The phone rang as I was tying up loose ends for my last day in the office before Christmas. New York Times reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal wanted my thoughts on the sustainability of organic agriculture… a subject that I think about a lot. I gave her my cell phone number and asked her to call back.
Organic agriculture used to be sustainable agriculture, but now that is not always the case.
I disagree with the statement attributed to me that “organic agriculture used to be sustainable.” Most organic farms remain more sustainable than their conventional counterparts. If we must import produce from Mexico we should support the farmers there that grow it organically.US produce imports from Mexico have almost tripled since 1990, driven by growing demand for inexpensive fruit and vegetables out-of-season. Most of this supply comes from conventional farms. Sourcing more of it from organic farms will not solve the important sustainability issues Rosenthal addresses, but it makes things better, not worse.Despite growth in demand for organic products, less than 1% of farmland in the USA or Mexico is certified organic. Organic farms tend to use energy and water more efficiently than conventional farms. They pollute less. Organic farmers are often healthier, and better able to make a decent living from small, diversified farms, such as those that dominate Mexico’s organic sector. Supporting them promotes sustainability.
is not one that uses certain methods and substances and avoids others; it is a farm whose structure is formed in imitation of the structure of a natural system; it has the integrity, the independence, and the benign dependence of an organism.
But we must not forget that those human solutions that we may call organic are not natural. We are talking about organic artifacts, organic only by imitation or analogy. Our ability to make such artifacts depends on virtues that are specifically human: […] A good solution, then, must be in harmony with good character, cultural value, and moral law.
The group doing all of Del Cabo’s production in the southern end of the peninsula is one of the oldest grower-owned organic cooperatives in the world. It is owned by the same 151 families (average acreage less than 10) that were given ownership by organic farming pioneers in the early 1980s. It was started, and remains, as a social enterprise to give Mexican farmers a dignified alternative to waiting on tables and cleaning any of the nearly 500,000 luxiorious hotel rooms that American and European tourists inhabit daily[…] In fact the reason why organics developed in this part of Mexico is because the big conventional growers had no interest in the small fields that were owned by Mexican families. Del Cabo growers are religious about organics.
Fields are sprayed with more than one hundred different herbicides and pesticides. Tomatoes are picked hard and green and artificially gassed until their skins acquire a marketable hue. Modern plant breeding has tripled yields, but has also produced fruits with dramatically reduced amounts of calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin C, and tomatoes that have fourteen times more sodium than the tomatoes our parents enjoyed. The relentless drive for low costs has fostered a thriving modern-day slave trade in the United States.