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Organics Have Been Debunked. What Do We Do Now? Organics Have Been Debunked. What Do We Do Now?

Organics Have Been Debunked. What Do We Do Now?

by Cliff Kuang
March 10, 2009

Locally grown, organic food used to be the last word in environmental awareness. Not anymore. For one, organics have a negligible carbon impact (though exceptions might exist); eating less red meat is probably the best you can do to lower your carbon footprint. And locally grown food might not be a workable model, at large scales.Mother Jones, the lefty magazine, just did an extensive feature, and it's a wake-up call. It won't be news to anyone that follows the issue, but it's worth highlighting because the issue is so large and the organic myths have been so prolific:"When most of us imagine what a sustainable food economy might look like, chances are we picture a variation on something that already exists-such as organic farming, or a network of local farms and farmers markets, or urban pea patches-only on a much larger scale. The future of food, in other words, will be built from ideas and models that are familiar, relatively simple, and easily distilled into a buying decision: Look for the right label, and you're done.But that's not the reality. Many of the familiar models don't work well on the scale required to feed billions of people. Or they focus too narrowly on one issue (salad greens that are organic but picked by exploited workers). Or they work only in limited circumstances. (A $4 heirloom tomato is hardly going to save the world.)"In re: the carbon issue, with locally produced food:"...for all our focus on the cost of moving food, transportation accounts for barely one-tenth of a food product's greenhouse gas emissions. Far more significant is how the food was produced-its so-called resource intensity. Certain foods, like meat and cheese, suck up so many resources regardless of where they're produced (a pound of conventional grain-fed beef requires nearly a gallon of fuel and 5,169 gallons of water) that you can shrink your footprint far more by changing what you eat, rather than where the food came from. According to a 2008 report from Carnegie Mellon University, going meat- and dairyless one day a week is more environmentally beneficial than eating locally every single day.What then, is the answer? First off, as the Mother Jones article argues, the traditional definitions of organics will have to go, because herbicides, artificial fertilizers, and far-flung distribution networks are unavoidable facts, if we're to keep so many billions fed. Second, we'll need to invest in new models for agriculture, such as "closed loop" systems which might use natural means to lower carbon footprints-for example, as Michael Pollan has pointed out in this essential interview, farmers in Argentina pair feed lots with livestock on the same farm-feeding the cows with the feed, then fertilizing the feed with the cow manure. That's roughly what natural ecosystems do, and it fixes a broken industrial system, whereby corn is fertilised with carbon-intensive nitrogen fertilizers, and beef are fed the corn. But note that this isn't an easy fix: It's not a label we can slap on something, but an open-ended process of retooling our public policy (which created our current feed lot disaster) and investing in new agricultural models.All of which isn't exactly comforting. It's complicated, and confusing. As consumers, it's tempting to throw our hands up and ignore the issue from here on out-every time we've internalized a purported solution, such as organics, it's quickly exposed as another false lead. But that's the reality of social consciousness in our present age: We're trying to fix systems that have taken decades to create. We won't find the solutions overnight, but that's life. Carbon control is our generation's Normandy Beach; winning will take more stamina than we've ever had to summon before.Image via brainware3000
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