Sustainable Agriculture – Organic, Diverse, and Local

Outlook Columbus
May 2011
by Michael Daniels
Originally appeared at http://outlookcolumbus.com/2011/05/open-kimono-may-2011/

Want to know nearly everything there is to know about local, sustainable, organic agriculture? Look no further than right here in Columbus, at the Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association (OEFFA). I had a chance to chat with its Executive Director, Dr. Carol Goland, about the organization and its goals.

Michael Daniels: What is OEFFA in a nutshell?
Carol Goland: Formed in 1979, the Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association (OEFFA) is a grassroots coalition of nearly 3,000 farmers, backyard gardeners, consumers, retailers, educators, researchers, and others who share a desire to build a healthy food system that brings prosperity to family farmers, helps preserve farmland, offers food security for all Ohioans, and creates economic opportunities for our rural communities. OEFFA developed and began operating an organic certification program in 1981, and is currently one of the largest USDA-accredited certifying agents, last year certifying over 600 organic farms and processors. OEFFA provides education, advocacy, and grassroots organizing to promote local and organic food systems, helping farmers and consumers reconnect and together build a sustainable food system, one meal at a time.

MD: What are the advantages to sourcing food locally for both grocery consumers and restaurateurs?
CG: The number one advantage of buying food grown locally is that it is fresh – flavors will be at their peak, so the bottom line is: they taste better. But there are some other important advantages, ones that may be less obvious. For fruits and vegetables, buying locally grown food may help preserve crop biodiversity – that vast array of varieties of each and every crop that was planted a hundred years ago but not so much anymore. The reason is that the varieties of produce we get through conventional channels are chosen because they ship well and have a relatively long shelf life. In contrast, farmers who sell their products locally have the freedom to choose varieties because they taste good. That’s one reason why, when you go to the farmers market, you can see a mind-blowing variety of tomatoes and other produce! Buying locally grown food also allows you to support your neighbor, keep money in your community, and help protect farmland by making farming more profitable.

MD: What’s so special about certified organic food? Is it really better for you than non-organic certified? Is it worth the cost differential?
CG: I don’t think I’m in a position to tell anyone whether or not it’s “worth” the cost differential. That seems to me to be a personal decision for each individual. For myself, I’d rather spend my money on organic food for my family than for cable television or the latest fashions, but that’s about my values, and I’m not going to impose them on anyone else.

I feel more comfortable answering your question about what’s special about certified organic and what it’s benefits are. I think most people, think of organic food simply as “food grown without chemicals.” That’s a good start, but it’s incomplete. In general, the national organic regulations allow the use of natural materials and prohibit the use of synthetics in food production. There are a few exceptions, however. Strychnine is natural, but it’s not allowed in organic production. Some synthetic materials are allowed but only after they’ve been carefully reviewed with respect to their effect on human health and on the farm ecosystem, their level of toxicity, availability of alternatives, probability of environmental contamination during manufacturing, use and disposal, and so on. So aspirin, though synthetic, is allowed to reduce inflammation in organic livestock, and newspaper, likewise not ‘natural,” can be used for mulch in production.

Many people also know that organic production prohibits the use of genetically modified organisms. But less apparent, I think, to many consumers is that it’s not just about what you can or can’t use. Organic farmers are required to maintain or improve the condition of the soil, minimize soil erosion, promote biodiversity, and protect other natural resources such as air and water. The definition of organic agriculture used by the National Organic Standards Board makes this clear: “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.”

Organic farmers yearly must develop an organic system plan that shows how they are going to achieve this. That plan is reviewed by a USDA-accredited certifier (there are about 50 in the country) who determines whether or not the plan is in compliance with the rules of organic production. If so, then the certifier sends out a third party, independent inspector to verify that the information on the plan is accurate. The inspector may spend 4 to 6 hours on the farm. The inspector then writes a report to the certifier, who makes a final determination and issues an organic certificate. Or not. And the farmer has to do this every year.

So what’s so special? First, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the label “organic” is the most highly verified eco-label out there. That reflects the grassroots origins of organics, which persists today, and how strongly the people involved with organics care about the integrity of the label. Organics is also, hands down, the gold standard of environmental stewardship for agricultural production. Looking at our own health, the average American is exposed to 10 to 13 pesticide residues each day from food, beverages, and drinking water. And while the levels are quite low in most cases, this isn’t always the case, and is of special concern during particularly vulnerable phases, such as during pregnancy and in the first years of life. Consuming organics is a special opportunity to protect our babies and children. Finally, there is mounting evidence that organic foods may be more nutritionally dense, which makes sense given the attention to building healthy soil.

MD: Is the local and organic model viable in large metropolitan areas? Can available farmland, using organic and alternative methods of raising food (both vegetable and livestock) meet the demand, or is some factory/large-scale farming necessary?
CG: Viable? Absolutely. In fact, I think Ohio is perfectly positioned for this development. We have more metropolitan areas than any other state in the country. Each one of those is surrounded by productive farmland. This is the perfect geography for developing a locally-based food system. And as far as organics goes, there’s no reason why it can’t be a viable way of feeding our urban populations. In fact, I would argue it’s the only way, given that the alternative, with all the environmental degradation, reliance on fossil fuels, and human health impacts, simply is not sustainable. Organic yields are often – though not always – equivalent to those of conventional production systems. And if our research institutions and federal agencies would devote more research attention to organic production (right now funding of organic research is less than 1% of all agricultural research), there’s no telling what organics could achieve. I don’t think that scale necessarily has to be the defining characteristic here – “large scale” is not, inherently, a good or bad thing. Rather, we need to be making choices based on what kind of system is capable of producing food that is best for the environment, for farm animals, for our communities, and for the people who consume its products.

MD: What legislation is pending (in Ohio and/or nationally) that OEFFA is following closely and what would be the impact? What legislation, if any, do you plan to propose in the near future?
CG: Right now, we’re gearing up for the Farm Bill: every 5 years Congress write a new Farm Bill, which really ought to be called the “Food Bill,” because what gets written there ends up determining, to a surprising extent, what our food choices are. I can’t overstate what its impact is. There aren’t that many farmers in our country and there are even fewer that are producing for local markets using ecological and organic methods. So everyone needs to get involved with that process to ensure that we get policies that promote rather than hinder sustainable family farms and consumer choice.

MD: How can our readers learn more about OEFFA? What resources, programs, and memberships do you offer?
CG: I encourage all your readers to check out our website (www.oeffa.org) and follow us on Facebook (www.oeffa.org/facebook) and Twitter (twitter.com/oeffa). We have individual and family membership, as well as discounted student memberships. The benefits of membership include a subscription to the information-packed newsletter (published quarterly), voting privileges in the organization, networking opportunities, access to our apprenticeship program, our local food guide: the Good Earth Guide to Ecological Farms and Gardens, invitations to OEFFA’s educational workshops, summer farm tours, and discounted admission to our annual conference and other educational events. OEFFA has chapters around the state that get together to support each other and collaborate on various projects. Our Capital Chapter, based in Franklin County, is very active and comprised of some really great folks.