Have Organics Been Oversized: A Documentary Filmmaker Speaks Out

I am not a farmer.

I’m an itinerant documentary maker who has been visiting farms and talking to farmers for over 10 years.

Last year I travelled cross-country, some 7,000 miles, and not only talked to farmers and ranchers–organic and conventional, large and small–but added food systems  to my itinerary (meaning, I started looking beyond where food comes from, but how it gets from there to here). At the core of my work, as always, are the farmers.

I have mixed feelings about Big Organic; they can be as predatory as Big Commodity Ag. My bias, too, is toward the small to medium-sized “family farm,” but nothing says that organic grains, fruits and vegetables must be grown on a small scale. The reality is organic has in many ways been commoditized anyway. You can’t have processed foods like cereal and granola bars without the big guys stepping in.  I mean, where are they going to raise grain, or soy, or sunflower seeds by the truckload except on big corporate farms in, say, Kansas, to fill the shelves of Whole Foods with Kashi? (Oops, unless GMO knocks them off those shelves.)

The subject of the recent New York times article and the debate is about what is added to organic raw food after it has been grown, harvested, placed on the conveyer belt, and manufactured into a “product”–like any other widget. What it did not focus on is where the raw materials come from, how they are raised, by whom, and most important to me, how organic growing benefits the planet.  Whether it comes from systems of small farmers working in concert or from the organic industrial giants, the result is acres and acres of unsprayed land; non-GMO seeds and plants; cleaner air and water; sustainable soil alive with the microbes that should be there; better conditions for farmers and workers–and resulting in raw commodities free of contamination from pesticides and so on. Big swaths of organic cultivation can also act as a buffer for smaller producers, who share the space with the big guys. To me, this is the upside of organic: the more there are areas of natural growing, the better the planet is.  When you think of it that way, you could say: the bigger, the better.

As for organic livestock, small scale makes the most sense for many reasons, primarily the need for pasture and for organic feed. (“If you don’t raise your own feed, the farm is not sustainable,”  according to an Organic Valley dairy farmer in the Midwest.)  I am more than skeptical about organic dairy giants like Horizon. I don’t doubt that the milk is free of the bad stuff, but that should be the least they can offer. What about the animal welfare standards that are attached to organic milk, (those may be happy cows depicted on the cartons but they are not pictures of their actual cows), or the degradation of the environment from 10,000 cows in one spot, or the thousands of miles the ultra -pasteurized milk has to travel from dairy to store?

Back to core of the Times article: the organic standards of processed food. Naturally, Big Organic is going to protect its brand–they are both investing money and making it hand over fist on the organic label, and their customers, though willing to pay any price it seems, demand purity, perhaps over-demand purity. You don’t see more scrutiny of labels anywhere than at Whole Foods; now that says something about trust, doesn’t it? And once they’ve read it, does the consumer know the benign from the harmful? Clearly, some additives are necessary for preserving shelf life as well as for food safety, a requirement no different for conventional or organic.

So what’s the sticking point?  The over reaching power of Big Corporate Organics in determining what is organic and what is not? I get that. But a conspiracy? In a court trial, motivation is not evidence (though it is what everyone wants to know: why did he do it????), mostly because it is both subjective and unknowable. What matters are the facts in the case, how it was done, when, and by whom. In my scenario, the facts are clear: the organic movement provides a small but reliable shield against the damage to the land caused by industrialized farming.  I don’t care if growing organically is done on a large scale or small, as long as it is done responsibly, honestly, with full disclosure, and within the rules. I don’t care if someone profits from it. In fact, there should be profit in it; it’s very, very hard to do!

Organics is not a religion. It isn’t even the only way to farm and farm well. I’ve met many responsible conventional farmers whose work I respect highly. It is simply a means of growing things in a way that helps to protect and sustain the earth.  

That’s enough for me.

Jan Weber’s career in television and film production spans some 35 years. Over that time she has produced, directed, and written commercials, corporate programs, network pilots, and co-produced two feature films. Her latest documentary project, a work in progress, Farmlandia, examines the American farming landscape seeking to reveal the deeper problems plaguing our nation’s farmers, and documents the ongoing fight to change what many see as a dysfunctional food system. As We Sow was Jan’s first documentary, and she continues to document food and farm issues from her not-so-rural perch in Brooklyn, New York.

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