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Is Organic Better?

Mar. 28, 2013

Slow Food USA members can get a special discount on the DVD of "In Organic We Trust." Click “member benefits” in your next email from Slow Food USA to find out more. Director/Producer Kip Pastor"In Organic We Trust" Director/Producer Kip Pastor

We can no longer stomach our food system. It’s killing more and more Americans and costing billions in healthcare. 78% of Americans eat organic food, because they think it’s healthier. But is organic really better for us or just a marketing scam?

When corporations went into the business and “organic” became a brand, everything changed. The philosophy and the label grew apart. Can gummy bears or bananas flown halfway across the world truly be organic?

"In Organic We Trust" is an eye-opening food documentary that looks beyond organic for practical solutions like local farmer’s markets, school gardens, and urban farms that are revolutionizing the way we eat. Change is happening from the soil up.


My fellow classmates in “Food Systems: Food and Agriculture,” a component of the Food Studies, Nutrition, and Public Health Program at New York University, sat down with Director/Producer Kip Pastor to talk about the film.

How is soil health related to human health? How do organics play a role in this?

Soil is often misunderstood. People confuse dirt and soil all the time. Dirt is sort of like displaced soil, or soil without the nutrients. Believe me when I say, you can see and smell the difference. Soil is the lifeblood of nature. It contains the nutrients, minerals, and mircobials that plants need to grow and thrive.

There’s a direct correlation between the health of our soil and the health of our agriculture. Healthy soil produces nutrient dense food. If the soil is sick, the plant will be sick, too. In that way, the health of the soil relates to the health of the plant, which in turn relates to our health.

I think that it’s legitimate to conclude that there’s a direct relationship between healthy soil and healthy people. But it goes even deeper than that.

Conventional agriculture uses billions of pounds of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. These chemicals not only damage the health of the soil, but they end up in our air and waterways. Nitrogen fertilizers are part of water runoff from farms and have caused algae blooms in the Mississippi River and the Golf of Mexico. This is an example of a less direct consequence that unhealthy soil has on human health.

On the other hand, soil that is not treated with chemical pesticides and fertilizers can be healthier and absorb water and nutrients more easily. Although nitrogen fertilizers can be used in certified organic farming, the toxic chemicals, for the most part, cannot. Most organic farmers rotate their crops and nurture their soils, though it is not a requirement of being certified. I think that it’s fair to say that organic farming has a profound impact on soil health.

A real issue in organics seems to be political corruption; what can organizations like Slow Food and we, as individuals, do to bring about change in such a broken system?

Since the term certified organic is a legal classification, it can be changed and shaped in whichever way the governing body deems appropriate. As a result, corporations have been involved with intense lobbying and have exerted pressure to influence politics. Some groups and farmers have caused controversies to the USDA certified organic label, and there’s growing criticism that some big organic growers bend the rules. However, I think it’s a bit hyperbolic to say that organics suffer from political corruption. Yet, it is fair to say that the process of certifying organic is also flawed.

Certified organic does not, by definition, follow the philosophies of being organic. To be certified, you are not required to promote healthy soil or conserve water. You can input enormous amounts of nitrogen fertilizers, which impact the soil and waterways. You can also import organics that are out of season or shipped from a far-off land. These allowances split with the philosophy.

But the certification system was not created to address all of these parts of our broken food system. It is imperative that organizations, like Slow Food, take a broader approach to agriculture and food. Slow Food takes the strands of our broken system and weaves them into a complete narrative that connects with individuals and communities. Food access, farmer worker justice, edible education, and many other issues have overlapping themes, but so often we just focus on one.

The food system is fractured. There is not a clear vision on how to fix it. Slow Food builds community in order to foster learning, development, and change. At this point it’s a cliché, but it’s still just as true, you can vote with your wallet. Demand healthy, local, organic food for yourself and your family. Individual choices will have a profound impact on how and where our agriculture is grown in the future. You can get to know farmers and farmer’s markets, engage your community at an urban farm, and educate the next generation about healthy eating habits and how to grow food at school gardens. At the very least, you can grow something by a window at home.

Change will come from the soil up, not from the top down. Corporate interests will push for scale, large distribution, cheaper products from overseas, and anything to increase shareholder stock. In turn, those corporate interests lobby the government to create regulations that favor them – subsidies, crop insurance, etc. In order to change the system, we have to come together as a community. Slow Food is a place and an idea that joins us together.

Do you see a place at all for corporate organic agriculture on the market, specifically when thinking about areas where access to small-scale organic products is limited?

There is a place for corporate organic agriculture in our current situation. Absolutely. Although many corporations don’t care about the organic philosophy or investing in soil and conserving resources, corporate organic doesn’t have to be bad. Above all, they are not using dangerous chemicals that poison us, the water, and the soil. Furthermore, the large growth of certified organic can be attributed in part to these corporations.

Most people don’t get their food from farmer’s markets or CSAs, they get it at Walmart and other big chains. The large companies have the production and distribution networks that get organic food to more people, in more places. That’s a positive thing. As a result, there is a growing awareness that chemical pesticides and their residues on food are dangerous for our health and the environment. This conversion would not have happened as quickly without these corporate supply chains. However, it is my hope that once people understand that organic is the only way to go, we’ll start sourcing it more locally, from farmer’s nearby, and growing it ourselves on our rooftops, balconies, and communal lands. I full-heartedly believe that we can transition away from industrial agriculture and push harder towards more sustainable farming with new methods.

How could the organic system cope with the increasing demands of customers in time?

I think the essence of the question is – can organic feed the world? I’ll get to that, but first, I’d like to reframe it a little. We are reaching a crisis in agriculture – the average age of farmers in the US is fifty-nine, farmland has been consolidated into huge corporate monocultures, conventional farming uses dangerous petrochemicals, food transportation is expensive and harmful for the environment, and water resources are getting scarce – what does the future look like?

This is the ideal time to go organic. We need to rebuild rural America, we need to reinvest in young farmers, expand small farms to urban areas on rooftops, abandoned parking lots, sidewalks, schools, we need to educate our youth about soil and nutritious food choices. Let’s teach them organic and sustainable methods. If we put these things together, we can cut down on carbon emissions from chemical applications and transportation, increase food access, raise public health, become free from petrochemicals, and give jobs to the next generation of growers.

All of those solutions are part of the fabric of the organic philosophy. More than anything, this organic philosophy needs to be disseminated to everyone. Over time, organic production will be able to handle consumer demands. You don’t have to be certified organic to be "organic."

I believe that all food will be produced organically one day because our current system is based on petrochemicals, which will one day run out. It’s an unsustainable system. However, we have a little time before that happens, and we are already making a strong transition to more ubiquitous use of natural gas. Certified organic agriculture represents about 1% of total cropland in the US. I don’t have the actual statistics, but I’ve been told that non-certified organic represents another 1% or so. It is growing but not fast enough to feed the world... yet.

A combination of education, ingenuity, and technology is the way to move forward. I’m a big advocate of growing food where you live – in your home, balcony, at a community garden, or on your roof. Also, some different technologies make it possible to grow food in smaller spaces while using less water – aquaponics and hydroponics. We must invest more in agricultural research and start using water for farms, not lawns. It’s inevitable that we’ll go back to an organic farming system, the only question is how long it takes. With passionate people and a growing demand, I believe it can be faster than you’d think.

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