Why is Organic Agriculture so neglected by Organic Advocates?

Organic agriculture faces difficult times in Canada, with its challenges of high production costs, difficult pest control, microbial contamination, excessive soil tillage, inconsistent approaches to the use of genetically modified organisms and highly competitive imports. Yet organic advocates, who are mostly non farmers, virtually ignore these issues while pursuing an agenda which can be best described as anti-corporate and anti-technology – and largely unrelated to the problems of organic food production. As a prominent organic farmer told me at a recent organic conference in Guelph, Ontario, “Those advocates are sure not helping me.” That’s the theme of this column.

First some disclosure: I farm commercially, but not organically. I rarely eat organic foods because of their higher cost and my belief that they have no net health benefits and mixed environmental benefits. I’ve argued that because of its higher costs of production and mostly lower productivity, organic agriculture does not represent “sustainable agriculture” for a world whose population is expected to exceed nine billion within a few decades.

But I know many Canadians disagree. The annual domestic expenditure for organic foods is estimated at about $2 billion. And because an estimated 80% of this is imported – often from large farms in the southwestern United States or countries with dubious food safety controls – it makes good sense to grow more of this produce at home. I applaud efforts to do so.

A few years back, I was associate dean for research and innovation at the Ontario Agricultural College, University of Guelph. One accomplishment was the establishment of an organic dairy research facility at the Alfred campus and this occurred because of solid support from dairy farm organizations in Ontario and Quebec, senior governments and the Canadian organic industry. We were less successful in securing dedicated new funding for expanded research on other aspects of organic agriculture. However, a significant increase in relevant investigation has occurred within other research programs.

These achievements are in part the result of a period of exceptional good will which existed between organic and non-organic farmers in Canada about five to 15 years ago. Organic growers and promoters were spending less time criticizing their farming neighbours and more time trying to be a new component of mainstream agriculture. And the latter responded in a very positive way.

The same good will was why major farm groups were supportive when organic interests sought funding through a federally funded program of the Guelph-based Agricultural Adaptation Council to create the  Organic Council of Ontario about 6-8 years ago.

How sad it is that leadership of this council has now shown its gratitude by waging a campaign against non-organic farmers and farm technology. Other organic advocacy groups also seem to have become more strident in their denunciations of mainstream farming practices. Condemnation of others, rather than support for organic farming itself, has become their raison d’etre. Or so it appears to me.

But to check this further, I attended the recent Guelph Organic Conference. That’s Canada’s largest annual organic conference according to organizers. To my surprise, I found that I was actually attending two very different conferences – both at the same time and place.

The Farmers

In one room were the organic farmers, marketers and advisers. The audience heard a goldmine of solid information and advice – all about managing practical problems, like weeds (the biggest problem), diseases and insects, soil fertility, marketing, preserving quality and more. One top grower from Essex County described how he works about every day from April through early summer cultivating, “finger-tine” weeding, and rotary hoeing for weed control. He may go through each field eight or more times. Sometimes when it’s bad enough, propane-fueled flame weeding is needed. “A new weed challenge every day,” he said. He said that the money which he has saved with no herbicides purchases is now spent on farm equipment and technology. His diesel fuel bill is probably large too.

Management of soil fertility is also a big challenge, especially phosphate fertility. Some organic crop problems have no right answers, such as control of wireworm and army worms.

How to meet market demand was another big issue. Though consumer demand has continued to grow or at least hold its own, domestic production of organic grains, needed for organic livestock feed and grain-based foods, has declined – down about 15-20% in Ontario from five years ago. The problem is the combination of greater profitability for non-organic grain growers, high production costs and production challenges, very volatile organic grain prices and imports of organic grain. Organic contracts for autumn 2013 delivery are now being offered at $12/bushel for corn and $25-30 for soybeans – more than double those for non-organic production – but no expanded production is expected in Ontario even at these high prices. Canadian need for organic grains is being met increasingly through imports from China and India. We buy the grain their own hungry people cannot afford.

I asked two organic buyers in one session about concerns over genetically modified (GM) contaminants in organic corn and soybeans. Their answers were near identical. They test every load for GM content, but reject only one to two loads per year. One buyer said the problem was mostly attributable to contaminated seed planted by organic farmers, and he blamed organic farmers themselves for that. Organic soybean growers are obliged to buy organic seed “if available.” But if supply is unavailable from five contacted seed dealers, then non-organic seed can be used. And because the latter is cheaper, organic growers can save money by contacting only seed dealers unlikely to have organic seed. Meanwhile, the bone fide organic seed supplier has unpurchased organic seed left at the end of the planting season.

