January 13, 2011

Maine Voices: Is organic farming really everything its advocates claim?

When it's compared to conventional agriculture, substantial differences are hard to find.

By MIKE BENDZELA

GORHAM - Who's responsible for dichotomizing the farm industry into "conventional" and "organic" enclaves?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mike Bendzela (e-mail:michael.bendzela@maine.edu) teaches English at USM Gorham and farms in Standish.

The organic farming movement, of course, in which the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association plays a key role.

They draw the lines between certified and uncertified farms, clean and unclean practices, and allegedly "toxic" versus allegedly "safe" foods.

And now guess who is whining about living in a dichotomized atmosphere?

This is evident in a Jan. 9 article by staff writerAvery Yale Kamila, "Organic farmers push for larger role," in which the reporter ably lays out an instance of the debate -- or, rather, debacle -- between MOFGA and everyone else. "You are either with us or against us," the organic folks seem to be saying.

This is evidenced by their complaining about scheduling conflicts at the Maine Agricultural Trades Show, where MOFGA missed out on being "represented" at a workshop put on by The Maine Farm Bureau, "Convergence = Sustainability."

It sounds as if Judy Blaisdell, the scheduling coordinator, had her hands full trying to make everyone happy, an impossible job if there ever was one. That MOFGA wasn't "represented" doesn't mean individual "organic" farmers were left out.

The response from MOFGA and its promoters has been not a little paranoid. Bob St. Peter of Food for Maine's Future says he finds it "difficult to believe" that the scheduling issue wasn't a sign of a broader "agenda" to shun MOFGA in order to "promote conventional agriculture at the expense of organic" farmers.

I find it difficult to believe that Mr. St. Peter, described as "a frequent opponent of the biotechnological industry and genetically engineered crops" is really interested in "convergence."

He wants to have it both ways, to draw distinct lines that make him an "opponent" and simultaneously demand accommodation.

This issue is especially pungent for me as I worked at an organic farm for four years and am currently a partner in a new Community Support Agriculture adventure. We have been weighing the pros and cons of gaining organic certification, but the more I research MOFGA, the more difficult it is to take them seriously.

Working at the organic farm was a good experience. I got to learn skills important for our new farm, such as how to properly compost materials, to plan and lay out crops, and to spray pesticides.

"Wait a minute," you say. "Spray pesticides? That can't be right. Kamila clearly reports that 'Certified organic foods are produced without synthetic pesticides.' " The key word is "synthetic," which is a hole you can drive a tractor and sprayer through.

Organic farms use pesticides. They are plant-based rather than oil-based, but they are doubly, even triply more expensive than conventional pesticides; they are imported and they are toxic. If they weren't toxic, they wouldn't kill pests -- and bees.

Therefore, organic employees must have the same training to spray pyrethrum as to spray the conventional pesticide carbaryl. Not that there's anything wrong with properly applied pyrethrum, but I would say the same thing about carbaryl: Properly used, it is safe and effective.

MOFGA standards are sometimes as ridiculous as they are contradictory. Take the issue of veterinary care.

According to MOFGA literature, to be "organically" certified, a farm must "avoid the routine use of chemical allopathic drugs" on livestock.

Instead, the farmer is advised to consider untested chemical herbal treatments and debunked homeopathic "remedies."

The term "allopathic," a pejorative term for conventional medicine, suggests bias on MOFGA's part. "Allopathy" was coined in the late 18th century by Samuel Hahnemann, the father of homeopathy, as a way of drawing the line between his practices and the conventional medicine of his time.

Today's science-based medical establishment does not recognize the term to describe their profession. In fact, they excoriate the entire field of homeopathy as a pseudo-science. Yet, this is what MOFGA recommends in their literature.

Knowing this information, how can any organically certified farmer or food vendor look his customers in the eye while charging them prices that are sometimes 100 percent over the prices of conventionally produced foods? 

- Special to the Press Herald

 

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