A reader writes:
I'm a corn/soy farmer in Minnesota and raise Angus cattle for grassfed beef, so have one leg on each side of the fence regarding organic/mainstream farming.
The reason in the argument for reduced pesticide use with Roundup is that it 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.
Your piece is an excellent analysis of the organic/mainstream "divide." Most of the farmers I know have the same unease with food safety as others, and a greater unease with Monsanto's tactics.
Another reader corrects this reader from last night:
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.
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/24/dining/24interns.html 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 (which
I really hope you get around to reading soon), 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.
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 (http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=stelprdc5058944), 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.
"In order to be able to label his beef "organic" he'd be forced to withhold treatments to numerous common ailments that all animals suffer from."
Really? His friend wouldn't do everything he could to treat the cow with organic methods (which are usually quite successful and both offering comfort and treating the underlying disease) and only when that failed use other means to treat the critter, which he'd then sell to a non-organic farmer down the road? Like all the organic farmers in my little corner of rural America do? Really? This guy's got a sadist for a friend - or an ax to grind.