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Fall 2013 - Act•ionLine

by DUSTIN GARRETT RHODES | Fall 2013

OTHER VOICES: Sally Kneidel on Why Organic is the Way to Go

Sally Kneidel, PhD is a scientist who’s published 11 books published on the environment and social responsibility, natural history and teaching science — including Veggie Revolution, which was co-authored with her daughter, Sadie Kneidel.  Kneidel has a doctorate in biology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where her focus of study centered on interspecific and intraspecific competition and predation, observing species of woodland salamanders on the Piedmont and in the mountains of North Carolina. Additionally, she has a masters in Zoology from the University of Oklahoma where she studied with Dr. Roger Fouts, a pioneer in teaching American Sign Language to chimpanzees.  After a year and half of working with chimps, Kneidel decided she was more interested in animals’ natural behavior in the field and transferred to UNC. Kneidel contributes work to various blogs and scientific papers, which range in topics. In addition to academic science, Kneidel writes frequently on climate change, the importance of growing organically and wildlife issues.

On your blog, you mention that many conventional potato farmers won’t even eat their commercially grown potatoes.  Really?

That is true.  And it says a lot.

I used to imagine that root vegetables might be protected from chemical sprays and powders by being underground.  But they’re not.  Potatoes are the most popular vegetable in the U.S., so potato plants are doused with a number of chemicals to keep the spuds free of blemishes. The chemicals soak into the soil, where a growing potato absorbs them into its flesh. The contaminants can’t be peeled or scrubbed off.  The applied chemicals include fungicides during the growing season, and pre-harvest herbicides to obliterate the green foliage and get it out of the way. Post-harvest, a chemical to inhibit sprouting, is applied directly to the naked potatoes.

It was Jeffrey Moyer as chair of the National Organic Standards Board who made the comment about conventional potato farmers.  He said, “I’ve talked with potato growers who say point-blank they would never eat the potatoes they sell. They have separate plots where they grow potatoes for themselves without all the chemicals.”

There’s a lot of confusing information about organic versus non-organic. Conflicting information seems to be rampant. What are your thoughts?

Some food labels don’t mean much, like “all natural.”  A lot of food labels are purposely misleading, such as “made with real juice.”  How much real juice?  One percent?  But the label “organic” does actually mean something.  Organic is not perfect, but it’s worth seeking out, and worth paying extra for.  Organic food is safer for your body, and organic farming is safer for everyone. Farming without synthetic pesticides and harmful fertilizers protects farm workers, our land and surface waters, wildlife and habitat.  Buying food that hasn’t been genetically modified helps protect our seed stock for future generations, among other things.

To qualify for the organic label, a plant-based food must be produced without most conventional pesticides (no synthetic pesticides), without fertilizers made from sewage sludge or synthetic ingredients, without bioengineering or genetic modification, and without ionizing radiation.  A USDA-approved certifier must inspect the farm where the food is grown annually to verify that the farmer is following all the rules to meet USDA organic standards.  Companies that handle or process the food before it reaches the supermarket or restaurant must be certified too. 

A food that is certified organic is allowed to bear the “USDA organic” emblem, but does not have to. More often, simply the word “organic” is used, which means that 95% of the ingredients in the product have been certified organic.  If it is 100% organic, it can say so on the package.  “Made with organic ingredients” means that at least 70% of the ingredients have been certified organic.

Organic certification is good and I support it.  That said, certification isn’t free for the farmer.  I personally know many small-scale farmers who can’t afford the hundreds of dollars or even a couple of thousand dollars that the farmer must pay every year for the annual inspection and certification process.  Given that expense, not being certified doesn’t necessarily mean that food isn’t grown by organic guidelines.  At farmers markets, if produce isn’t labeled organic, I ask the farmer or gardener how it was grown, if pesticides were used.  Most of them will tell me straight, even if it means I don’t buy their stuff.  Sometimes I ask to visit the farm, and I find that most small farmers who use sustainable and humane methods welcome visitors.

Does organic certification mean that no pesticides have been used?

Actually, no.  In most states, organic farmers are allowed to use some pesticides derived from natural sources, but not synthetically-manufactured pesticides.  These allowed pesticides may not be entirely harmless to human health; many organic consumers object to them.  But most organic farmers use other methods to help control pests, even if they do use some sprays.  These other methods include selecting crops that may resist local insects, crop rotation that can keep pests of a particular crop from building up in a field,  insect traps, predatory insects, beneficial microorganisms and other biological controls. 

Why is organic food so much more expensive than inorganic? 

