A group of organic farmers say the organic movement has ceded too much power to the big food multinationals, who are now trying to dilute its core values to make organic fit the free-market business model.
The key global forum at which the multinational food industry has been trying to dilute core values of the organic movement is the Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex). Established in 1963, the main functions of Codex involve drafting global standards, guidelines and other related texts for foods, including food supplements. The World Trade Organization (WTO) uses the texts produced by Codex in its adjudication of international trade disputes involving foods.
For some years now, Codex has been watering down global organic standards to permit the use of substances such as sulphur dioxide, which can cause allergic reactions in some people; and carrageenan, for which there is evidence that it is associated with the formation of ulcers in the intestines and cancerous tumors in the gut. Worse still, however, Codex now allows kiwifruit and bananas to be labeled as organic even when they have been artificially ripened through the use of ethylene.
Why is this happening? On a basic level it is simply because organic foods fetch higher prices than ordinary, non-organic foods. The large non-organic food producers see an opportunity to break into the market for organic foods and make larger profits.
On a deeper level, however, organic foods promote better health than non-organic foods, by virtue of the fact that they contain higher levels of micronutrients. In addition, of course, organic foods don’t contain pesticides, residues of veterinary drugs or genetically modified (GM) organisms either. Bearing in mind therefore that good health is not in the interests of the ‘business with disease’, this ultimately makes the increasing demand for organic foods a threat to the pharmaceutical and chemical industries. This is not only because organic foods promote good health, but also because they result in a lower demand for pesticides, veterinary drugs and GM foods.
Organic farming promotes natural resistance to common food-borne human pathogens, according to a study that evaluates the benefit of soil organisms. By protecting valuable species of dung beetles and soil bacteria, organic farming systems naturally act to clean up and decompose potentially pathogen-bearing animal feces.
While these natural systems suppress pathogens on organic farms, coventional chemical-intensive farms are left with higher levels of fecal residues and are therefore significantly more likely to yield produce carrying such foodborne pathogens as E. coli. The authors emphasize that curbing the spread of common foodborne pathogens could save thousands of lives and prevent millions of illnesses each year.
The study, “Organic farming promotes biotic resistance to foodborne human pathogens,” published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, compares dung beetle populations, soil bacteria diversity, and feces removal rates on 70 organic and conventional broccoli farm fields across the west coast of the U.S. In addition to studying field conditions, authors conducted additional microcosm studies to directly test the effects of dung beetles and soil microbes on the suppression of introduced E. coli.
Results from field analyses show that organic management practices lead to greater biodiversity among dung beetles and soil microbes, which translate to higher rates of feces removal. Microcosm results confirm that by removing fecal matter, the beetles and microbes retained by organic management reduce potential E. coli contamination. These new findings add to the list of ecosystem services unique to organic farms, further bolstering the case for organic as not only an ecological but an economical solution to global food production.
In the context of recently reviewed insect declines worldwide, this study also serves as a warning of yet another key ecosystem service that will certainly be lost unless a major agricultural transformation to organic systems is mobilized. Dung beetles, whose actions in soils not only protect against pathogens, but also unlock critical nutrients, are in decline. The impacts of dung beetles on soil fertility are vital to the sustainability of farms and pastures used to maintain livestock. By burying and processing feces on cattle farms, dung beetles introduce 80% more nitrogen into the soil than would otherwise remain. By increasing soil organic matter, dung beetles simultaneously increase water infiltration, thus stabilizing farms and heavily grazed areas against erosion, flooding, and drought.
Findings from the present study highlight the need for dung beetle diversity in addition to abundance, since some dung beetles bury feces more effectively than others. Notably, researchers find that the commonly introduced species O. nuchicornis, which tends to dominate over other species and reduce overall diversity, is less effective at burying feces, with consequences for both E. coli contamination and soil fertility. Similarly, previous work attests to the importance of soil microbial diversity for maintaining ecosystem services. The key to healthy produce and fertile soils, across the board, is diversity.
Due to agrochemical use, that precious diversity is in decline. Monitoring in Europe, according to the 2019 review of insect declines, shows the greatest terrestrial loss of insect biodiversity on record to date: more than 60% of documented dung beetle species are in decline. Soil microbial diversity, too, is threatened by continued application of pesticides in industrialized agriculture. Highly toxic gases known as “soil fumigants” are used on a wide range of high-value crops to control nematodes, fungi, bacteria, insects, and weeds. Soil fumigants wipe out entire soil communities, thus necessitating the use of other chemicals to provide the fertility and pest control services that soil organisms provide. In addition to fumigating soil, which intentionally kills all living things in the soil, other chemical-intensive practices also threaten soil life. Glyphosate, the most widely used herbicide, is also an antibiotic. Glyphosate-tolerant plants release glyphosate into the soil, where it has a continued impact on soil microbial diversity.
