by Patrick Appel

A reader strikes the right balance:

The usefulness of the organic standards relies largely, I think, on how they are interpreted by the consumer and on what you can expect from them. On the on hand, if you perceive organic farming as the ultimate pinnacle of sustainable agriculture, restoring food production to a proper ecological and socioeconomic balance, it's a pretty substantial failure.  (Julie Guthman probably has the most comprehensive treatment of this in Agrarian Dreams. ) If, on the other hand, you look at the federal organic standards as one tool in the toolbox, and one best applied to industrial-scale agriculture, it's a pretty damned useful metric.

Look, we cannot, even in the wildest dreams of sustainable agriculture enthusiasts, convert our food production system over to small farms, local foods, and sustainable techniques overnight.  I'm in the middle of trying to start a cooperative grocery store at the moment, and that fact is deafeningly clear every time we look at how we'll source our food.  Even if you somehow did, in a relatively short period of time, do all the necessary education of farmers and workers, redistribution of land ownership, and conversion of farm machinery, you would utterly break systems of transportation, processing, and distribution.

The organic label is least useful with small farms such as the beef cattle rancher your reader discussed.  There, local networks and closer food network distances are a far better guarantor of sustainability than the organic label.  Where it is most useful is in putting some meaningful standards on the largest agribusiness farms.  I suppose I could be convinced otherwise, but I would maintain that in the comparison between large organic and large non-organic farms, the organic ones are more sustainable, better for workers, and probably produce better food.  And for these large production farms, the organic standards are the best tool we have to improve sustainability and responsible growing.

Other readers took issue with this reader's comment. Critique one:

The reader who sent in this comment is misinformed about the requirements for maintaining USDA organic certification.  Organic farms can treat sick animals with antibiotics without losing their certification; what’s forbidden is pumping whole herds of healthy animals full of prophylactic antibiotics, a practice which leaves measurable traces of antibiotic in meat and milk and which is likely contributing to new strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  (In fairness to the reader, there’s confusion about this issue on both sides of the food-politics debate.  See the paragraph towards the end about the intern in Florida who tried to report her boss for treating sick sheep.)

This isn’t to say that there doesn’t need to be a debate over organic certification. As Michael Pollan points out in Omnivore’s Dilemma there are plenty of giant corporate organic farms that adhere to the letter of organic regulations but are still basically factory-farm monocultures, with all or nearly all the problems that come with conventional industrial agriculture. There are also a lot of enterprising small farmers for whom the costly and obviously confusing organic certification process serves as a barrier to market entry.  These issues need to be addressed.

I ordered Pollan's book a few days ago because so many readers thought it was scandalous to raise this subject without first reading it. Let me know if you have other recommendations, especially for books I'm not likely to come across on my own. Another reader:

Just wanted to chime in regarding your reader's anecdote about his family friend who won't raise organic cattle because "He'd be forbidden to use any antibiotics, even if it was to treat an infection that was easily treatable."  This is not true.  As the USDA's standards for organic farming state, if an animal intended for slaughter is given antibiotics for medical reasons, the animal cannot be be labeled or sold as organically produced. Nowhere is it indicated that the farmer would be "forced to let cows and calves suffer and even die of simple infections."  He just couldn't sell the meat as organic, which makes sense given that a key reason people buy organic meat is to avoid ingesting antibiotics. Now, it may make it impractical for the farmer to administer the antibiotic if he can't recoup costs by selling the meat as organic (though I suspect he could sell it as conventional, somehow), but rhetoric like "forced to let cows and calves suffer" is the sort of hyperbole that discussion of this important subject could do without.

Another reader defends Round-Up ready GM crops, which were labeled by an earlier reader as environmentally unfriendly:

I'm a corn/soy farmer in Minnesota and raise Angus cattle for grassfed beef, so I have one leg on each side of the fence regarding organic and mainstream farming. The argument for reduced pesticide use with Roundup rests on the fact that Roundup is a contact herbicide which degrades easily, relatively speaking. For example, our use of Roundup on corn replaces several residual herbicides that bind with the soil, thus being a greater danger in runoff, etc. The total pounds of herbicide used may or may not vary, but the dangers to soil, farmer and food have changed for the better with the advent of Roundup Ready. Most of the farmers I know have the same unease with food safety as others, and a greater unease with Monsanto's tactics.

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