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‘Pesticide-free’ not necessarily the same as ‘organic’

By Hannah Donaghe | 16 Jul 2012

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Through a class taught at the Stanford farm, Patrick Archie taught students how to build a compost pile that meets the organic standard. (Photo: Hannah Donaghe/ Peninsula Press)

A lingering fragrance of citrus and flowering sweet peas drifts as the coos of chickens mix into the warm spring breeze. The smoldering sun stretches down, warming the soil as students work the soil with hand tools. The deep mocha brown of freshly tilled beds somehow manages to stain the pants and hands of everyone present at the Stanford farm.

Patrick Archie doesn’t allow pesticides on his plot at the farm and encourages holistic connections with the land. This small corner of campus might as well be a portrait of what most people imagine when they think “organic.” But it’s not—at least, not officially. Organic is more than an attitude or a concept, it’s a legal designation, the rules of which are rarely understood completely by consumers. As the summer season of fresh fruits and vegetables arrives, it’s worth taking a closer look at what the term “organic” really means.

“We’re not organic,” Archie said about the Stanford farm, “but we are using organic practices.”

Because Archie doesn’t control all the surrounding farm plots and therefore doesn’t regulate inputs, the farm is not certified organic. All the practices used by Archie including composting, growing cover crops, and pest control meet the organic standard. Archie teaches the practice of sustainable agriculture and food systems. He emphasizes to his students the importance of a hands-on approach to learning organic farming practices. Although it is the fastest growing sector in agriculture, the term “organic” is not widely understood.

“Outside the world of academia and California health nuts, I think the majority of people in America still do not care much about whether food is organic or not and probably don’t know what organic actually means,” said Amanda Martinez, a Stanford sophomore and active member of the student-run Stanford Farm Project.

“It’s a law now,” Archie said, “It used to mean whatever people wanted it to.”

Strict guidelines must be met before a farmer can claim to be organic. According to United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards, growers must “demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances” to be certified organic. The USDA “organic” label has improved over the years to become more strict about certain regulations that farmers must adhere to in order to be “organic”, Martinez said. Among these include not using pesticides or feeding hormones and antibiotics to livestock.

Patrick Archie teaching students to build irrigation lines for crops on the Stanford farm as part of the Principles and Practices of Sustainable Agriculture class. (Photo: Hannah Donaghe/ Peninsula Press)

“The label is not perfect,” Martinez said, “and since it has become such a selling point for consumers, more and more large farm operations are earning the “organic” label without actually being sustainable operations.”

Individual farmers may take into account sustainability, but it’s not required under the organic standard.

Sustainability is a holistic approach that takes into account the entire system and life cycle of its products, from soil preparation to growing to transportation. The organic label doesn’t require specific levels of sustainability. Christof Bernau, garden manager at UC Santa Cruz echoes Martinez’s frustration with the common misconception that organic is synonymous with sustainable. “The terms get muddled together,” he said “and the public perception of organic is incomplete or inaccurate.”

The ecological footprint and transportation costs of shipping goods are not always reflected by organic products. Many organic farms are now controlled by larger corporations, Archie said, which often have to transport food long distances.

“It’s not surprising food is coming from further away,” Bernau said. We’re lucky to have an abundance of local produce year round in Northern California, he continued, but this isn’t the case everywhere. As organic has grown, a lot of large scale conventional farms have gotten into organic production as well. Most of what you see in grocery stores is from these larger organic corporations.

Organic farming reduces potentially harmful inputs, compared to conventional farming. But there are other approaches to farming that come closer to the idyllic image many people have when they think of the word “organic.” They come with names like “agroecology” and “biodynamic farming” which are the best for the land, the animals, and the people.

Because of this, Archie refers to his farming as agroecology: a broader form of agriculture that emphasizes practices that work to improve the land while keeping in mind the ecology of surrounding systems. “Agroecology is a system wide approach,” Bernau said. “It tries to farm in a way that enhances or at the very least doesn’t degrade the surrounding environment.”

Composting and planting cover crops are a couple of practices that improve the soil, both utilized under the agroecology framework at the Stanford farm.

Archie believes that by immersing his students in these practices it will make them more aware and conscious about where their food comes from and what exactly organic means and doesn’t mean.

Like Archie, Bernau believes the organic sector will continue to grow. It is the question of how it will do so that is of concern. Both hope that organic will become a standardized norm, rather than a specialty niche, making healthy produce widely available to consumers. The first step is collectively increasing awareness at the consumer level about where and how, organic or not, our food is being produced.

It’s Archie’s hope that when students put down their shovels and step off the Stanford farm, they take with them an understanding of what goes into producing organic food as well as an appreciation for knowing where their food comes from.

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