Bonnie Bucqueroux

Bonnie Bucqueroux
Mason, Michigan, United States
May 01
Editor & Publisher
Sustainable Farmer
I recently retired from Michigan State to spend more time on Sustainable Farmer.com, an online multimedia "magazine" for people who grow food with respect for all living things. Yet another leading-edge Boomer still trying to save the world.


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Editor’s Pick
MAY 18, 2009 10:02AM

Stop Big Farma from changing food rules

Rate: 11 Flag

Heirloom peach tomatoes - photo by Casey

I grow food. I shop for food. I cook food for me and my family. And, like most of us, I want food that is safe, healthy and fresh. I want it at a price I can afford, but I am willing to pay more for quality and to keep farmers I trust in business. So why don't I have more of a voice in how food is produced and regulated?

For many years, "organic" was the holy grail of food reform. The term evoked romantic images of small farmers lovingly tending their crops, without the use of massive machinery and poisonous chemicals. The farm animals in that picture, if there were any, were treated humanely, and their manure was prized as part of the cycle that enriched the soils and the crops grown on them.

Early proponents such as England's Lady Eve Balfour, who wrote "The Living Soil" in 1943, set forth a vision of farming methods that work in harmony with nature as means of producing healthy, nutritious local food. Appreciation for organic food in this country took root among Baby Boomers in the Seventies, growing over the succeeding decades into a mainstream movement to the point where even traditional supermarkets now feature numerous organic selections.

Flash forward to today, and we see the word "organic" rapidly degenerating into a legal and marketing term, narrowly defined and enforced by U.S. Department of Agriculture. The excesses allowed under its rubric would no doubt make people who think like Lady Eve cringe.

While there are thousands of wonderful organic growers nationwide trying to live up to those early ideals, today's USDA regulations not only allow but often encourage huge California mono-crop fruit and vegetable farms, watered by open-ditch irrigation. And the loopholes in the rules for animals are even worse. Organic meat, milk and eggs often come from animals jammed together as long as they are fed organic grain. "Free range" means only that there's a small strip of land outside a small door open a few hours a day (weather permitting).

As a reality check, small farmer Makenna Goodman, whose chickens thrive on the grass and food scraps she feeds them as they roam her land, is not certifiable as an organic egg producer because the relatively small amount of supplemental grain she feeds her birds isn't certified organic feed. (Organic feed costs twice as much, and she's frugal.) I also know a number of local growers whose practices I endorse who refuse to become certified because of the cost of the federal filing fee and the paperwork burden required.

Worrisome as well is that being certified organic does not mean that the farm-workers who tend and harvest those crops receive a living wage. A recent article in AlterNet called "The Ugly Truth Behind Organic Food" noted that most of the organic fruits and vegetables grown in California are picked by non-unionized workers, many of whom do not make enough to feed their own families well.

According to the California Institute for Rural Studies, roughly 30% of farm-worker families survive on less than $10,000 a year, and 70% of the state's farm-workers have no health insurance. Yet it should be noted that the workers on organic farms tend to do better. An institute survey of 300 growers showed that those who have half or more of their land in organic production pay their workers an average $8.54 an hour, compared to the overall farm-worker average of $7.37 an hour. As the report concluded, "While still not a living wage, this difference can translate to an additional $2,000 per year, or approximately 20% of a typical farm-worker’s annual income."

This is not the picture in my mind when I think organic. My vision begins with small farmers giving their crops personalized care, always on the lookout for new and better ways to produce food in harmony with the environment. And my vision ends with people from all walks of life enjoying healthy, fresh, local organic foodstuffs, not with shoppers at Whole Foods filling their carts with overpriced products marketed by corporations completely disconnected from any real commitment to environmentalism and social justice.

How did this happen? How did the term "organic" get bastardized? And how did certification evolve into a program that farmers I trust often avoid?

The problem, of course, is that large growers, industrial agribusinesses and giant food industry corporations have both the wallet and the will to ensure that new federal and state regulations are written they way they want them. And what they want are rules that make it easy for them to deal with a handful of large-scale corporate producers who will give them uniform product year-round at the cheapest possible price. Environmentalism and social justice are either irrelevant or counterproductive to blackening the corporate bottom line.

Politicians on federal and state agriculture committees who find themselves at the tender mercies of this relentless cabal often fail to see the devil lurking in the details, farmers and consumers be damned. Or they find it easy to parrot the self-serving corporate talking points as long as the corporate campaign donation is large enough.

