All-American, All-Organic

by DEBORAH RICH

We’re working hard chasing down signatures out here in California, but in support of the wrong ballot measures. Instead of backing initiatives to ban genetically modified crops, we should be forcing a vote on whether to require all agriculture to be organic — not only in balmy, crop-diverse California, but in every state.

I agree that genetically modified crops likely jeopardize the intricate web that has evolved between plants, soil microorganisms and animals in ways little understood and difficult to anticipate before being made painfully apparent. Substituting human judgment for the sieve of evolution as the determinant of whether the DNA of different kingdoms of life should mix ought to give us pause.

But genetically modified crops are merely symptoms of the underlying problem of industrialized agriculture and its reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

Plants altered to produce their own insecticides, or to withstand herbicide applications, are crop chemicals in a new and more convenient form. Like their liquid, granule, dust and gas predecessors, genetically modified crops extend the illusion that we can indefinitely feed, clothe, house and transport our populous species with little regard for the basic tenet of biodiversity and the natural systems of nutrient and energy recycling upon which all life depends. Outlaw GM plants without a fundamental change in our approach to agriculture, and our laboratories will soon spew out different and equally disturbing innovations.

We don’t have the time, personally or environmentally, to fan out gathering signatures to counter the release of each new generation of agricultural chemical. We need, instead, to vote once for a system of food production that promotes the health of the land. We need state referendums requiring all agriculture to switch to organic within a reasonable time. By definition, this would outlaw GM crops, and nearly all other forms of synthetic chemicals.

The past 10 years have made a mockery of the original rationales offered for radically altering the DNA of plants: Much of the world is still hungry, we’re still bailing out our farmers with a national farm bill that will cost us well in excess of $100 billion, and pesticide use on the major GM crops is increasing, not decreasing.

But during this same decade, we have reached a point of critical knowledge about how to grow our food organically. We could vote, today, to require all agriculture to be organic within 10 years and know that neither we, our children nor our poor will go hungry due to insufficient crop production.

For 24 years the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania has conducted the Farming Systems Trial comparing organic farming side by side with chemical-based farming. Corn and soybeans are the staple crops of the trial, just as they are of the United States. The study has shown that organic yields consistently match conventional yields.

Organic has fared well in other tests. Bill Liebhardt, director of the University of California’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program from 1987 to 1998, reviewed studies at seven universities and found organic yields matched or almost matched conventional yields.

Decidedly unbalmy North Dakota grows nearly as many certified organic acres as California — 145,500 compared with nearly 150,000, respectively, in 2001.

The National Organic Program, which has regulated use of the word "organic" on food labels since October 2002, provides a good starting point for identifying what practices would and would not be allowed under an organic mandate. A national network of organic certification agencies already exists and, with certified organic cropland in nearly every state, we have a contingent of experienced organic farmers at the ready.

I’d like to think that a president would carry the torch to draft and pass legislation requiring U.S. agriculture to adopt organic practices: "All-American, All-Organic." But few presidents can dare be so bold given the lobbying strength of conventional agriculture and its chemical suppliers. Instead, the vote will have to begin with us, and gather strength state by state.

DEBORAH RICH raises olive trees near Monterey, Calif., and has written about agriculture for the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications. She wrote this essay for the Land Institute’s Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kansas.

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