What could be wrong with farming in concert with nature—eliminating toxic agrichemicals and the use of genetically engineered crops? Well, plenty if you are a CEO at Monsanto, Dupont, or any number of other “life-sciences” companies that have invested in an escalating smear campaign aimed at discrediting organic farming. Promulgated by such well-funded surrogates as the right-wing Hudson Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the American Chemical Society, these multinational corporations can’t stand that consumers are voting with their pocketbooks because of their discomfort with conventional farming practices and have turned organic food marketing from a small, eclectic niche into the fastest growing segment of the food industry, with over $12 billion in sales this year.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.” The agrichemical industry is definitely itching for a fight.
Spreading animal manure on farm fields to renew soil fertility is one organic agricultural practice that’s under attack. Never mind that over 90% of all manure is spread on conventional farm fields or that organic farmers took the lead in developing strict limitations governing the use of raw manure.
The Hudson Institute charges that manure use increases the incidence of food-borne diseases. Hudson’s claim completely twists the results of a recent independent University of Minnesota study that found no statistically different risk in the pathogenic contamination of certified organic food verses its conventionally produced counterparts, according to lead author, Dr. Francisco Diez-Gonzalez.
In fact, according to Dr. Diez-Gonzalez, he had a very “heated discussion” with a Hudson Institute representative who was dissatisfied with the study’s findings and who told the researcher, “you are wrong.”
One concept we might agree on is that more research is required in order to measure chemical residues on all food products and to determine the consequences of eating those contaminants. However, in the midst of the attacks against the organic community, aren’t organic proponents right to ask “Why it is useful to demean those of us who do not use chemicals on the food we eat or produce for others? Why are we the ones who have got it wrong, when history overwhelmingly indicates that we are prudent to be cautious?”
The chemicals used in conventional agriculture are considered highly toxic by themselves and have been proven to be unhealthful, even in minute doses or as residues, no matter whether one is reviewing cancer studies, endocrine systems research, or environmental data. Pesticides and herbicides are designed to kill things, and they sometimes kill things unintentionally. Farmers (who have the highest occupational cancer rate in the country) and farm workers continue to be at risk from these chemicals, but there is little danger from the botanical pesticides organic farmers infrequently utilize.
Millions of us are also concerned that synthetic agricultural chemicals may be contributing to, or causing outright, a host of life-shortening illnesses and conditions, so we have elected to minimize exposure to such substances. It’s that simple. This is why many of the synthetic substances used in the 1960s and 1970s have been banned and why more are now listed for prohibition. Continued prohibitions have been incentives for many farming operations to adopt low-input and conservative pest management strategies in order to learn to farm without damaging health or the environment.
Large-scale conventional farms that have been experimenting with organic management are now adopting some of these methods on their conventional acreage because they are good agronomy, not because cover cropping, leaving land fallow, crop-based remediation, and beneficial insect habitats are trendy. Many new-generation organic growers are attracted to nonchemical farming because it promotes creativity and reestablishes agriculture as an art, not merely a form of manufacturing—the fact that organic farmers are fairly paid is just icing on the cake.
Most farmers relish their relationship with nature, which is one reason why they are farmers. Organic practices empower that relationship and make the environment a safer one for workers, neighbors, and consumers. We consumers pay into that partnership every time we buy a product grown without toxic chemicals. We buy organic foods not simply for their own sake, but because of concerns outside our own personal circle.
Steve Sprinkel, of Ventura County, California, has farmed organically for 28 years and serves on the Policy Advisory Board of The Cornucopia Institute, a progressive food and farm policy group based in Cornucopia, Wisconsin. Mark A. Kastel is the institute’s Co-Director.