There is no question that our food system is broken. The way we farm, the way we process, sell, buy and eat food has become an exercise in a polluted environment and polluted, undernourished bodies.
Against this backdrop the word ‘organic’ is sometimes waived like a flag – or worn like a magic cloak – that protects us from harm.
The image of organic, of an agricultural system that promotes healthy plants, animals, soil and humans; that emulates and sustains natural systems; that promotes fairness and justice for all living things; and that cares for future generations, is still strong and is still substantially true.
Organic is the most widely-used system that comes closest in practice to genuinely sustainable farming. But it’s under attack on many fronts. In part this is because there can be a large space between image and the business-as-usual reality of food production. Even with the best will in the world, unsatisfactory practices can creep in and, increasingly, corporate and industrial farming and food interests seek to benefit financially from the cache of organic while at the same time belittling, and in some cases ignoring, its core values.
As in many things the US leads the way in this. Hydroponics and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have both been allowed in organic foods certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), in the face of considerable opposition, recently formalised under the banner of the Real Organic Project.
The US has also been blighted by the rise what some call ‘Big Organic’ – an upscaling of organic production that mimics industrial agriculture in its reliance on monocultures, intensive animal rearing and industrial processes. One component of Big Organic is some of the well-established organic brands that have been bought up by large food conglomerates; another is the proliferation of ‘organic’ supermarkets that operate in the same unfair and unsustainable way as their conventional counterparts.
It might be argued that this is simply the consequence of continued and healthy growth in the organic market. Even if that is the case, it is also part of a subtle trend that chips away at the essential nature of organic using mumbo jumbo about the inevitability of market forces and opaque certification.
Discussions and disagreements about the mainstreaming of organic – and what that means both practically and philosophically – have been ongoing for some time both behind the scenes and in the public arena.
They’ve taken a vexing turn, however, with the emergence of the idea that genetic modification, and in particular new ‘genome editing’ techniques like CRISPR and gene drives, could have a role in organic agriculture.
Biotech companies – and crucially, the research establishment with its eyes on lucrative intellectual property rights and patents – believe that if they can persuade organic plant and animal breeders, and organic certifiers to accept the new gene editing techniques then the rest of agriculture can have no valid objection to adopting these technologies.
Given the totemic position of organic farming within the development of sustainability, the implications are far-reaching. Questions which have previously only been whispered – Can you plant a GMO seed, grow it organically and still call it organic? What about genetically modified animals? If you raise them according to organic standards are they, and their meat milk and eggs, organic? If an organic crop is pollinated by genetically modified bees is it still organic? And what about the honey those bees might make? Is that organic too? – are now being openly addressed and have taken on a more universal importance because they speak to the heart of how we understand life and our fundamental values.
These are important discussions – and not an unreasonable ones. Conversations at this level help to refine our thinking, guide our actions and maintain our dynamism in a rapidly changing world. But in terms of day-to-day resources it’s hardly a fair fight.
Agri-industrial corporations have millions to spend on PR and marketing firms and on campaigns to change hearts and minds. They plant seeds on social media with hashtags like #PlantBreeding, #EmbracingNature and #Biodiversity to help grow the public perception that genetic engineering is part of a natural cycle. The conference circuit has exploded in recent years with tech firms splashing out on international meetings that – to borrow a phrase from politics – ‘energise their base’ to keep promoting these concepts.
But it’s not just about money; trying to find a reasoned discussion in the public domain, one that gives proper weight to values and worldviews, can be frustrating. These are issues that defy bullet points, emojis and the limited text of social media.
Changing the language
Some people may be surprised to learn that organic is not simply a tickbox of criteria to be met in order to get a label or a stamp or a badge. It’s also a set of values to aspire to. It’s a philosophy; a holistic methodological approach to living nature, to the self-organization/self-regulation of living nature, and to the integrity of living organisms.
That’s not the way we normally talk about agricultural crops and to some it may sound like gobbledygook; and yet to challenge ingrained thinking we also need to challenge language.
It’s an idea that’s catching on. Guardian journalist George Monbiot advocates changing the language we use to describe nature. He advises, for example, to substitute the words ‘living planet’ or ‘natural world’ – words which allow us to form pictures of what is being described – for the now largely soulless term ‘environment’.
It’s not a new or even original concept but it is interesting to see it proposed in a mainstream newspaper. How different, and how much more inclusive, might our discussion of food and farming be if we used human language rather than corporate buzzwords and techno-babble. If we talked about ‘nourishing food’ rather than ‘nutrients’, ‘living soil’ rather than ‘dirt’ or ‘living systems’ rather than ‘natural capital’?
The scientists who develop GMOs say their work is not based on woolly notions of philosophy or ideology or the language of values but in concrete science. But the claim that their work is values-free is patently false.
Science is driven by the things that are important to us; by moral, political and even aesthetic values. When genetic engineering is promoted as a way to feed the world, to democratise science and business, to increase prosperity, to improve health, or to lessen agriculture’s impact on the environment these are values-based claims.
Because genetic engineering arises out of such values, it is perfectly legitimate for it be judged by these, and other, values – and what an interesting exercise that could be.
Beyond the tick-box
For our long-term survival, the values of organic are more important than the premium that can be made from the certified organic market and the values of true sustainability are more fundamentally important than narrow criteria and buzzword marketing.
Taking the philosophy out of the discussion means avoiding difficult conversations and eschewing accountability. It is also what allows the biotech industry to push its way through the door with a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach to the regulation of new genetic engineering techniques and a will to avoid a comprehensive, and therefore more accurate, analysis of risks, benefits, successes and failures.
A more meaningful conversation about the future of food means both sides need to own up to how they understand and frame current problems in agricultural production and human health and to what informs their proposed solutions. It needs to include issues of ownership and regulatory assessment and the extent to which genuine alternatives to our broken agricultural system are being investigated and supported.
Until this happens any discussions about food, health, sustainability, organic, genetic engineering and feeding the world in the future will continue to fall short.
By Pat Thomas, who is a Director of Beyond GM. This article is part of an ongoing series in H&C News that focuses on current issues in sustainability.