And the sad reality is that the corporate corruption of the term organic has implications beyond our borders. As this article in EcoWorld suggests, farmers in India have long embraced organic practices, if only because few can afford expensive chemical inputs. But as the international community adopts certification standards based on the U.S. model, many Indian farmers are finding that they cannot afford to become certified, which robs them of the premium that such crops often command.

Sustainable? Localvore? What's next?

Many of us who began as champions of organic farming have found ourselves casting about for a better term to describe what we mean. We want a progressive system that allows small family farmers not only to survive but thrive. And we want them to embrace practices that support the long-term health of our planet and the people in our society. So how about switching to the term "sustainable"?

Sad but true, the move toward codifying what sustainable agriculture stands for is now bogged down in debates about whether or not to allow sustainable farmers to grow GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Proponents argue that GMO crops are a panacea that will save the world from the threat of starvation. Critics like me who are old enough to remember the disastrous Green Revolution that also promised better living through chemistry argue that these Frankenfoods pose more of a risk than a benefit. And Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute notes that GMOs have never lived up to their promise of doubling or tripling yields, as the now-discredited Green Revolution did decades earlier.

OK, so is it better not to define our terms, so that we don't find that new regulations certify practices that make us shudder? But then what does it mean to be a localvore? Imagine my horror when I discovered that the Frito-Lay Corporation has now embraced the term "local" for a new marketing campaign for its potato chips.

As the New York Times' article explains, local is such a hot term among consumers that major food corporations are jumping on the localvore bandwagon. And, hey, as long as there are no regulations about what you can and cannot call "local," virtually everything other than a few spices from China can be marketed as qualifying as part of this hot new food marketing trend.

The thought that a calorie-laden junk food is marketed to health-conscious consumers as "local" makes me want to bite someone. One of Frito-Lay's commercials shows farmer Brian Kirschenmann standing in his field proudly displaying a bag of Frito-Lay chips made from his potatoes. A fifth generation potato farmer in Bakersfield who sits on the U.S. Potato Board, Kirschenmann grows potatoes on 4,500 non-organic acres. Is that the friendly local farmer you had in mind?

As sustainable food activist and author Michael Pollan says, "The ingenuity of the food manufacturers and marketers never ceases to amaze me. They can turn any critique into a new way to sell food. You’ve got to hand it to them.”

Yet I find myself more outraged than amused. I grow increasingly weary of putting my energies and enthusiasm into reforms that end up co-opted by corporations whose legal obligation is limited to doing everything they can, within the law, to generate profits for their stockholders.

A recent email from India announced that a new group, Women Action for Ecology, has formed in Punjab with the goal of promoting "natural" agriculture. I am not sure if their choice of the word "natural" reflects acknowledgment that we have lost the battle in defining organic, sustainable and local, but the philosophy underlying their goals for natural foods is based on:

  • "Organising debates, dialogues, exhibitions, campaigns to create awareness about the effects of pesticides on our health and the contamination of the food chain.
  • Raising questions on the safety of GM foods and preparing material in local language and idiom.
  • Reclaiming our food heritage and campaign for safe food.
  • Promoting millet based foods with maximum food diversity, health drinks and recipes derived from traditional wisdom.
  • Promoting kitchen gardening for maximizing women action for safe and nutritious food.
  • Planning for systematic adoption of kitchen gardening.
  • Retrieving the folk songs, sayings and idioms associated with agriculture, foods, seasons and nature.
  • Create opinion pieces and articles in Punjabi/Hindi/English on women.

Those wonderfully wise Punjabi women remind me that my frustration is echoed around the world. Like Potter Stewart (who said, when asked to define pornography, "I know it when I see it"), I know sound food policy when I see it. In some ways, I don't want government to define terms such as organic, sustainable and local, because the moment they do, corporations will hunt for loopholes to turn the rules to their advantage (and away from my ideals). But I also know that failing to define such terms allows corporations to market food as "local" even if the farm is 600 miles away.

A line in the sand

So what I propose is a new commitment by those of us who grow, buy, prepare and consume food to demand rules and regulations that include our chorus of voices from Punjab to Pomona. At the grassroots level, I want city ordinances that allow urban residents the opportunity to grow their own food and keep a few chickens. At the state level, I want those new GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) and GAAMP (Generally Accepted Agricultural Management Practices) rules and regulations to either exempt small producers or make sure that these regulations truly reflect their lifestyle and our needs.

