Strong Earth, strong bodies

New project on awareness of organic farming targets consumers. You can help.

by Delia Hitz
f our current agricultural system were a person, she'd be headed for a twelve-step program and job retraining - chemically dependent, in debt, diseased and in competition with "new" organic growing methods full of vitality and economic common sense.
We tend to think of modern agriculture as a miracle of efficiency and productivity. In reality, every year we rely on more than 800 million pounds of fossil fuel-derived products to make it "easy" for us to produce our food. In the process we compromise our future by destroying the elements on which continued food production depend: clean water and soil, and healthy, diverse ecosystems.
Organically-grown foods are produced without the assistance of chemical pesticides. Non-organically-grown foods are currently cheaper at the supermarket, but at what cost? Regulating pesticides and commodity support programs cost federal money. Water pollution, topsoil loss and health problems are expensive problems to reverse after the fact - when they can be reversed.

Taking it for granted

Last month, San Diego Earth Day was awarded a grant from Mothers and Others for a Livable Planet to create "The Shopper's Campaign for Better Food Choices." Mothers and Others is a non-profit environmental group based in New York. The goal of the campaign is to increase consumer demand for organic foods and to make organics consistently available in mainstream supermarkets.
Organic products sales are on the rise nationwide, reaching a high of $1.89 billion in 1993 - an increase of 23 percent over 1992. Of that total, supermarket sales were $140 million, an increase of 19 percent over 1992 figures and a whopping 341 percent increase over 1991. So both natural/ whole foods stores and supermarkets are seeing annual increases in sale of organics.
Of course, the money spent on organics remains a small fraction of the money spent each year on traditional produce - about $47 billion in 1992. And the money spent on organics at supermarkets is a small fraction of the sales in natural foods or "alternative" markets.
San Diego is primed for an explosion in natural foods marketing, according to experts across the state. San Diego is the leading county for organic agriculture in the state - in a state and a nation that lead the world in organic farming. There are more than 500 registered organic growers and food producers in San Diego County. A large amount of their product is exported.
The campaign will begin by focusing on 3 or 4 specific supermarkets. By Earth Day this April, the project hopes to have established productive dialogues with supermarket managers, involving them in Earthweek-related promotional activities such as supermarket tours, farm tours and a Farmer's Market at this year's EarthFair in Balboa Park.

Pesticide pest

For the most part, the dangers of pesticide exposure to humans are not, and most likely cannot be precisely known. Testing and regulating pesticides for safety is expensive and the government's methods are outdated and inaccurate.
Most pesticides were registered before current laws requiring testing were in place, and now must be re-registered. Less than 10% of the pesticides needing re-registration have gone through the process, and in the meantime they stay on the market. The tests cannot account for the many difference in people's sensitivity (e.g., children, elderly, ailing, multiple chemical exposures). They also don't test for many serious, non-cancer-related health impacts on the immune, nervous, reproductive and hormonal systems. These omissions are especially important for children, in whom these systems are still developing.
Of the known dangers of pesticides, 73 of about 300 approved for use on food crops are "probable" or "possible" carcinogens. Four of the most commonly used pesticides - atrazine, alachlor, metachlor, and 1,3-dichloropropine - are classified as either "probable" or "possible" carcinogens.
Pesticide dangers are not limited to humans. The EPA has identified agriculture as the number one non-point source polluter of water. In October '94, the Los Angeles Times ran a series of articles on "Sexual Confusion in the Wild," reporting that pesticides and industrial chemicals are infiltrating and disrupting the endocrine and reproductive systems of embryos of fish, birds and other wild animals. Some males try to lay eggs. Some females are unable to reproduce. Some animals have organs from both sexes. Many of the chemicals have been identified as organochlorine pesticides widely available and used by farms and households.

Monocrop mania

The practice of monocropping - planting large plots of land with the same single crop year after year - also takes its toll on the soils and ecosystems. Lack of plant diversity weakens the soil and deprives it of the full range of needed mineral and nutrients. Crops grown is such soils are more susceptible to pests and disease, so farmers must use even more pesticides.
Federal farm policy favors large-scale monocropping, making it difficult to financiallly sustain an organic farm. To get bank loans and federal subsidies, farmers must maximize their yields - even at the expense of the health of the farm. Organic farming would be much easier, more efficient and profitable if federal research and technical assistance programs offered farmers good information and economic incentives.

Making a market

For organic agriculture to transform conventional agriculture, all sectors will need to participate: farmers, distributors, retailers, government and consumers. But the critical force - the catalyst that will push the others to act - is the consumer. Retailers and distributors will ask farmers for more organics if consumers demand them. The government needs to know that consumers support changes to align policies and programs with healthy, sustainable practices.
In this process, the mainstream supermarkets have special significance. Organic foods must compete exactly like any other product. But just as any product carries an image and meaning as part of its value to the buyer (e.g., hipness, trustworthiness, youth, sophistication, power), the significance of organic foods lies in the customer's awareness of their connection to their personal health and the long-term health of the land. When this awareness becomes mainstream, the growers, retailers and the government will have to acknowledge organic agriculture as an integral part of maintaining and nurturing our bodies and health, our economy, our earth and our future.
The Shopper's Campaign for Better Food Choices is volunteer-based. To participate in research, petitioning, public education and event planning, contact Delia at San Diego Earth Day (619) 272-7370.
(Statistics above are taken from "Green Supermarkets" in Green Alternatives, Dec/Jan 1993-94; the Natural Food Merchandiser's 1993 Organic Times; San Diego Business Journal, 10/24/94, "Work Starts on Organic Standards"; Mothers & Others Action News for a Liveable Planet, Vol 1/No. 2, Spring/Summer 1993).

Delia Hitz recently moved to San Diego from the Los Angeles area, where she specialized in public outreach, education and community organizing. In 1993, whe was the Executive Director of the nonprofit Los Angeles Physicians for Social Responsibility. Currently, she is heading up the Shoppers Campaign for San Diego Earth Day.