Transcript of Panel Comments by Shepherd Ogden
Shelburne Farms, Shelburne, VT -- September 2, 1999
Question: What is "organic?" Can we truly certify what is, or is not, organic, and further, should we even try?
When we talk about organic -- and I am out in the world of the seed business, the seed industry, and these are people who will try to tell us that organic means "anything with a carbon atom in it" -- the old chemist's answer that is used as a distraction from getting anywhere with the discussion – different people mean different things. The word may not have been so well chosen in the beginning, but sometimes our burdens bear a message about how to proceed, and I have come to define organic gardening or farming as a method that concentrates on the soil, and especially that 5% or so of the soil called the organic matter, all the microbes and soil dwelling organisms – the community of beings that live there. We call it organic gardening because we concentrate on the living in the soil soil, on the life in the cycle and the cycles of life, rather than on shuffling around, manipulating all the dead, clear cut pieces of some biochemical puzzle.
This is a problem of language, and language is very important, because it not only structures the way we can come at a problem, the ways we can understand a problem -- and as most of you know, I'm sure, if you can fully define a problem, then the solution is in hand, given the well stated problem (the burden that bears the message of salvation you might say) -- and language is also the medium of social and political discourse. Now we have had a large part of the language expropriated -- stolen if you will -- by the large corporations and the political right. I mean, really, when was the last time you met a "conservative" that really conserved anything -- except their own position in the status quo? We are the conservatives; we may be liberals, but we are also conservatives, and the question from the audience in the earlier panel about why there has never been an effective green party in the US...it may have something to do with this. Maybe we need a Liberal Conservative Party, that has liberal, equitable and just social beliefs, but is devoted to actual conservation and sustainability. The two parties we have now are both devoted to production and throughput; all they argue about is distribution of the spoils, the same way the East and West Blocs argued over ownership of production while they both fouled the earth as fast as possible.
Think about us. We are labeled Alternative Agriculture. The conventional producers want to know what is wrong with their "traditional methods" as if 50-100 years of high tech chemical agriculture constitutes a tradition next to our 10,000 years of success. We are traditional; they are no more than conventional. And this distinction matters. If you want to read two excellent books that work at this problem, check out "Saving the Appearances" by Owen Barfield (1965) and "The Spell of the Sensuous" by David Abram (1996).
Now a large part of this is tied up with the growth of population and society and an agricultural system that is highly centralized, and I am willing to bet that Elizabeth and Grace -- I don't know Michael quite so well, but I'll bet it's true of him too, just like the rest of us -- first went into this line of work partly to save the world. We are all the right age, coming out of the sixties and the back to the land movement and all that, and the implication of that is that if we are serious, we are going to have build a replacement for the current, conventional food system -- you know that is what all the back to the landers who stayed on the land instead of retreating to city and now just visit in their SUV's have been doing out in the boonies for the past 20-25 years -- and that implies a certain scale, and I am afraid given constraints like the ones referred to by Alan AtKisson in the first panel in relation his neighbors in New York City who don't have a backyard, we are going to be forced to build something of a food system that shares a bit of the mass production and distribution of the current one.
And that implies certification. Why? Because certification is shallow sociology, and mass markets don't allow deep relations. Certification is to community the way that the shallow organics are to the deep organics that Eliot was talking about in his keynote. At my farmstand, we were never certified. We didn't need to be. My family has been in town for three generations, and my grandfather was a royal pain the back to everybody about organics, and nobody would think to question whether the food they bought from us was organic -- it might get us going! And besides, they drive by our fields every day, and see what we're doing, and they come over for dinner and their kids hang out with our kids. It is a community. But when you want to extend your markets, well, then somebody or some process or some document -- a kind of diploma -- has to certify that you, this stranger, are doing all the things that a good neighbor would do (and aren't doing other things, too).
Eliot mentioned this concept of commodification and it is a very important one. Mass production and distribution requires commodification - the reduction of diversity to a reproducible, consistent "product" across time and space. The ultimate commodified food is Budweiser and the Big Mac; you can go anywhere and count on them being the same, today, tomorrow, a year from now, and in Moscow, Marrakech, or Middlebury. And unfortunately, this is what certification inevitably leads to. Now I don't want to beat on certification, or on certifiers. That kind of thing is necessary for building a food system to replace the current one. What Grace is doing at the USDA is necessary and what Eliot is doing in Maine is necessary, and Elizabeth in New York. We need to progress on all fronts, and not take pot shots at each other while we’re doing it. Each works in his or her own way toward the goal.
