, the endurance of ecological systems and the respect and friendship of people bonded together in a common cause. Somewhere in this trifecta is the future of agriculture.

Richard Merrill is an Emeritus Professor at the Horticulture Dept of Cabrillo College, in Santa Cruz, Calif., and is working on a new book on organics.


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