Organic farming may be outgrowing its ideals
Tomatoes, peppers and basil certified as organic by the Agriculture Department often hail from the Mexican desert nurtured with intensive irrigation systems.
Mexican growers on the Baja Peninsula, epicenter of Mexico’s thriving new organic export sector, Mexican farmers toil amid the cactuses often saying we are “planting the beach.” Del Cabo Cooperative, a supplier here for Trader Joe’s and Fairway, is sending more than seven and a half tons of tomatoes and basil every day to the United States by truck and plane to satisfy the American demand for organic produce year round.
Organic labeled produce are increasingly removed from the traditional organic ideal. To grow produce that is not only free of chemicals and pesticides but also is grown locally on small farms in a way that protects the environment.
The explosive growth in the commercial cultivation of organic tomatoes in Mexico, for example, is putting stress on the water table. In some areas, wells have run dry meaning that small subsistence farmers cannot grow crops. And the organic tomatoes end up in an energy hungry intensive global distribution chain that takes them as far as New York and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, producing significant global emissions that contribute to global warming.
From now until spring, farms in Mexico to Chile to Argentina that grow organic food for the United States market are enjoying their busiest season.
Michael Bomford, a scientist at Kentucky State University who specializes in sustainable agriculture said “in general organic farms tend to be less damaging to the environment than conventional farms. In the past, however, organic agriculture used to be sustainable agriculture, but now that is not always the case. He added that intense organic agriculture has also put stress on aquifers in California.”
The original organic ideal was to eat only local, seasonal produce, shoppers who buy their organics at supermarkets, from Whole Foods to Walmart, expect to find tomatoes in December and are very sensitive to price. Both factors stoke the demand for imports. Few areas in the United States can farm organic produce in the winter without resorting to energy guzzling hothouses. American labor costs are high. Day laborers who come to pick tomatoes in Baja make about $10 a day, nearly twice the local minimum wage. Tomato pickers in Florida may earn $80 a day in high season.
Why is common sense so uncommon?
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