In the long run, conventional farming is more expensive for society. Conventional farming compacts and degrades soil and streams, contaminates water and soil with pollutants, destroys habitat alongside fields, impairs the health of farm workers and consumers.  These are all costs that society will pay for in the long run, in reparation and health care, and when prices rise later due to loss of natural resources. Conventional farmers are allowed to pass on the costs of the damages they do to someone down the line – not their immediate consumers.

The Organic Farming Research Foundation said it this way: "The organic price tag more closely reflects the true cost of growing the food: substituting labor and intensive management for chemicals, the health and environmental costs of which are borne by society."

But yes, organic food is more expensive in markets.  There are lots of reasons for that; below are  a few.

Crop loss and spoilage

Since organic farmers don’t use synthetic pesticides, their losses are higher – more of their crops are eaten by pests or crowded out by weeds.  Also, shelf life is shorter without the chemical preservatives added to conventional foods, so losses to spoilage are higher.

Manual versus chemical labor

Organic farmers often have to hire labor to do work such as weeding and working manure into the soil, work that synthetic chemicals and chemical fertilizers would do on a conventional farm.   

Mass production is cheaper

Food produced on huge conventional farms is cheaper because mass production is almost always cheaper than small-scale, hands-on production.

High costs of fertilizing naturally

Natural fertilizers such as compost and manure are much more expensive to ship than the sewage sludge and chemical fertilizers used by conventional farmers.

Organic livestock feed is expensive

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, organic feed for cattle can cost twice as much as conventional feed. 

No GM seeds

For many crops, such as corn and soybeans, non-genetically-modified seeds are more expensive than GM seeds.  Organic certification forbids use of GM seeds.

What fruits and vegetables are best to eat organically?

The Environmental Working Group publishes an annually updated list of conventionally farmed fruits and vegetables to avoid.  The updating is important because every year, new pesticides are approved and old ones are banned, and that affects foods differently.  Different pesticides are used on different crops. A list of the worst 48 fruits and vegetables, in order of worst to best, can be found at http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/list.php.  In other words, this is a list of foods that you should buy only if they are organically produced.

EWG also publishes a “Dirty Dozen Plus” list of the worst 12 in terms of chemical pesticides, and a “Clean Fifteen” list of 15 fruits and vegetables that don’t need to be bought as organics.

The 12 they list right now as the most contaminated (worst to best) are: apples, strawberries, grapes, celery, peaches, spinach, sweet bell peppers, imported nectarines, cucumbers, potatoes, cherry tomatoes, hot peppers.

EWG doesn’t mention cotton that I know of.  Fibers can be certified organic too by the USDA.  Like other organic crops, organic plant fibers must be grown without synthetic pesticides and without chemical fertilizers or sewage sludge.  Farms that grow conventional cotton are among the worst offenders in terms of toxins.  Cotton uses 25% of the world’s pesticides!  Some fibers that are thought to be eco-friendly are not necessarily so, such as bamboo. Bamboo is not even a naturally-occurring fiber.  The fibers are created with pulped bamboo that is mixed with chemicals and then extruded from a shower-head type of device. 

Organic fibers are a big subject that I and my co-author covered thoroughly in our book Going Green  http://www.amazon.com/Going-Green-Consumers-Shrinking-Planet/dp/B007MXRU42/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1372700603&sr=1-5 The processing of fibers involves a separate organic certification from the Organic Trade Association, which addresses the toxicity of dyes, bleaches, and “easy care” finishes.

The most valuable bit of information I gleaned from our investigation of organic fibers is that organic cotton is worth what it costs

What about organic and its impact on wildlife?  How does it benefit living animals?

This is a huge question that could take a whole book to cover thoroughly.  But I’ll tell you a specific example, one that’s dear to my own heart.  And that’s the effect that conventional farming is having on monarch butterflies.  Monarchs are beautiful big orange butterflies native to the US and Mexico.  They are unique in that they migrate thousands of miles annually, farther than any other butterfly.  Because of that, they’re celebrated and beloved across this country.  Some towns have monarch festivals to celebrate the annual arrival of their local monarch population.  Anyway, the monarch species is declining. The reason for that is primarily the rampant spraying of the herbicide Round-Up in the Midwest.  Monarch populations have historically been heaviest in Midwestern states. In winter they migrate to a mountain range in central Mexico, to overwinter in a dormant state.  They return in spring to lay their eggs on milkweed that often grows along the edges of farm fields. Milkweed favors somewhat disturbed soil and the edges of farm fields provide that.

Corn and soybeans are our two biggest crops in the Midwest.  Monsanto has genetically modified corn and soybeans to resist Monsanto’s most popular herbicide, Round-Up.  Monsanto heavily markets the GM seeds for their GM crops, and the company has taken legal action to make it very difficult for Midwestern farmers to use normal seeds. As a result, almost all the corn and soybeans in the Midwest are resistant to Round-Up. They’re called “Round-Up Ready” seeds and crops. Since the crops are resistant to the herbicide, crop fields are sprayed much more heavily than they used to be to kill weeds – which means any plant near the field that’s not a crop.  So all the milkweed in the vicinity is killed too.  No plants for monarchs to lay their eggs on. No milkweed for the larvae to feed on.  Consequently, the monarch population is plunging.