I did not get the impression at the grower/marketer sessions of the organic conference that GM is a dominant issue. Growers have much bigger matters to deal with – like sow thistles.

I heard not one speaker in this all-day session voice a word of criticism about non-organic agriculture or farmers. These were classy people, proud members of Ontario agriculture.

The Advocates

I wandered over to sample the other half of the organic conference. The topics and tenor were totally different.

Speaker after speaker boasted about organic agriculture being “pesticide free.” When a listener asked about organic pesticides, the question was sloughed off; the speaker equated organic pesticides with the hosing of roses with water to remove aphids. No mention of the Health Canada-registered organic pesticides, copper sulphate and rotenone. (I’m told the Canadian supplier of rotenone has stopped marketing it, perhaps because of possible linkages to Parkinson’s. But it is still on the Canadian list of approved organic products. Curiously, when organic advocates emphasize links between Parkinson’s and pesticides – as they frequently do – they never mention that the pesticide with the strongest link is organic.)

But opposition to pesticides was nothing like the venom directed at GM technology. Indian activist, Vandana Shiva, who condemns the Green Revolution and who recently compared farmers using GM crops to rapists, was praised by a spokesperson for the Organic Council of Ontario as an agricultural visionary. The discredited work of French researcher and anti-GM advocate, Eric Séralini, about supposed links between GM corn and tumours in rats, was cited as gospel. No mention of its rejection by major food safety authorities and senior scientists around the globe. Monsanto was demonized as an obligate component of each speech. The false or distorted information flowed on and on.

I heard again the same mis-truths about Roundup-resistant alfalfa, that organic farmers will be put out of business if anyone grows RR alfalfa on an adjacent farm. This rhetoric ignores the very minimal risk of contamination. Alfalfa forage crops are almost always harvested at flowering, well before seed set, and the inability of alfalfa stands to even reseed themselves is well known by most farmers. The activists’ target is really Monsanto, the developer of RR alfalfa.

I heard not a word about permitted usages for GMOs in Canadian organic production, as specified in Canadian organic standards. There was no discussion about other forms of GM technology permitted in organic production, such as genetic variation created by exposure to intense radiation and mutagenic chemicals – also termed “genetically modified” under Canadian law.

Some sessions were downright weird. A featured speaker at one session, organized by the Organic Council of Ontario (OCO), talked about how she’d been raised across the road from a 500-acre corn field which was sprayed regularly by a large “combine” (yes, that’s what she said). She then said organic crops are inherently resistant to plant diseases and that this trait is transferred to people who eat organic crops, rendering them resistant to human diseases. A 13-year-old girl also spoke at this event, claiming (falsely) that GM crops kill butterflies, bees and rats. No correction from the OCO moderator.

There was also humour – or at least irony. One session featured the lack of integrity among marketers of “natural” foods. They apparently make false or unsubstantiated statements about health and environmental benefits – the implication being that organic advocates don’t. Poll results show that “natural” is viewed about as favourably by consumers as “organic.” Organic promoters are deeply concerned.

I heard scarcely a word in these discussion about the problems so dominant in the organic farming sessions. Almost nothing about weeds, other pests, fertility, imports and economics. The discussion was mostly about technologies not even used by organic farmers.

One topic not addressed in any session I attended was microbial contamination. Several North Americans died from contaminated organic spinach a few years ago. Another recall of infected organic spinach occurred in February. A Michigan court recently stopped sales of organic tofu and soy milk because of microbial contamination. About 40 people died in Europe from eating contaminated organic sprouts. There is no reason for Canadian smugness. These deaths involved organic produce fully approved, by bilateral agreements, for sale in Canada.

According to the now famous Mark Lynas, 3 ½ trillion meals containing GM ingredients have now been consumed globally with not a single illness related to the technology. Microbial contamination of organic foods has killed many. And yet the organic advocates attack the former and ignore the latter.

Mainstream media who were such uncritical champions of organic culture for many years, are now asking the tough questions and digging deeper. Witness how quickly a Sanford University story about the largely non health advantages of organic food swept the globe in late 2012. Mark Lynas’ comments at British farm conference in early 2013 went viral even faster. More revelations will follow.

Misguided organic advocacy groups are doing a great job of setting up organic agriculture for these attacks, while neglecting the real problems of the growers.

Organic farmers need and deserve better.