Democracy in Action the Organic Way

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, May 15, 1998

Last week the USDA acknowledged receiving over 200,000 comments on its seriously flawed proposed rule for organic agriculture. Secretary Dan Glickman said, "The bulk of the extraordinary number of comments opposed including the products of biotechnology, the use of irradiation in food processing, and the application of biosolids (municipal sludge) in organic food production." Although Glickman continues to maintain that these three controversial technologies are safe, he said that they would not be allowed in organic production. He added that his department would take the nearly quarter million comments into consideration when the USDA drafts a new organic rule which will be released for public comment later this year. Farmers, consumers, environmentalists, health groups, and people from all walks of life achieved this result together. Congratulations! This is democracy in action.

Several recent NPR stories about serious environmental issues confirmed the value of organic principles. These stories demonstrate how reductionist science, at the service of corporate profits creates problems. Because of its consistent philosophy based on an understanding of, and respect for, nature's ways, organic agriculture avoids these problems.

The first report was about the proliferation of toxic algae in US coastal waters. These algae can be very hazardous to marine life and to humans. Although reductionist science is slow to prove it, time and again the finger of blame for these algae blooms points to excess nitrogen running off into streams and rivers. Chemical fertilizers applied to farms, lawns, athletic fields and golf courses, and human and animal wastes (especially from the increasingly large confinement animal feeding operations) are the source of this polluting nitrogen.

One of the guiding principles of organic agriculture is that chemical fertilizers are not used because they are soluble and are easily washed away. Organic growers use crop rotation, leguminous cover crops, composted manures and the organisms in fertile soil to provide nitrogen which not only doesn't run off into water, but also doesn't consume lots of fossil fuel in its manufacture.

Dr. Abigail Maynard's research at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven over a 12-year period, proved that applying one inch of leaf compost yearly is equivalent to spreading 10-10-10 chemical fertilizer and limestone in terms of crop yields. The soil enriched with compost, however, was in much better condition. It had greater water-holding capacity, better tilth and was less acid. Unfortunately, the Experiment Station still routinely suggests that growers and homeowners use chemical fertilizers. There are clearly few (if any) good reasons to use these fertilizers, and lots of good reasons for not using them.

The proliferation of antibiotic-resistant diseases is the other problem which affirms organic beliefs. The widespread use of growth-enhancing, sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics in large-scale animal factories is connected to a growing number of human disease-causing organisms which are resistant to many of our most powerful medicines. The massive, unnatural confinement of animals practically mandates the use of drugs in an attempt to maintain their health. Organic principles reject both large animal factories and antibiotic use except to save an animal's life. They encourage a more ecological balance between animals and the plants that feed them.

The theory of organic agriculture is that good plant and animal health is achieved through a balance of organisms, and that any time we use poisons, we select for resistant pests, kill beneficial organisms and create new problems. Unfortunately, the large-scale, toxic pesticide experiment of the last 50 years has shown this to be true.

Yet chemical fertilizers, routine antibiotic and pesticide use and large animal feeding operations are all technologies the USDA claims are safe. Some of these may (still) be allowed in the revised organic rule.

The fight for organic standards which protect the environment and respect organic principles is not over yet. In the meantime, signs point to organic agriculture as a way to avoid many large-scale environmental problems.

Stay tuned.

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.