‘Organic’ debate goes on, naturally

(Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

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?

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. —

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.

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 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.

“Sometimes a [chemical] product can be organic if it is produced a certain way, but not if it is produced a different way.” Furthermore, he wrote, “Part of the frustration is that the criteria by which the National Organic Standards Board judges products seems to be somewhat of a moving target and we end up with products that are OK one week and not the next.”

Tony Thacher of Friends’ Ranch, a high-quality farmers market citrus grower in Ojai, complained that he doesn’t qualify for organic certification because he uses urea as a fertilizer, even though he says it is “the first truly ‘organic’ compound ever, synthesized in the 1700s. It’s made from natural gas and nitrogen from the air and thus of course is not labeled organic. Go figure.”

Stephen Pepe, a wine grape grower in the Santa Rita Hills, wrote, “Most vineyards do not bother to get certified organic, not because we do not care about the environment but because some of the organic rules elevate form over substance. For example, to avoid powdery mildew, a fungicide needs to be sprayed. Sulphur is organic but only lasts 7 days or so and needs to be redone after each rain. While a synthetic nonorganic fungicide lasts for 21 days, which means for the environment two less tractor passes through the vineyard spewing diesel into the air and compacting the soil.”

Maryann Carpenter of Coastal Farms (formerly Coastal Organics) in Santa Paula wrote that she and her husband, Paul, gave up their organic certification when the costs and paperwork became too much. “I was scared stiff our business at the farmers markets would suffer. We spent months explaining our reasons for dropping out of the program . . . and handed out a detailed letter hoping people would understand that we were still farming the same way (organic), but could not use the word unless we were certified.

“I’m happy to report that the majority of our customers completely understood our reasoning and had faith in the way we grow the food we sell. However, every week there are still people who walk up to our stand and ask “Are you Organic?” As we tell them we have grown ‘organic’ vegetables for 25 years, but are not ‘certified organic,’ they immediately turn and walk away. It’s frustrating.”