NY Times vs. Organic Farmers - It's the Golf Courses Stupid!
I'm always amused by PR efforts to demonize organic farmers. When I started Real Food Daily in 1988, there was no USDA National Organic Program. Organic farming was more of a novelty. Today organic farming is a burgeoning segment of modern agriculture innovating cost effective methods for dealing with pests and plagues, often more successful than petro-chemical solutions. Organic farming has flourished on its own in contrast to Agri-Business's dependence on government "welfare" to pay for their unsustainable petro-chemicals. This week one of my restaurant guest brought to my attention an article in the New York Times December 31, 2011 titled: "Organic Agriculture May be Outgrowing its ideals."
In this work, writer Elisabeth Rosenthal asserts that organic farmers are depleting the water supply in southern Baja California. As fate would have it, one of the subjects in the article is my brother-in-law Larry Jacobs; one of the pioneers in organic farming who helped small family farmers save their livelihoods and elevate their standard of living by connecting them to markets like mine here in Los Angeles, San Francisco and beyond.
I agree with Rosenthal about the value of locally sourced produce and eating "seasonally." My macrobiotic cooking background eschews the health benefits of local and seasonal foods. But there is tremendous value in organic farming methods, far beyond the obvious of not having pesticides sprayed on our food. Organic agriculture builds soil fertility and manages crops without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and synthetic chemical fertilizers that harm our environment. I'd rather buy organic from a farmer further away than support a local farmer dumping dangerous substances into my neighborhood. As for the impact of transporting cherry tomatoes from southern Baja, the Del Cabo co-operative piggybacks much of their product on the otherwise empty cargo hulls of airplanes carrying tourists to and from the resorts in Los Cabos. The carbon foot print of transporting some organic cherry tomatoes is infinitesimal compared to flying resource indulgent tourists in and out of Los Cabos.
Curious to find out if organic farmers are really depleting the water table in southern Baja, I called Larry. Being the scientist he is, Larry pointed to published research on the topic that verifies his empirical experience having farmed in southern Baja for over 30 years. As it turns out, Rosenthal and the New York Times got some key facts wrong on this story and misled their readers as to the value and importance of organic farming.
Some facts: A published academic study of water use in Los Cabos verifies that agriculture (conventional and organic combined) consumes only 28% of the water while most of the remaining 72% is sucked up by resorts and golf courses. Next time you fly into Los Cabos, look down at all those green golf courses and resorts. There are now more resort hotel rooms in Los Cabos then there are organic farmers in all of America! While the resorts and golf courses enjoy unlimited supply of water, the local residents must endure frequent water rationing, (see Tom Laskawy's piece on Grist) golf courses use water wasting overhead sprinklers to irrigate while the organic farmers have innovated water saving drip irrigation systems. The golf courses and resort hotels with their obscene demand for scarce resources wreak havoc on the natural environment and turn local residents into veritable servants to an opulent culture from another land.
When I spoke with Larry he explained that, " Del Cabo farmers started focusing on sustainability and water consumption 25 years ago when they began converting open canal irrigation to micro-irrigation systems. We were the first farmers in Mexico to implement technologies that conserved significant quantities of water. Instead of being recognized as pioneers in organics and sustainability, the New York Times' piece makes us out as destroyers of the world when nothing could be further from the truth. Worst, the Times piece completely ignores the enormous benefits from organic farming to public health and the environment. The real story is how an innovative business model successfully converted an entire county to organics, (almost all farms are organic in Los Cabos), and raised income levels of what were subsistence farmers, ten times so that today they have the same economic options as you and me.
I'd like to see some investigative reporting on how much of our tax dollars goes to subsidize agri-business instead of half-baked misleading reporting on water use by organic farmers. Without our tax dollars the cost of petro-chemically grown produce (aka: conventional) would be astronomical. I'd love it if you'd investigate that Ms. Rosenthal!