For example, new rules proposed in North Carolina would prevent farmers from taking their dogs with them when they walk the fields. The argument is that this is necessary because of growing concerns about food safety. The reality, of course, is that absentee corporate farmers would never take a dog along while visiting their fields, but family farmers often do. And many of us suspect that the real threat to food safety isn't Rover in the back 40, but the corporatization of our entire food industry so that we end up with bacteria-laden food products so complex we cannot even tell where the pathogens come from.

At the federal level, one of the first changes that I want to see is that "commodity" farmers (those who grow grains such as corn and soybeans) would no longer lose their farm subsidies if they also grow "specialty" crops (fruits and vegetables - what the rest of us simply call "food"). If the profits were good enough and there was no penalty, the brothers who farm the land that surrounds mine might well start growing some fruits and vegetables for sale to our community. And I think they'd learn a lot from us, and I from them.

Like many commodity growers, these farmers use every pesticide and herbicide known to man, as well as massive quantities of anhydrous ammonia fertilizer. Last year, I saw a tanker filled with sewage pumping sludge into my neighbors' cornfield less than a half-mile uphill from my well. And each fall, they either scrape the land clean, contributing to wind erosion of our previous Midwestern topsoil, or they leave the stubble, which requires dousing the fields with even more herbicides to plant their crops the next year.

I just checked the Farm Subsidy Database, and these guys rank second in our county in the amount of taxpayer money they receive ($1.6 million from 1995 through 2006). If USDA would change the rules, so that these farmers could also raise fruits and vegetables without losing that subsidy, I might have a fighting chance of talking to them face to face about what I think it means to be good stewards of the land.

To move toward a sustainable food system not only requires changing the economic incentives but the hearts and minds of traditional growers. I know from my years with Michigan Farmer magazine decades ago that many traditional farmers are insulated and isolated from consumers who want them to embrace sustainable practices, and that the opportunities for dialogue are few.

Farm organizations such as Farm Bureau reinforce the disconnect between farmers and the people they feed. A quick visit to the American Farm Bureau website shows that they have commissioned articles that deny man's role in global warming. The Farm Bureau legislative action center currently urges farmers to oppose legislation that would (1) restrict the use of antibiotics in farm animals and (2) Senator Russ Feingold's efforts to extend clean water regulations to farmland. All too often farm organizations reinforce the knee-jerk conservatism that ignores the farmer's crucial role in promoting practices that protect the environment.

The bottom line is that consumers must band together to demand changes in our food systems that promote long-term sustainability on OUR terms. Women in particular need to join forces with groups such as the women in Punjab to speak up about what we value in food production and food policy.

I know many women still find political activism distasteful. At my talk on global warming and food at an Earth Day meeting in Rochester, Michigan, a woman came up afterward to say, "I want to see all these changes made but I want to stay away from politics." That's like saying you want to divert the river as long as you don't have to get wet.

Bottom line is that we all make political decisions with the dollars we spend. Buying food from local growers through farmers' markets and CSAs (Community-Supported Agriculture) sends a message to Big Farma that they must change or die. But we must find the time and energy to push for progressive policy changes at the local, state and federal levels. When it is time to draw bright lines about what does and does not qualify as organic, sustainable and local, those of us who have the responsibility for feeding our families must stand up for food we can believe in.

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The two things I noted in your piece. If farm workers were paid a "living wage", people would starve to death because they would not be able to afford food. Even you mention the high prices. So if you had a near poverty level income what would you feed your family if food cost what you are paying for it?

Secondly if we wanted to feed large number of people cheap then you would be pushing for irradiated food. It will keep the people safe from food borne illness and keep the cost down due to getting rid of excessive spoilage.
Thanks for posting this.
The apologists for industrial-scale agribusiness always justify their practices on the grounds of efficiency. If they're so gosh-darn efficient, why do the need billions and billions of dollars every year in taxpayer subsidies?
Unless you live near one of the home of big agro, you should assume that your food is not local, except if you bought it from the farmer or his farm stand.

Rather than trying to find a term like "organic" or "Natural" and defining it, we should try to ensure that our tax dollars do not support agriculture that we don't approve of.

