Federal standards for organic food are a bit like federal laws requiring airbags and catalytic converters on cars. Both represent the government's idea of how to solve a small and very specific problem. They are, however, very much like putting seat belts on the Titanic's deck chairs - not a viable long-term solution. They lull us into thinking that we can make minuscule changes in our increasingly energy-intensive lifestyles and then just keep on going with our automobile-dependent society and our long-distance, industrial food system.
It would certainly be good to use fewer toxic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers (or better yet, none at all), just as fewer highway deaths and injuries, and less pollution are desirable. The problem is that both types of regulation further legitimize unsustainable practices as they increase inequities throughout the world and create a false sense of complacency.
After prices are adjusted for inflation, gasoline is less expensive now than it has ever been. Signs everywhere, however, point to an energy crisis in the not-too-distant future. It may come from a supply shortage which drives up prices, a very nasty and expensive war over access to oil, or the relentless assault by the planet's drastically-altered weather.
A recent Scientific American article reported that in 1997, oil companies pumped three times as much "black gold" out of the ground as they discovered, and that oil production will begin to decline within a decade. The earth's finite supply of fossil fuel is being burned up at an ever-faster rate by the world's growing population. Declining production, combined with increasing demand and dependency is a recipe for severe economic disruption. Non-conventional petroleum products and other substitutes for oil will be more expensive and possibly, more environmentally damaging, as well. Politically volatile Middle Eastern countries will control an increasing percentage of the remaining reserves.
Houses sliding down hills in California, trailer parks relocated by a tornado in Florida, power lines, forests and barns flattened by ice to the north of us in Maine and Quebec and a winter which broke high and low records here and nearly everywhere else, are just the latest indicators of a serious change in the climate. Last year set the record for the highest global average temperature, slightly above the 1995 record.
Yet, in spite of these warning signs, we continue to focus on superficial solutions and avoid addressing serious, long-term problems, while we create an ever more car-dependent society and a more energy-intensive food system.
The power of the auto industry is such that it has driven us (pun-intended) to the point where cars are essential. What it didn't accomplish directly by dismantling mass transit decades ago, the zoners in the suburbs finished off. Houses, work, school and shopping are so far apart that it's nearly impossible to live without a car. (In the suburbs, it costs about $10 just for a round-trip drive to the closest supermarket or fast-food place in a sport utility vehicle.)
In the meantime, autos are getting more expensive with each added safety and pollution-control device, and with each luxury item: heated seats with memories, elaborate audio systems and soon, perhaps, even automatic pilot.
These trends discriminate against those who are too young, too old or too disabled to drive a car. An automobile-dependent society also discriminates against those who are too poor to afford the increasingly-expensive operational costs. Wider roads, safer cars and more paved-over farmland encourage even more cars and increase the problems.
In the same way, adding organic standards to the industrial food system may allow some farmers to use fewer chemicals and some wealthy eaters to consume fewer pesticides. But, the effect of the flawed national standards will be to increase our complacency and the distance between the farm and our mouths. That growing distance increases our dependence on cheap oil.
This country, just four percent of the Earth's population, uses about 25% of the world's oil. The present low cost of energy is pulling us toward even greater dependence on a damaging and exhaustible resource, and away from the exciting possibilities for a sustainable, solar-powered society .
Let's work together to create places which are exciting enough to live in and nourishing enough to sustain us.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
This page and its contents are copyright © 1998 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.