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'Organic' debate goes on, naturally

July 29, 2009|RUSS PARSONS

When I wrote a column recently about my questions about organic produce, I expected that I'd get a lot of mail. Especially after I started with the statement: "I don't believe in organics."

Organics is an article of faith for a lot of people and what I had to say was pretty far from the accepted dogma. Still, it was something I thought really needed to be said and if, after more than 20 years of covering farming and food issues for The Times, I wouldn't say it, who would?

So when I opened my e-mail the morning the column ran, I had donned my asbestos undershorts, as we kids say. But a funny thing happened on the way to the firestorm.

There was plenty of mail, to be sure -- probably more than I've received for any story that didn't involve salt and turkeys. But the amazing thing was: Most of it was positive. I mean an overwhelming majority -- like by a ratio of 5 or 6 to 1.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, August 04, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
Organic food: In Wednesday's Food section, a California Cook column on organic agriculture said there are no genetically modified fruits or vegetables on the market in the United States. In fact, about half the papayas grown in Hawaii have been genetically engineered to resist a virus that has devastated the rest of the industry there.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, August 05, 2009 Home Edition Food Part E Page 2 Features Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Organics: In the July 29 Food section, a California Cook column on organic agriculture said there are no genetically modified fruits or vegetables on the market in the United States. In fact, about half the papayas grown in Hawaii have been genetically engineered to resist a virus that has devastated the industry there.

Turns out, it seems like this was something a lot of folks have been thinking, but they were just waiting for someone else to be dumb enough to say it out loud first.

To recap: The column argued that people shouldn't buy fruits and vegetables based strictly on whether they were grown by a certified organic farmer (the only ones who are legally allowed to call their produce organic).

My point was that farming is a complicated enterprise and there is a huge gray area between certified organic and the stereotypical heavy-duty use of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.

Furthermore, a lot of the best farming practices of the original organic philosophy -- composting, fallowing, crop rotation, the use of nonchemical techniques for controlling most pests -- have been adopted by many nonorganic growers, even though they still reserve the right to use chemicals when they think it's best.


A mixed mailbag

I heard from shoppers, chefs, farmers, agricultural researchers and others involved in the fruit and vegetable business. Most people agreed with me, though certainly not all. One organic farmer told me I was "10 pounds of [compost] in a 5-pound bag." Still, after exchanging several e-mails we ended up agreeing on most of the important issues (and I figured considering he was an Okie like my brother-in-law, I got off pretty easy).

One blogger had so many issues with the column that he broke his response into two posts: "I don't believe in Russ Parsons," Parts I and II. Actually, I wholeheartedly agree with him on the title, though I couldn't make a lot of sense of the rest. (See www.jakobs and let me know what you think.)

What we eat and how our food is grown are important issues and you shouldn't take any one person's argument as gospel. Do as much research as you can, consider as many different sources as possible, and think critically about all of them. Best of all, visit some farms, both organic and nonorganic, and see how they work.

There were a few misconceptions that came up repeatedly that I'd like to clear up:

First, the column was about the legal definition of organic as it stands today, not the original philosophy, which was much broader (and much of which is incorporated in the philosophy of sustainability, with the notable exception of allowing chemical pesticides and fertilizers if used responsibly).

Some people said they chose organics because they could be sure they weren't from plants that had been genetically modified. It is true that the organic code does forbid GMO, but at this time that's a moot point. There are no genetically modified fruits and vegetables on the market in the U.S. today (field corn and soybeans are another matter).

Others said that they chose organics because the plants had been chosen for flavor rather than disease resistance or how well they transport. The same varietals are used by both organic and nonorganic farmers. The same thing goes for seasonality and locality.


Growers' viewpoint

Along those lines, some of the responses I found most interesting were from the folks directly involved in agriculture.

Several of them focused on the hazy nature of which chemicals are allowed to be sprayed in organic operations and which aren't. "Organic" doesn't mean no spraying; it just means that only certain chemicals can be used.

Byron Phillips, a longtime pest management consultant for Washington's tree fruit industry, had worked with orchards that were certified organic, others that were sustainable and others that were conventional.

"Unfortunately most people still think that organic means no spray of any kind whatsoever -- they don't realize that we often spray organic operations more frequently than conventional operations," he wrote. "I don't think either one is bad -- they are just different.

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