Inside Organics Blog

Spread word about benefits of organic to counter negative media stories

By Harriet Behar, MOSES

Each year, organic products make up a higher percentage of the food and fiber market in the United States and around the world. With success comes negative media attention, questioning the value and integrity of organic. My sense is that this negativity is coming from those who feel organic is taking away their market share, and others who feel they need to point out that organic is not the “good food” story that most people believe.

But, the good news is we have a secret weapon to combat negative media stories: the army of organic ambassadors, which includes you!

Just as we have grown the organic sector one gallon of organic milk, one acre of organic corn, and one bunch of organic kale at a time, we all can make a difference by talking one-on-one to our neighbors, friends and family as well as to our local communities about the value of organic. We can help others understand how organic production really works. There is confusion in many people’s minds about what organic really means for them and our environment. We can help to clear up that confusion, one conversation at a time.

One example of negative media attention is an article picked up by other outlets from Refinery29, “The End of Organic Farming Might Be Sooner Than We Thought.” Despite this dire headline, there is no mention of organic agriculture in the article. Instead, the focus is on the many challenges faced by small-scale farmers, making the case that small scale is unsustainable. The farms mentioned are not certified organic (at least I could not find them on the NOP list). Nor do the points made address the many reasons that someone might choose to be organic. There is an underlying assumption that organic farms are at a scale that is too small to be sustainable. All of you farmers making a living from organic farming know this is not true. Many people will only see the headline and not take the time to read the article. Unfortunately, this headline may leave many folks with the impression that organic farming is on the verge of failure and about to disappear completely.

What can be done to combat negative media attention? I know many people are not comfortable with public speaking, but there is a lot of communication that can be done without talking to large groups of strangers. I have found that most people are genuinely curious about organic agriculture. If you’ve put on a field day or open house at your farm, you know that many of your neighbors attend not because they plan to become organic farmers, but to see the differences or similarities between what you do on your farm and their own farming practices.

Many of us are involved in our local communities in one way or another. Our children, nephews/nieces, grandchildren are in Scouts, 4-H or FFA. Inviting these groups to visit your farm, or offering to talk about the basics of organic farming at one of their meetings can go a long way to opening up their eyes to opportunities they may not know exist. A small seed planted in the minds of our youth can bring us all a brighter future, resulting in more organic farmers, or at least those who have a positive view of organics and use some organic practices on their farms.

High school or technical college agriculture teachers are another fertile area for education; you could offer a 45-minute discussion with their class, or work out a variety of interactions with students through the year. You need not develop a long presentation, just a short discussion of what you do on your farm, generally saving most of the time with the group for their questions.

Your church, Lions or Kiwanis clubs, hospital auxiliary, local environmental organizations, rod and gun clubs, and more could all be small-scale venues where you can build understanding and dispel myths about organic. Think about the common theme each of these groups focus upon and tailor your discussion with them around their issues and concerns. It is easy to talk about the environmental benefits of organic farming to those who hunt, fish, or seek to preserve and enhance specific ecosystems. Our organic regulation mandates we promote environmental health through protection of soil and water quality, as well as biodiversity.

From the materials allowed to be used in organics to the many cultural, biological and mechanical strategies used on organic farms, all are based in the foundational principle to produce food in the most environmentally beneficial manner possible. Building bridges of understanding in our own communities can easily have a ripple effect, since folks attending your discussion will probably talk to others about what they have learned.

Those who sell direct to consumers through farmers markets or retail stores have an opportunity to reach out as well. Many farmers’ markets have annual meetings; ask to give a talk about organics to your fellow farmers’ market vendors. This conversation can help build vendor camaraderie as well as lessen consumer confusion when all the vendors understand what is and is not allowed to carry the organic label. Talk to your local food coop about speaking at their annual meeting, putting a face to the food that members see on their shelves. This interaction will build customer loyalty and understanding of the challenges you face as you grow healthy food for your community.

There is a lot of media noise that says the majority of organic farms have become industrial or “factory-style” operations, or that they are too small to be sustainable (funny how neither of these statements are true, and contradict each other). Some articles may point out that organic farmers spray and use toxic pesticides just like non-organic farmers, and that our tillage causes severe environmental degradation. These statements have only a small germ of truth and leave out a lot of very important details.

Are there large-scale organic farms? Yes. But are they exactly like the large, non-organic CAFOs we see across the countryside? No.

Do organic farmers spray their fields? Maybe, but what matters is what’s in the sprayer. There is a rigorous review of all synthetic materials allowed in organic production, making sure they are the least toxic products. Organic farmers must also try various mechanical or cultural methods and must show they were unsuccessful before using any approved synthetic. These criteria are not mandated in non-organic agriculture.

The requirement that organic farmers have a soil-building rotation, that we continually improve organic matter and increase soil biological life through plant- and animal-based inputs goes a long way to mitigating the negative effects our tillage causes. Yes, organic farmers use manure to fertilize crops, but we are held to a strict standard of how soon we can harvest after that application to prevent pathogens from contaminating organic food.

As someone who has visited more than a thousand organic farms, I can say that each one has an important and positive story to tell. Your discussion of what you actually do on your farm is the enduring message needed to overcome the negative media stories that are becoming all too prevalent. Try to reach out to at least one organization this winter—you may find you really enjoy being an organic ambassador.

Harriet Behar, MOSES Senior Organic Specialist, answers farmers’ questions about certification and organic practices. Email her at harriet@mosesorganic.org.

From the November | December 2015 Issue

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Comments

Dec. 9, 2015

Aren’t most, if not all e-coli, salmonella and other pathogenic disease cases sourced from organic production?

Rick

Harriet’s response:

This is not true. While there have been less than a handful of recalls of organic fresh produce and peanut butter in the past 20 years due to pathogenic bacteria presence, the overwhelming majority of food safety related recalls due to e-coli, salmonella and other pathogenic bacteria are on non-organic produce and processed foods.

Here is a website that lists all of the recent and past food safety related recalls.

http://www.foodsafety.gov/recalls/recent/index.html

I am not sure why you thought that most of these problems were associated with organic foods, but I know that some people believe that since organic farmers use animal manures as fertilizer on their fields, that this is a reason to suspect that there would be problems with organic foods. 

The truth is that both organic and non-organic food producers use animal manures on their fields, but only organic producers are prohibited from harvesting their crops sooner than 90 or 120 days from the soil incorporation of that manure. This manure use is documented and audited on a yearly basis by the organic certification agency during the annual on-site organic inspection.

90 days if the edible portion of the food is not in contact with soil particles, like sweet corn. 120 days if the edible portion is in contact with the soil, like potatoes.

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