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Archive for November, 2010

Over the past few years Thanksgiving has taken on a new meaning for me.  My time on the farm and studying food crop production has shifted the way that I think and talk about food.  I’ve seen the effects of soil properties when harvesting crooked and twisted carrots from a clay-loam soil.   I’ve seen the incredible damage that the tiny Potato Psyllid can do to a field of potatoes.  I’ve had two consecutive years of Brussels Sprout crop failures.  Throughout this time I’ve been engaging myself in more of the policy and politics that affect our food.  I’ve watched as dozens of food recalls have taken place because of food contaminated with E. Coli. I’ve watched from a distance as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have fought for years to be paid $0.024 per pound of tomatoes they harvest (1000 pounds x 2.4 cents = $24).  I’ve watched as political parties cry out against “illegals,” yet continue to support policy that drives down the wages for farm workers to a place that most US citizens are not willing to work for.  It’s hard to look at the food on my table in the same way as I used to.

I stumbled across a Wendel Berry quote the other day, and I think it’s a great thought for the Thanksgiving season.

“A significant part of the pleasure of eating is in one’s accurate consciousness of the lives and the world from which food comes.”

There is so much that goes into the food that we eat: growing conditions where the plant/animal is grown, working conditions for the farmers and processors, policy that determines what food is going to be subsidized.  All of these things play out before we set our dinning table.  I didn’t intend to write such a depressing post this morning, but these thoughts have been swirling though my mind during the past week.

I am very grateful for the food that I have in my home.  I am grateful for the labor of the farm workers.  I am grateful for the policy makers who are trying to make healthy food more available to everyone, especially the poor and “the least of these” in society.

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About two months ago an opportunity came up for me to have a farm of my own next year.  I haven’t made too many of the detail public yet, so you might have to wait for another post for some more specific aspects of the farm.  I’ve been spending a lot of time creating a business plan and hashing through big picture details that I’d like to figure out before I get into the nitty-gritty of shopping for equipment and seeds.  One of the components that I’m struggling to decide on is whether or not to become a Certified Organic farm.  I will be starting to farm next season on just over a half acre (the uniqueness of the farm will require a small amount of land to start) with the potential to add another acre if I want to expand.

I’ve spent the last two year working at a Certified Organic farm, and this past year I was involved in the certification audit.  I believe in organic agriculture.  Whether or not I get certified I’ll be farming using organic practices, so it’s not that I’m concerned about non-organic practices that I could use if I wasn’t certified.  I’m hoping to be able to have 20 CSA as well as selling at a farmer’s market, so most of the sales will be through a direct relationship with the people who will be eating the veggies.

What do you think?  Is being Certified Organic designed for the small, relationship driven farmer?  As a shopper at a farmer’s market, does it matter to you if the farm is Certified Organic?  Would you become a member of a CSA based on it’s organic certification?  Feel like the USDA has deluded the meaning of the word “Organic?”

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Yesterday I attended a lecture entitled “Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food”  The lecture topic and titled is also the title of the lecturers book.  I hadn’t heard of the book or the speakers before I heard about the lecture, so I didn’t have a very wide frame of reference to base any opinions about them or their material.  I have been hearing a growing discussion about the idea of combining organic farming practices with genetically engineered (GE) plants or genetically modified organisms (GMO), and I was anticipating this lecture to be in a similar vein of thought.

Here’s a brief bio of the two authors. (I lifted this directly from the lecture notes from last night.)
“Pamela Ronald is Professor of Plant Pathology at the University of California, Davis, where she studies the role that genes play in a plant’s response to its environment. Her laboratory has genetically engineered rice for resistance to diseases and flooding, both of which are serious problems of rice crops in Asia and Africa.”
“Raoul Adamchak has grown organic crops for twenty years, part of the time as a partner in Full Belly Farm, a private 150-acre organic vegetable farm. He has inspected over one hundred organic farms as an inspector for California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and served as a member and President of CCOF’s Board of Directors. He now works at the U.C., Davis as the Market Garden Coordinator at the certified organic farm on campus.”

Raoul began the lecture by discussing the problems that our current (global) forms of agriculture are causing throughout the world.  He wasn’t blaming any one type of farming for this, he was just stating facts and statistics.  It wasn’t really anything we all haven’t heard before.  He then spoke about what he was doing in the world of Organic agriculture.  He finished his time by stating that Organic agriculture was not enough of a solution to the global crisis that is caused by agriculture worldwide.  Pam spoke next about what GE plants are and how they are made.  She then spoke about her work on flood resistant rice.

Ok, now that that’s all out of the way, let me say how disappointed I was in the lecture.  I was hoping that the lecture would be a serious discussion of whether or not GE plants and organic agriculture can coexist, but this was not the case.  As Raoul spent the majority of his time talking about the problems caused by the majority of the agricultural practices and very little time discussing Organic agriculture.  I found this very disconcerting.  I have never seen or heard another organic farmer less passionate about Organic production.  At best, he appeared apathetic.  And what disturbs me most about it is that he is the president of the California Certified Organic Farmers board.

I found Pam to be an engaging speaker.  She was very clear about her points and purpose, however I found that her arguments were based upon false dichotomies that she would create.  She would argue that the majority of the world couldn’t afford to purchase organic foods, yet the majority of the world eats based on subsistence farming, and for the most part cannot afford to purchase chemical pesticides regardless of whether they are organic or synthetic.

What bothered me the most about the lecture was that their argument for the use of GE crops was that their reasoning seemed to be, “we have the ability and science to do this, so we should.”  During the question and answer period, someone ask what they thought about seed ownership and how the consolidation of the seed industry impacts farmers.  Pam’s answer was that the rice that she has been developing is being done through a grant from the USDA, and that the issues of consolidation needed to be addressed by the Department of Justice.  This answer came off as so flippant, that any credibility that I was giving to them was gone.  The thesis of their lecture (and I’m guessing of their book as well) was that we need an integrated approach to agriculture, one that includes organic practices and GE crops, in order to feed the world without destroying it.  By it’s nature this thesis is broad, yet the answer they gave last night was narrow.  Any time a question was brought up regarding the ethics of GE crops, the speakers redirected the question without addressing the concern.  And when a question of  decreasing genetic biodiversity came up, the answer ignored the dependence on single varieties that GE crops promote.

While I was biking home from the lecture, I had some time to think about what was presented.  By the time I got home I realized what had left me feeling so disturbed.  The discussion of  “feeding the world” has so many moving parts that it’s nearly impossible to involve every aspect of the discussion.  The science of creating a GE seed cannot be divorced from the recognition that there are companies looking to profit from the seed, yet the speakers intentionally chose to ignore this reality.  I wonder how GE seed scientist feel about participating in a business that puts farmers into debt and when a crop failure occurs, 1500 farmers see no way out other than suicide? This is not a sustainable solution.

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