If those crops were organic, they wouldn’t be genetically modified, and farmers would not be spraying the whole countryside with the massive amounts of the synthetic and dangerous pesticide Round-Up.  Ack!  That subject makes me feel sick. That one corporation can exert so much control over the welfare of our farmers, our food, our land, our water, our wildlife, our future….it’s very disturbing.

But aside from that pet peeve, conventional farming harms wildlife in lots of other ways.  The runoff from spraying of pesticides (including Round-Up) pollutes surface waters, including the ponds where amphibians breed. Amphibians have very permeable soft skin that easily absorbs toxins, and that’s one reason amphibian populations are dropping more precipitously than any other class of vertebrate. 

The insects and insect larvae that birds, reptiles, and small mammals feed on are of course killed by the spraying of pesticides, reducing the amount of food they have available. Or they may eat contaminated prey, or contaminated plants, moving the toxins on up the food chain.  Wildlife are losing habitat and food sources for all kinds of reasons – development of land to accommodate the growing human population, climate change, degradation of surface waters from construction runoff, displacement of native food plants with invasive species or ornamental plantings, and so on.  The loss of food and the fouling of habitat from agricultural chemicals is an additional serious blow, in a list that’s already far too long.

Organic farmers on the other hand tend to protect habitat and wildlife resources much more.  Small farmers tend to have much more heterogeneous space on their farms.  Instead of huge expanses devoid of anything but crops, they’re more likely to keep some trees for nesting birds, to keep open spaces of wild native plants.  Organic farms are more likely to feature mixed planting, rather than monocultures, and crop rotation to manage weeds and pests. Both are beneficial to wildlife by providing a variety of spaces, and maintaining the health of the soil and soil organisms.

In general, organic farmers tend to be more mindful of the effect their practices have on nearby streams and on the long-term health of their soil. They tend to be more conscientious about conservation.  If they were purely profit-driven, they would probably not have chosen organic farming.

What else are you up to these days?

Because I’m a wildlife fanatic, I’ve become a passionate climate activist. I happen to live in a city with the headquarters for two corporations that are major drivers of climate change.   One is an electric utility that is the 2nd biggest utility emitter of CO2 in the country; the other is a bank that is the nation’s biggest financier of the coal industry, enabling coal’s climate-changing emissions.

Climate change is the biggest threat to life on Earth that our species has ever faced.  This is not the place to expound on the social and political chaos that will result from agricultural failure and inundation of coastlines.  Half the world’s population lives within 130 miles of a coastline.

But this is a place to mention wildlife.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that more than a third of the Earth’s species will be extinct by mid-century, and up to 70% by 2100.  These extinctions would severely impact all ecosystems and human societies – we’re all interconnected and mutually dependent.

Animals can be impacted in very subtle ways, startling ways.  Ecosystems are intricate, finely tuned over millions of years.  My son Alan is a bird scientist (a graduate student) studying the effect of sea-level rise on birds that nest on coastlines.  He talks to me about irruptions – large numbers of birds turning up outside of their normal range, because some small change in temperature or rainfall or winds has changed their habitat or food source.  Insect larvae they feed their young are now emerging too late in the season, for example. A couple of months ago, my son sent me a photo of northeastern Razorbills way out of place, in Miami! They’re oceanic birds whose normal marine diet has been changed by shifting ocean currents – due to climate change.  The Razorbills were flying down the east coast from New England, desperately seeking food, and many were found dead along southern coastlines from starvation or exhaustion.  I cried when he sent me that picture, because I love animals, but also because I love him, and it causes him pain.  It hurts me to think that we nurtured his love of birds, and now….   We didn’t know this would happen.

But I really believe it’s not too late to change our actions.  It’s too late to do it just by lifestyle changes, we need political action. We need to pressure local politicians, national politicians, and corporations that are driving climate change or allowing it through legislation. Bill McKibben of 350.org talks a lot about that. 

Public Citizen has an effective climate campaign, http://www.citizen.org/Page.aspx?pid=496.  I’m working in my state through Greenpeace and NC WARN. 

For myself, I learned that joining together with others working for change is energizing.  There’s a social synergy in working with others that empowers us.  Whether the cause is climate change, a sustainable food system, animal welfare, or educating our youth for the challenges of tomorrow…..the world needs our help!  And helping it feels good. 

DUSTIN GARRETT RHODES

Act•ionLine Fall 2013

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