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Has ‘Organic’ Been Oversized: Avoiding Tragedy On Maple Street

The screenwriter Rod Serling was a master at portraying the acutely self-conscious angst that drove Americans of the Cold War era to embrace orthodoxy and conformity at the expense of individuality and liberty.  His genius shines in the Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” in which a tranquil neighborhood is disrupted by a strange light passing overhead, after which none of their machines will operate.  A neighborhood child describes identical circumstances from a comic book in which alien invaders triggered such a power outage with assistance from an advance party disguised as a normal family in the community.  Once this juvenile fear is allowed to kindle the neighbors’ latent suspicion of those who are different, no adult escapes persecution. A man is attacked because he likes to star gaze late at night while another is pounced upon when the lights in his home inexplicably turn back on.  A riot ensues as the community dissolves.

Reading the recent New York Times article “Has Organic Been Oversized?” concerned me that the organic community is repeating the tragedy of Maple Street.  The first parallel between the Maple Street neighbors and the organic community is fear of disaster, though the horrific consequences of industrial agriculture make fear a far more rational reaction for the latter group. Earth’s physical foundations and biological diversity are both collapsing and while establishing sustainable agricultural systems won’t be sufficient for averting disaster, it will be necessary.   Overcoming fear requires faith and though the residents of Maple Street were quick to doubt each other, the organic community should never waver in its conviction that organic principles and practices are the optimal remedy for the crisis we confront.  Let’s be explicit about the foundational organic principle: healthy soils produce healthy plants, healthy plants produce healthy livestock and healthy plants and livestock produce healthy people.

We can tone down the accusations, insinuations and recriminations abounding in the “Oversize” article by realizing that those quoted and cited are arguing about organic certification, not organic agriculture.  Confusing the two does a great disservice to consumers who are conscientiously attempting to improve their lives and the world by making the most responsible choices about food available to them in a society which inundates them with options.  Organic agriculture constitutes all the funky, cosmic properties that derive from microbiologically vibrant soils and the plant and animal life sustained by such soils. By contrast, organic certification is a federally operated process verification program based on production and processing standards that loosely approximate the conditions and practices embodied in organic agriculture.  That approximation is going to be closer sometimes more than others – a certified potato is a lot more organic than a certified potato chip – but it is a mistake to see organic certification as synonymous with organic agriculture. (Full disclosure: I like potato chips)  Organic certification should be a point of entry for people to make intelligent choices about food, not their destination.

Adopting a more realistic perspective on organic certification can defuse the specific complaints lodged in “Oversized” and hopefully mitigate the rancor behind them which, if left unchecked, will produce another Maple Street outcome.  The article identifies two principal forces corrupting what it never defines as more than simply “organics”.  One is the greed-driven usurpation of the marketplace by corporate interests and the second is the Trojan Horse of synthetic materials which those interests are using to degrade the integrity of organic farming and food processing. The first complaint reflects pure prejudice against a business structure that is ubiquitous (farmers incorporate, too) and virtually essential for moving food from the field to consumers.  It’s not the only structure that works – the article would have benefited from input from the National Cooperative Grocers Association, a thriving affiliation of more than 100 food coops nationwide – but if you intend to reach three hundred plus million consumers in the twenty-first century, somebody needs to make a profit in the process.

Enforcing a philosophical objection to corporate involvement in the organic movement will significantly retard advances in organic management practices that are essential for scaling up production.  Take for example, the Zirkle Fruit Company, identified in “Oversized” as one of the corporate interlopers having infiltrated the National Organics Standards Board.  For thirty years, Zirkle has been a leader in the transition of Northwest Pacific fruit production from a toxic chemical intensive  protocol to a biologically based orchard management system teeming with biodiversity and minimal synthetic intervention.  It took extensive coordination between farmers, publicly funded agricultural researchers and yes, corporations to affect change of this magnitude.

The back to the land, pioneering lone farmer doing what was said couldn’t be done has and will continue to make invaluable contributions to organic agriculture, but not at the scale we need to move, and move rapidly.  Similarly, the reflexive condemnation of synthetic materials derives from semantic prejudice rather than substantive risk assessment.  Perhaps a day of hoeing weeds in the sun would convince the purist voices cited in “Oversized” that allowing one herbicide in organic agriculture might not mean the end of the world.

The beauty of organic certification is that it can recognize and reward both the Zirkles and the lone farmers of this world by establishing a basic and meaningful differentiation between their efforts and the conventional food supply.  This means that there are significant and verifiable differences in the manner in which organic and conventional foods are produced including their impact on the environment.  There have been a few bumps in the road, but the USDA organic certification program continues to maintain that meaningful differentiation ten years into its existence.  However, no matter how much busy and information-overloaded consumers would love having the convenience of one-stop shopping, certification can never provide .  It takes a great deal more education, inquiry, and soul searching to decide how that Pacific Northwest certified apple stacks up against one from a local conventional orchard.  Consider ALL options before choosing responsibly – you can have a delicious time doing so.

No writer I know exceeded Serling’s gift to craft a final plot twist that seared the story’s message or moral into the minds of the audience.  As the Twilight Zone episode concludes, the camera pans back from Maple Street neighbors destroying each other to reveal two aliens watching from an adjacent hillside.  They did indeed cause the power outage but marvel that no further action was necessary to wreak havoc on the community – fear and prejudice made humans their own worst enemies.  I don’t believe there is a conspiracy to undermine organic agriculture but if I’m wrong, the perpetrators must be similarly amazed at the near cannibalism with which the organic community is responding to its own success.  Let’s keep our eyes on the prize of organic agriculture and recognize that organic certification is but one of many tools for realizing our goals.  Also remember that it’s a tool that no one party owns, but each must share.

Mark Keating has worked in the natural, sustainable, organic and local food movements since 1982. His work experience includes stints in commercial food service, farm labor, retail sales and marketing, state and federal civil service, non-profit advocacy and academia. While working for the USDA National Organic Program between 1999 and 2002 Mark helped draft the national organic standards for crop and livestock production.  He spent two more years with the USDA Marketing Services Branch working to develop and promote farmers markets.  Mark also worked for the NOP in 2010. An inveterate believer that naturally raised and locally distributed food offers the best opportunity for human health and planetary survival, Mark lives in the Kentucky Bluegrass with his wife and their daughter.

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