Tending to a Living Earth: The Organic Imperative
For an agricultural industry which creates $3.5 billion in annual revenue, organic farming certainly keeps a low profile. All that may change soon with the public's feverish interest in untainted foods against the backdrop of genetic hybrids and corporate "supermarket to the world" mentality."Most people view organic agriculture as farming without inputs such as herbicide, pesticide, and chemical fertilizers," notes Brian Magaro, an accredited organic agriculture inspector. "But that's only one aspect of it."Organic farms are rigorously inspected and must be certified by one of the 60 plus national certifying organizations. These organizations insist on extensive record-keeping to ensure crops, land, and livestock meet strict standards on fertilization, pest control, storage and handling. This insistence sets organic farms apart from conventional farms, which require no such standards. In fact, there is very little that the two methods of farming have in common; conventional farming feeds and treats the plant with chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides while organic farming feeds the soil.The results of an organic operation, whether crops or livestock, is a healthier product. According to research by Rutgers University, the end-products of organic methods are substantially more nutritional; "the nutrients were higher, especially the micro nutrients -- minerals -- which conventional farming does not take into account," recounts Magaro.In another study "Effect of Agricultural Methods on Nutritional Quality: A Comparison of Organic with Conventional Crops" by Virginia Worthington, a clinical nutritionist, the findings were similar: " ... there is a trend in the data indicating higher nutrient content in organically grown crops ... for individual nutrients, existing studies show that organic fertilization practices produce crops with higher levels of ascorbic acid, lower levels of nitrate and improved protein quality compared with conventionally grown crops ... Animal studies showed better growth and reproduction in animals fed organically grown feed compared with those fed conventionally grown feed."While consumers who purchase organically-grown foods relish the nourishment and safety of an untainted product, the farmers producing these crops share a deeper commitment inherent to this type of agriculture. Simply stated, farming organically is farming ethically. It is based on reciprocity; returning back to the land what has been taken from it. In doing so, the earth maintains its integrity and bears the bounty of the land and the farmers become the caretakers."A healthy farm is one which contains living organisms in the soil that produce humus." states Magaro. To illustrate his point he recalls a story of inspecting a farm after a hard rain: "As I walked through the field, I could hear this percolating sound. Thinking this was odd, I stopped. The sound stopped also. When I began to walk, the sound returned. Suspicious, I walked as softly as I could and then jumped on the ground. The percolating got very loud. I finally realized that the sound was caused by earthworms going back down into their holes; that's how many earthworms were in the soil! This man's land was virtually alive." The curiosity of an observing neighbor led him over to site of the organic farm. Magaro shared with him what he had discovered. Later, the neighbor, a conventional farmer, was spotted on his own land; walking, jumping, listening, then shaking his head. (He later contacted Magaro about organic certification).Concerned, organic farmers and inspectors are likewise shaking their heads about forthcoming government involvement in the form of new USDA regulation to unify standards and impose them on the organic inspection associations. Many in the organic industry fear relaxed regulations -- issues like allowing the use of genetically-altered seed product, antibiotics and sewage sludge as fertilizer will dilute the high standards they currently observe and, thus, will affect the end products and their consumers."There are some major concerns with the way the USDA is proposing the organic standards," explains Magaro. Last year the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) made recommendations to the secretary of Agriculture (USDA) setting the standards for organic farming. USDA gave these recommendations to the Agricultural Marking Service (AMS) with the assignment to write the national standards based on the NOSB recommendations. In June, the USDA submitted the draft from the AMS to the executive Office of Management and Budget. What came out of the OMB was drastically different than the original proposal from the organic industry."If it wasn't so serious, it would be funny," was the reaction of Leslie Zuck, Executive Director of PA Certified Organic (PCO), when questioned about the revised USDA standards. "If the organic industry were to practice under these diluted standards, there would be little difference between organic farming and conventional farming ... under this weakened proposal irradiation, genetic engineered feed and seed, and the use of antibiotics will all be permissible under the organic label. Entire aspects of the original proposal have been deleted -- mushroom and greenhouse production, on-farm storage and handling ... and the new standards introduce terms and practices that are totally unfamiliar and alien to organic producers."It is imperative that the government uphold the high standards recommended by NOSB. The struggle will undoubtedly shed the low-profile image of organic farming, but more importantly will preserve a vocation which requires a deep personal commitment. A commitment that begins with respect for the land and ends with food that is safe, sustains and nurtures; a relationship with the earth that benefits everything and everyone in the process.Robert J. Smith lives in Palmyra and contributes to several local publications.