By all means, let a big farm use legal pesticides and herbicides. But why should we subsidize that? Defining what agro-subsidies support will go a lot further towards reforming farming than creating a new version of "organic."
I heard Michael Pollan speak two nights ago at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. He pointed out that the good news is this is an issue we all can do something about TODAY. Vote with your fork.
Catnlion, you echo the typical conservative argument about how we need industrial ag to provide cheap food so that poor folks don't starve. But remember that slavery would produce food even cheaper than farm-workers, but there are practices that we cannot and should not endorse. You should also know that recent studies show that eating healthy fruits and veggies is actually cheaper than buying processed food. The issue with many poor families is providing them access to fresh fruits and vegetables since many of them live in food deserts where they try to feed their families on what convenience stores offer.
If industrial-scale agriculture is really more efficient than sustainable farming, then they wouldn't need to send in SWAT teams against natural foods co-ops like Manna Foods in Ohio.

See my post, "War On Food."
They say any two sides that fight long enough will eventually switch positions. Wasn't there once a time when conservatives were in favor of free markets? Personal responsibility? Home cooking?

Next thing you know, Mom's apple pie will be classified as a controlled substance.
Patrick, how ironic that you should mention Mom's apple as a controlled substance. Decades ago, when I worked for a state farm magazine, I covered the Michigan Department of Agriculture's Commission. They passed a rule that would have required that apple pies at county fairs be produced only in "certified" kitchens. Once I pointed out how silly that was, they quickly changed the rule. But this is the kind of short-sightedness that should make us pause about the kinds of rules currently being written about organic, sustainable and localvore practices. Thanks for commenting.
So Bonnie what would you like to do? Cause food prices to rise even more? How will that help?

I know that when I lived in the LA area the locals burned down the grocery stores and then complained that they didn't have access to grocery stories. But they chose to live in those areas. I guess the reap what you sow really applies here.

So what is the plan?
Oh, and what drugs are you on that you think chickens belong in cities? (Unless your idea of a city is what the rest of us call a small town.)

One of my Russian friends has a story about raising geese on the balcony and in the bathtub of their apartment. The story was funny, but the animal husbandry practices were not. (The geese raising was an experiment, abandoned after the goslings had fattened up and the family didn't want to eat them and were tired of being hissed at whenever they wanted to use the toilet.
so many points, so little time. So here are the highlights of what I think are important.

Organic means anything with carbon molecule. Therefore, oil and plastic are organic. Be careful when you say "without insecticides or fertilizer" because bullshit ( as well as cow, chicken, goat) is fertilizer.

Sustainable as a rate as in "my garden can grow three tomato plants per year without soil degradation". how much overtime with or without effect. to use it any other way is "fertilizer" and is deceitful.

Living wage and agricultural workers are really tough problem. I would estimate that approximately half the cost of food from the farm is labor but middlemen add something like three to four times the cost of food to the final price. So if you can reduce or eliminate the middleman, you can lower the cost of food enough to pay a living lower middle-class wage. If you can't eliminate the middleman, you are looking at tripling or quadrupling food costs to give the same lower middle-class wage. For example, I'm currently paying two dollars a head of lettuce (Boston), under my wage increase suggestion, I would be paying $6-$8 for that same head. My weekly vegetable budget ($70) would now become $210 to $280. I don't know about you but I'd be eating a lot less vegetables and fruit.