The last thing I want to say has to do with economics as a world view. Donella Meadows touched on this in the first panel and it, too is critically important. Economics is really a brain dead way of looking at the world. Eliot spoke of how the elaboration of an incorrect view - if enough bright minds try hard enough - can seem to be true and useful for prediction, you know, like finding Mars in the night sky, and a simpler, more functional cosmology can be conveniently ignored. Well, in its essential core, economics is even worse than Ptolemaism because it is really a flat-earth way of looking at things, a flat-earth paradigm.
The only way that economics makes sense is by drawing a box around the thing it wants to study, this mystical "transaction" between free agents or rational maximizers or whatever, and everything outside the box is basically ignored. This is like the ultimate reductionist exercise. All the stuff outside this nicely reduced little pseudo universe are called "externalities" by the way, and externalities are the hidden heart, the dirty little secret of economics. Externalities are what's missing when the economists try to tell us that a head of iceberg lettuce or a cardboard tomato from California is cheaper than the Vermont grown, organic version, because your mainstream economist is ignoring the rail subsidies, the 1902 water bill that we paid for here in the east, the toxic waste cleanup and desalinization costs that are hidden in our taxes and all that stuff that isn't included in the price people pay at the supermarket.
That stuff is all over the edge of the flat earth, outside the box, and as we all know from the maps of old Europe: "there be monsters.” Well I think it's about time we brought the monsters out into the open, give those economists a whip and a chair and see if they can make it in the real world, instead of in their little fantasy world - their Flatland - that they've dreamed up and elaborated on to such a degree that it all seems so cogent and predictable - on the surface.
One last thing, just by way of contrast, and to try and make the connection between these two pillars: the role of language in creating world view and how economics as a world view distorts our view of the possibilities, or as Eliot would say, turns the tapestry on us so we are looking at loose ends all the time. Consider efficiency. It is something we all need to think about if we are going to survive in the real world, but there are two very different kinds of efficiency. There is economic efficiency, which maximizes gain, known in money terms as profit, and there is natural efficiency which maximizes utility, which is to say, wastes nothing.
Economics looks at the diversity of the world, synthesizes one representative version of a thing, mass produces it, and rejects or ignores the rest as "junk". It takes its profit, or gain, from the fact that it requires less human time and attention to reproduce identical items than to make one-offs. (It is also, thereby less human, but that is a topic maybe for another time.) This mass produced, or commodified thing is then used in every case possible, whether it fits well or not, and if there are impediments, the system tries to remove them … and by the way, my friends, in the world of agriculture, you and I are the impediments, and that is why the corporate sector, whose lifeblood, whose essential cosmology is economic, tries to remove us.
At the risk of giving agency to nature, lets say that nature produces only unique things, no two the same, but usually many very closely related things – making it very adaptable – so many in fact that there is very little left over, and if there is, then it is recycled, used to make something else. And because of this multiplicity, the whole process of selection and evolution comes about, and as a whole - humans included or not … only we really care about that question - nature has persisted, does persist, and will persist, world without end, as the prayer goes.
If you want the perfect example of how language, the framing of a problem in reductionist terms and the force of economics work together to produce stupidity and maladaption, just consider the case of beta carotene. There was a study almost ten years ago - this is documented in my book, Straight Ahead Organic, published by Chelsea Green, so I won't bore you with the references and all - that seemed to show that beta-carotene in winter squash and carrots and some other vegetables could help prevent cancer and heart disease.
That was really exciting, so a group scientists decided to test the idea more thoroughly. According to the report, the first thing they did was synthesize beta-carotene and gave it to a group of subjects. And in the end, we read, they concluded that it had no statistical effect. Just another of those New Age fantasies, I guess, hunh?
But what is wrong with this picture? Well, if the reporter had looked a little closer, or thought a little harder, what is actually in the vegetables is not just beta-carotene, but actually a range of nearly 500 "beta-carotenoids". Nature doesn't put vitamins in vegetables; it puts in vitamin complexes. And why? Because no two people are really the same, and our bodies don't all respond to the same things. But if you take five hundred people and give them a range of five hundred carotenoids, you are going to see a different effect than if you take one of those carotenoids, mass produce it and feed it to those same five hundred people, only a few of whom are likely to respond to that particular one. And so if you believe in the silver bullet reductionism that says "this is the one", which is only the flip of side of Reagan's old pronouncement that "if you've seen one redwood, you've seen them all" - an idolatrous (in Barfield's terminology) and commodified, but thoroughly economic world statement if ever there was one - then you, too, would have to conclude that nature is not a system but just a collection of raw materials put here by our bearded father above to do with as we please.
Not me, thanks.