14. Size Does Matter: The Ecology of Organic Food

The push for organic food to supplant conventionally produced food (i.e., produced with pesticides, supplements and artificial fertilizers) has always been hampered by the claim that the organic production style couldn’t provide the volume of food needed to supply the US population. That claim was not really based in reality so much as a number of predictions about production costs, food costs, and backlash from invested corporations. With 100 million acres of prime US farmland being used to produce field corn, a crop that is diverted almost entirely to animal feed and ethanol production, space is certainly not the reason why we couldn’t begin to ramp up organic agriculture for actual food. Of greater concern is the problem with converting conventional farms to organic farms and the necessary wait of several years before certification of “organic” can be obtained.

Sales of organic food in the retail grocery chains is growing at a phenomenal rate and the food giants in the US have become active proponents of organic food. So much so, that they are literally investing their own money into supporting organic food companies in order to guarantee their supply lines. While this would seem to be a dream come true for environmentalists and healthy food choice advocates, the scaling up of organic food production is likely to carry with it a number of negatives. Admittedly, if organics move out of the niche market and into the main stream, prices will decrease some, options will diversify, and this will be very attractive to consumers. On the other hand, that food has to be produced and it’s the scale of production that should be of concern. Thus, although “organically grown” has always implied “environmentally friendly”, there is certainly reason to worry that the scaling up of organic farming will have a rather conventional-farming effect on our environment.

Growing food on a large scale necessitates changes to the landscape. The over-riding question needs to be whether it is possible to scale up production without losing the entire point behind growing organic food. That is, can we be good stewards of the soil, protect and enhance biodiversity, maintain genetic integrity of crops, and avoid unsustainable depletion of resources while producing huge quantities of food for humans? Certainly, this ideal is in opposition to conventional and commercial farming with its near total reliance on technological solutions in the form of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers being applied to vast acreages of a single crop. Can we produce food by working within the parameters of a biological system?

Organic farming is a return, in many ways, to traditional farming; it’s generally small-scale, multi-crop farming that relies on human labor, beneficial insects from the surrounding environment, and careful attention to soil quality and ecology. In recent years, as organic farming has shifted into a higher gear, techniques have emerged to help organic producers scale up using very modern methodologies, including specialized equipment, hothouses and aquaponics. While these approaches will help produce and market larger quantities of organic foods, the food will become less of a product of the farm ecosystem and more of a product of technology.

In addition to the environmental consequences of large-scale farming, there is certainly another important reason to be cautious. One major attraction of organically produced food is the taste. Consider the fruit we call a tomato. Most of us will readily agree that nothing quite compares to a garden-fresh tomato and certainly nothing currently available at the grocery store comes close. The reasons for the complete lack of character of the hothouse tomatoes adorning the shelves of the produce section of the grocery store are several, but they should serve as a warning to the major food chains attempting to too-rapidly scale up their organic farming sales.

Making a tomato requires time. A tomato is the interaction between a plant and the environment and that interaction has been fine-tuned for millennia. The garden-fresh tomato is a creation not just of the plant, but also of the environment interacting with the plant. The environment stimulates the plant both positively and negatively and the plant responds to the environment in both genetic and physiological ways. The tomato is part of the genetic response, but the flavors of the tomato are a complex combination of many different responses to many different stimuli.

A high-quality tomato, one that elicits such intense pleasure when eaten, is the product of a high-quality environment. Such a tomato cannot be produced in a system that attempts to maximize and speed production for the sake of quantity, one that diminishes the importance of the surrounding environment, or one that does not allow for the complete expression of the tomato genome. Otherwise, the result is what we now encounter in all conventional produce departments- bland, pink, texture-less pretenders that do not contain the same beneficial nutrients and qualities of the real thing, and that can never generate the rapturous response typical of their garden-fresh cousins.

So, can organic food production match the scale of conventional food production without losing its philosophical foundation? It’s very possible and highly desirable, but moving in that direction at a high rate of speed will not be conducive to achieving that outcome.