everything you write about are tough problems. thanks for discussing them.
Lampliter, the figures you cite about how much food prices would rise if farm-workers were paid a living wage are fiction. Keep in mind that only a small amount of the retail cost of food goes to the grower, let alone the farm-worker. Much of the cost you are paying is for transportation and marketing. To pay farm-workers a living wage would likely be measured in dimes, not dollars.
Sustainable is a better term because organic doesn't mean what you want it to mean. Maybe the original idea behind organics was to be what we consider sustainable now but certification is about physical elements like not using pesticide.
Of course whatever term you use will be co-opted if it is profitable and marketable. As long as we can't get rid of them, having the large producers stop using pesticides is at least a step in the right direction. And if they make poison-free food more affordable and accessible then that seems like a big upside. I think there is a lot of hippy style elitism (along side a well placed mistrust of big agro) in the vilifying of mass scale organics. Of course it isn’t perfect but it is a hell of a site better than conventional agriculture.
I think the next step is pushing for the term sustainable (or something like that which is all encompassing of better practices) to be codified and with verifiable and measurable standards. That would include of course organic and green practices, fair trade type of wage promises built in and in the case of livestock verifiable humane treatment.
I think it would be positive step if there is an overarching – probably governmental agency in charge of putting forth the standards or you would have the same problem that you had with organics until the FDA took that over. Namely for quite some time there were many consortiums with different definitions of organic. Certification was voluntary and any old person could put it on a lable without it actually meaning anything. Now we at least know what it means – even if the meaning isn’t exactly what we want it to mean. Also, with the right standards in place it would encourage large producers to rely on smaller producers and to aggregate their products which would be good for small farmers.
PS- I think it is super wacky for your buddy to free range their chickens (which is great) and undermine that with feeding them cheap probably GMO grain in the name of frugality.
Yeah, it's amazing how many "conservatives" are opposed to, uh, conservation. Go figure.
I would normally have just said, thanks for posting this, you expressed the issues clearly and I agree with everything you said. I purposely moved to Asheville NC because there is an existing local farm system that allows us to buy from people we know, and from farms we can visit. But the issue goes beyond local and sustainable (which for me means, a farm that can be sustained and enriched by good practices and not by trucking in huge amounts of fertilizer and pesticides) I have been reading The Lost Language of Plants, by Stephen Buehner, and I can barely process the damage he suggests we are doing to our ecology by our mono-cropping, bacteria-destroying, pharmaceutical-drenching practices. I had to re-evaluate what I have been doing in my own kitchen garden. I recommend the book and hope that we can have a conversation about it.
Is there such a thing as "organic sex"? Just wonderin'...
Rated & Cheers!
Ardy, I couldn't agree more. I am striving to raise as much of our own food as possible, not an easy challenge in Michigan. My husband and I put in a hoophouse, a passive solar greenhouse that does not use any additional heat beyond what the sun provides. We are catching water in rainbarrels and nourishing the plants with compost. We call this our family CAS (Community Supported Agriculture) because we hope to feed our extended family in the area as well. Next we are putting in our own fruit orchard. I am persuaded that the sooner we become self-sufficient, the more sustainable we will be, while reducing the impact we are making on the planet.
Fantastic post! I agree with everything you wrote and I am as concerned as you by the way the marketers and agro/food-industrial complexes will never hesitate to lie as in using "organic, local, natural" to get the bucks.
Rated and I am sending it to all my friends too.
A lot of the large scale organics are grown by the same growers are the non-organics in neighboring fields. So, if organic was cheaper without some downside, it's a no-brainer that the growers would adopt it for the rest of their crops.

If they don't give a damn about anything except the bottom line, then the bottom line isn't telling them to go organic.

My experience with growing chemical-free fruits and vegetables is that many plagues (insect or disease) depend on the weather. Perhaps if good, cheap tests were developed, then growers could apply chemicals only when needed, not just-in-case.
@aaron rury,

If getting rid of chemicals was a cheaper way to grow, the industrial farmers would get rid of chemicals. There are two ways to increase efficiency of a process--reduce the inputs or increase the outputs. Chemicals (fertilizer and pesticide) help increase the outputs by increasing yield.
Dear perdidochas, the issues surrounding the use of chemical fertilizers versus organic methods are not as black and white as you suggest. I invite you to watch my YouTube video with Paul Titus of Titus Farms - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=brzafyoCRSA If you are a commodity farmer trying to cultivate 2,000 acres, chemical fertilizers make that easier to accomplish. But if you are a small fruit and vegetable grower, organic is cheaper. My concern is that the downsides to industrial ag are such that we should be encouraging small growers to play a larger role in our overall food future. And considering that we could reduce the threat of global warming more by becoming vegetarian than if we all switched to a Prius, I think the goal should be to reduce the need for commodity farmers to grow such input-intensive corn and soybean crops to raise livestock whose consumption often ends up giving us health problems as well.
A really good exchange. I'm adding some points below as food (organic?) for thought.

First, as several here can attest, it is not easy to grew a significant percentage of your food. It helps if it's a labor of love, but it's still labor. It requires learning a skill set, and it requires space (though less space than people often think).

Second, economies of scale do matter, and even without subsidies, monofarming (organic or not) would dominate in some areas.

Third, while subsidies do support pernicious practicies (particularly corn subsidies these days), farming is a scarily risky way to make a living without some form of government aid, whether that be direct subsidies, low interest loans, subsidized insurance, grain storage or something else. As the weather does seem to be trending for more instabilty, those risks are going up, not down.

Fourth, because it's so risky, improved farming practices cannot go mainstream without government support.

Fifth, so work for the elimination of the most perncisious subsidies, but remember that many farm communities may not survive if they are not replaced with something better.