Organic and Beyond
Those of us who advocate a new, environmentally sound agricultural model know full well that organic farming out-competes industrial conventional farming in all indicators, including yields, consumer benefits, rural economic development, environmental protection and hunger eradication. We know full well that the methodologies of organic agriculture have as much or more scientific validation than conventional agriculture and that these represent the vanguard of the agriculture of the future. By whatever name it goes- agroecology, permaculture, ecological farming, biodynamics- this modality of agricultural production, which combines the best of ancient traditions with modern science, is our best bet in facing pressing global challenges like climate change, peak oil, the food crisis and the worldwide economic debacle.
We know all those things. Among sustainable agriculture advocates, these are facts that are not in controversy. So let me now say some things that might be controversial: Organic is not enough. Organic will be an effective proposal for change only to the extent that it is integrated into the local and global movements that carry on the fight for food sovereignty, climate justice, ecological debt, women’s rights and labor organizing; and against enclosures of common goods, as in the case with patents on seeds; for the defense of water and seed as inalienable human rights, for the human right to housing, education, health care and food. In a single word: justice.
This means that the concept "organic" cannot be the only criterion when passing judgement on agricultural production. There are other elements that must be considered. I wholeheartedly agree with the following words of Mario Mejia-Gutierrez, professor at Colombia’s National University:
"It is indispensable to remember the existence of values, principles and social proposals of a category higher than the economic and ecological, in particular moral, ethical, historical, philosophical, political, religious and spiritual elements; and of course, without rolling out the whole list, we present some examples: truth, mercy and beauty, the trilogy of Mokiti Okada, founder of messianic agriculture; justice, as pointed out in Nitiren’s agricultural proposal; love and forgiveness, as stated by Jesus; compassion, if we follow the Buddha; the virtues of personal enlightenment, in the style of Lao Tse: austerity, laboriousness, humility, loyalty; liberty in relation with peace, democracy, the practice of one’s own culture, the right to be… Can a social system of solidarity-based relationships between producer and consumer of healthy foods be constructed solely with economic and ecological arguments?"
Indeed, there is a multiplicity of values and criteria to consider, which go way beyond dollars and cents, even beyond narrow concepts of environmental protection. To those mentioned by Mejia-Gutierrez I would add more: friendship, solidarity and patriotism.
Patriotism, as in the case of Raul Noriega, who has been working his farm continuously for over twenty years, and has been an organic producer since 2000. The farm, located in the Barrio Pasto community in the municipality of Aibonito, where four generations of Noriegas live together in a humble little house, has been in the family’s possession for over 150 years. Raul has had a heart attack, a stroke, and more recently an amputation, and nevertheless he is still dedicated to agriculture with the same fire and energy as when he started practicing. He is a founding member of the Madre Tierra Organic Farming Co-op and board member of the Agrocomercial Farm Co-op, Puerto Rico’s oldest farm co-op, with over 70 years of existence. He heads the Agrocomercial’s Education Committee, whose tasks include the publication of the "Agrocooperando" newspaper, of which I am senior editor.
I cannot talk about Raul without mentioning his loyal wife Laura Morcilio, who has been at his side in both good and bad times for more than twenty years and who, because of her husband’s delicate health condition, does most of the work at the farm. Every time that Raul is given a well-deserved tribute, Laura must be equally honored.
That’s patriotism. This is something that every consumer must consider when deciding on food purchases and on the best way to contribute to agriculture’s transformation.
Then there’s also the fervorously independent Pablo Diaz-Cuadrado from the town of Orocovis. His farm is not strictly organic, since he uses fertilizer in his coffee crop. But it would be unjust and foolish to dismiss him and lump him together with conventional producers who use and abuse agrochemicals. Pablo is an established authority in ecological farming, especially in the control of pests and weeds without using toxic chemicals, as was documented in an extensive interview with author Maria Benedetti, included in her book "Sembrando y Sanando".
Pablo always shows up in community, progressive and environmental activities, with his table on which he displays and sells his goods, coffee, honey, jelly, juice (lemon, orange, passion fruit), eggs, and much more. All of it local, pesticide-free produce straight from his farm, no intermediaries. He does this even when it means an economic loss to him. From a strictly economic viewpoint, selling his products in these activities, which sometimes have poor attendance, makes no sense. But disinterested commitment is precisely the essence of patriotism.
Third and last, the admirable example set by To?o Alvarez, who led the Pollos Pic? poultry company to success. Long before people started talking about corporate social responsibility, Alvarez was already putting in practice a social capitalism based on solidarity. During his lifetime he gave us all an unforgettable lesson of business success, patriotism and solidarity bordering of selflessness. It was a real tragedy for all Puerto Ricans to see his company descend to ruin after his death.
I do not mean to say that organic is not important. Have no doubt that we aspire to no less than a total transformation of world agriculture towards ecological practices and the abolition of toxic agrochemicals, GMO’s, monocultures and industrial feedlots. Have no doubt that we, as a global society, must move towards small, post-industrial, decentralized, post-patriarchal, farming systems, with a reduced ecological footprint.
Likewise, I do not mean to wax romantic about those forms of agriculture that we seek to turn into a thing of the past. Pic?, like its competitors and succesors, was an industrial feedlot operation, in which birds spend their short and miserable lives confined indoors, with over 100,000 under the same roof; an inherently unsustainable system, among other reasons because of the huge amounts of water and fossil fuel that it needs in order to operate; a system whose horrors were detailed in films like Food Inc and The Meatrix.
In the course of doing research for a film project on Puerto Rico’s poultry production in 2009 I had the pleasure of meeting Tony Alvarez, To?o’s son. He was kind enough to give me and a film maker colleague of mine a whole day of his time, showing us around the farms that once supplied his father’s company. Of all the people we interviewed that day, Tony was practically the only one who understood the need to transcend the current poultry production system and take the bold step towards an ecological aviculture, which treats the animals that feed us with dignity and ethical concern.
In short, in our zeal to move towards an agroecological future, we cannot boil everything down to conventional = bad, organic = good. I only wish it were that simple. But when facing complex realities we need complex thinking.
And we need humility, because the practicioners and advocates of sustainable agriculture must acknowledge that even conventional farmers can teach us some very important lessons.
CARMELO RUIZ-MARRERO is an author, investigative journalist and environmental educator. He directs the Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety. He is a senior fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program, a fellow of the Oakland Institute and a Research Associate of the Institute for Social Ecology. His progressive blog, Haciendo Punto en Otro Blog, is updated daily (http://carmeloruiz.blogspot.com/).