Beyond Pesticides holds the position that these patterns carry a lesson. Insects and microbes that act to control crop pests and fertilize the soil reduce the need for pesticide and chemical fertilizer use. Reliance on chemical controls creates a vicious treadmill: pesticide use kills natural agents of pest control, thus creating a demand for more pesticide use, which kills more of the beneficial organisms, and so on.
Join Beyond Pesticides in getting off the toxic treadmill and instead working to build a sustainable food system based on natural control systems. Be a model for your community by creating a pesticide-free zone in your home yard, neighborhood, or even jurisdiction. Add your pesticide free zone to the map by taking our Pesticide Free Zones Survey. Show your neighbors and beyond that a world free of pesticides is both desirable and achievable.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.
Jules Dervaes was an extraordinary person. He was the head of a family in Pasadena who grows almost all their own food. They have turned their normal size backyard into one of the most fertile and productive tiny farms in all of southern California. More than 400 different vegetables, herbs and fruits grow in every nook and cranny, along with goats, chickens, bees and ducks.
Jules was the creator of this “Urban Homestead.” When I interviewed him for this story he generous with his time, genuine in manner and deeply concerned about what we eat and how we care for the planet. He did more in one lifetime to nurture the environment than most of us could do in multiple lifetimes.
The thousands of people who have visited the Dervaes’ farm or purchased produce from their porch can see Jules’ love in the picturesque garden that surrounds their Pasadena bungalow. His legacy is in the small plot of earth he nurtured and in the big ideas he spread to people around the world.
Jules Dervaes died in December 2016 at age 69. His three children continue to tend the homestead and carry out the cause.
Thank you, Jules, for all you’ve taught us.
Growing one’s own food in urban areas can seem like a far-fetched idea. But not for one Pasadena family. The Dervaes family has been growing their own food for more than a decade. They’ve been at the forefront of urban homesteading by growing thousands of pounds of food annually in an average-size backyard.
“I brought the country to the city rather than having to go out to the country,” said Jules Dervaes, the man behind the self-sufficient farm he created with his three adult children.
The Dervaes’ urban homestead is sustainable and dense. They grow and raise 400 varieties of vegetables, fruits, and edible flowers that amount to about 6,000 pounds of food a year, enough to feed the family with surplus left over to sell. Fresh eggs from chickens round out their diet. The family-owned city farm is the talk of the town for many local chefs looking to cook up a tasty meal. The family makes roughly $20,000 just from selling their freshly grown produce. They use the money to buy staples that they can’t grow like wheat, rice, and oats.
Reporter Val Zavala visits the Dervaes’ homestead to find out what inspired Jules Dervaes to go green in the extreme.
The proposal set a target for 20% of agricultural land to meet organic farming standards by 2025, before reaching 30% by 2030.
Ten per cent of green spaces in Bavaria would have to be turned into flowering meadows, and rivers and streams better protected from pesticides and fertilizers.
Rather than putting the petition to a referendum, Bavaria’s state premier, Markus Söder, announced it would simply be written into law, passing through parliament.
“We are taking the text of the referendum word for word,” said Söder, leader of the conservative CSU party which governs the state in a coalition majority.
The farming industry, which had sometimes felt marginalized in the environmental debate, would have to be given support to carry out the transformation, he added.
Scientists in Germany and worldwide have sounded the alarm about massive insect losses in terms of species diversity and total biomass, with dire consequences for the animals that feed on them and for plants that require them for pollination.
The recent bug decline is seen by experts as part of a gathering “mass extinction” of species, only the sixth in the last half-billion years.
“Unless we change our way of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades,” concluded a peer-reviewed study by Francisco Sánchez-Bayo of the University of Sydney and Kris Wyckhuys of the University of Queensland in Australia.
A 2016 study found that about 1.4bn jobs and three-quarters of all crops depend on pollinators, mainly bees, which provide free plant fertilization services worth billions of dollars.
As the gardening and growing seasons get underway across North America, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the choices. Rolling racks the height of NBA players dominate nurseries and garden centers, offering limitless options to the bewildered beginning gardener. If you’re looking to grow a non-GMO garden this season, here are some tips from the Non-GMO Project’s resident green thumb to set you up for success.
When farmers choose to grow GMO crops, they have to sign technology use contracts with companies like Bayer or Dow. These contracts include restrictive rules for how farmers may use those seeds. This is bad news for farmers and researchers who want access to these seeds, but it also means that it would be very hard for an unwitting consumer to accidentally purchase GMO seeds or GMO garden starts.
The industrialization of agriculture did massive damage to rural America, turning most of that beautiful land into medieval plantations. Instead of millions of small family farmers, we now have a few thousand large corporate farmers in charge of rural America and the growing of most food. Democracy and human and environmental health suffered a severe blow. Money and power triumphed.
Like many countries, China is trying to catch up with the agricultural superpower illusion of America. Yes, America produces huge amounts of food, but at unsustainable and catastrophic costs and consequences.
There are non-toxic alternatives to coaxing more from an acre of land.
In the United States, the alternative to chemical farming has the name of “organic” agriculture. In the European Union, the alternative is “biological” agriculture. These alternatives are sophisticated modifications of traditional agriculture. They produce and sell food without using pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, genetic engineering, sludge, and radiation. But like industrialized farming, the organic-biological alternatives ignore the size of farms, the plight of farm workers, the kind and size of farm machinery, the use of petroleum and petroleum products like plastics.
Petroleum fuels industrialized societies. Their agriculture, transportation, energy and defense industries are largely depended on petroleum. However, petroleum is a major global warming fuel.
Agribusiness and peasants in China
China has a growing sector of industrialized agriculture. China has also more than 200 million peasants practicing traditional farming.
Caught between these two gigantic forces, The Chinese government is campaigning on behalf of environmental protection primarily as an antidote to the ecocidal and destabilizing effects of environmental pollution.
I have had the opportunity of visiting China twice. The Institute for Postmodern Development of China made that possible. Since 2005, this non-profit organization based in Claremont, California, has been the ecological link between China and America.
What is ecological civilization?
Indeed, the first time I heard the term “ecological civilization” was in Claremont where I have been living since 2008. I immediately smiled and connected ecological civilization to fantasy.
The idea, of course, is not entirely utopian. First of all, it is beautiful. It brings to mind heaven on Earth: flourishing villages and towns, peasants working the land without outsiders oppressing them or oppressing each other or polluting the natural world; flowers, monarch butterflies, honeybees, singing birds, sheep and lambs, fig trees, flowering lemon and almond trees, creeks and rivers running through the land, olive groves, grapevines and god Dionysos and his maenad followers indulging in a frenzy of dance and music.
However, Zhihe Wang and Meijun Fan, who direct the Institute for Postmodern Development of China, probably have other dreams for ecological civilization. They grew up in the China of Mao Zedong. They experienced hunger and witnessed the destruction of traditional Chinese culture. They are both trained in academic philosophy. They know China and the West.
They may see ecological civilization as an emerging new global philosophy. Either humans will learn how to live in harmony with the natural world or they will become extinct. Perhaps ecological civilization is a convenient expression for the end of war and a beginning of something better for themselves and China. It may be no more than a slogan or deep belief in a better world.
I joined the discussion about ecological civilization during some of the conferences they sponsored in Claremont. That gave me a chance to talk to Chinese scholars.
Such theoretical perspectives enriched my limited observations in rural China. Chinese peasants told me they love the land they rent from the state. And Chinese agronomists who study peasant farming told me they would love to see a better future for peasant farming.
Americanizing Chinese farming
Nevertheless, China is striving to “modernize” its peasant agriculture. Chinese scientists have been training in America for decades. The Chinese government is funding these scientists to expand the scope of industrialized farming in China. Both the government and the American-trained scientists overlook the fact that peasants are raising most of China’s food.
Industrialized farmers in China are converting peasant land to large factory farms. Such a policy is bound to spark clashes between peasants and large industrialized farmers supported by the government. This looming tragedy is a telling example of how difficult it is to maintain ancient ecological traditions in an age of worldwide ecocide and rapacious ambitions and governance.
The peasant factor
In contrast to the hegemonic American agribusiness and the equally hegemonic if misguided developing Chinese agribusiness, Chinese peasant farming opens an exciting vista of ecological and political insights for a strategy of an agriculture that is largely benign to the natural world, just to those working the land, and healthy to all eating the food peasants grow.
Industrialized agribusiness, be that of the American or Chinese variety, is against ecological civilization. Organic / biological farming and peasant agriculture open the doors to ecological civilization – just a little. They give us but a glimpse of what the future could become.
The first system – agribusiness — is a grab for power; the second is a spark from millennial traditions of wisdom and practice in the raising of food without wounding the land.
There’s also the best of modern science coming under the name of agroecology: the latest findings in agricultural ecology, that could and would complement and enrich peasant practices.
China would do its culture a favor if it turns all its efforts in repairing and strengthening its peasant farming, abandoning its agribusiness as an error. Such a policy shift would tell the world China is serious about ecological civilization – and fighting global warming. At that moment, China might become a model for saving the Earth.