The Problem with Organic

Imagine an acre of beautifully-forested land. It is teaming with life and there are┬ámultifaceted connections between this life. It is so profoundly alive and connected that even in our advanced age we are continuously learning more and more about its comprehensive nature. (As one example, if you cut down a tree of one species all of the other trees of the same species for a quarter mile change the way their sap flows exemplifying shock. They move their sap to the roots where it would be safe if they too were cut down.) Now remove this nature, that is, clear cut this land and discard its life leaving its soil naked and exposed. Similar to when we bleed, the land too bleeds when its top soil is exposed. It looses nutrients and vitality. If you view our dear Earth as a body you can quickly gain insight to the state of the Earth by seeing how much soil is exposed. That is, how large of a wound there is. Over this now exposed land build a greenhouse which is covered with plastic which is in turn made from oil from the Earth. Now, however, the rain can no longer reach the soil. That’s ok though because we will┬áplace thousands or even tens of thousands of feet of highly toxic pvc pipe for irrigation. Now install pumps powerful enough to move the water through all these pipes. Then install 12 or more large industrial fans to move air through this artificial environment, fans which run on electricity which we will produce using fossil fuels. (It would take an unrealistic number of solar panels to power these fans which run 24/7). The plants inside this “greenhouse”, 15 thousand or more, will all be placed in synthetic bags made from, yep, more oil. The plants will never actually be in the ground for the sake of sterility. The soil for these bags will in turn also be shipped in bags made from more oil. They were shipped courtesy of trucks using more oil still.

The temperatures during warm or hot seasons will became dangerously high inside this artificial and isolated environment. For this we will install a cooling wall which will also pump water from the ground to constantly cycle water through, using yet again more electricity. On the other side of the cooling wall there is a dirt road and according to standards this road will have to be kept constantly wet in order to prevent the dust from entering the “greenhouse”. That means, that in addition to all the other water above, that a constant flow of water will be sprayed through sprinklers covering the whole drive way. More pumping, more electricity and more water. Thankfully you don’t have to loose sleep, however, because the above food is certified organic. Pfew. Before it finds its way to you it will once again use more plastic in the form of containers and once again rely upon oil as it will be shipped to you.

So what exactly is the problem with organic? It is very often completely and thoroughly selfish. And it is destructive in this selfishness. Selfish because we have insured that the food is healthier only for us. As is the case above it is still entirely based upon the “notion of take” giving absolutely nothing in return to our dear Earth. From the Earth’s perspective it would be better if the forest were there, if the resources were left there and the squirrels and other animals were left to their long-standing tradition or truly organic and locally-grown food.

Of course, not all organic food is produced this way but much of it is. The above place I witnessed with my own eyes and carefully kept my jaw from the ground. It is true that most organic tomatoes, organic salad greens, organic peppers, and organic microgreens are grown in circumstances not too different from the one I walked through above.

This powerfully illuminates the differences between our so-called health foods, espcecially superfoods which are often shipped across the globe, and what our IMMEDIATE goals as permaculturalists are. What is the first ethic? Earth Care. After we ensure that the Earth is properly cared for then we move on to the second ethic which is People Care. Only then will we have the third ethic – Fair Share. The above “greenhouse” is a perfect illustration of what happens when we alter the course of these goals to having People Care first before Earth Care. It simply will not work any other way. As Geoff Lawton has said, “its a literal dead end”.

As permaculture designers we learn from nature’s perfection, from which we needn’t deviate, and build upon the innate abundance we’ve been given. In the case of the greenhouse it illustrates our tendency to separate from nature rather than integrate with her. There are many simple ecological fixes that we could implement as designers; moving the path of the road, integrating beneficial species that host pest controlling insects or are companion plants, composting, vermiculture, rain catchment off the tremendous surface area of the greenhouse to use for irrigation and cooling purposes, et cetera. Only when these other seemingly simply design considerations are made could we then begin to consider say solar or wind energy.

The problem with organic is that it is not a living ecosystem. Living ecosystems are the only “organisms” that will be strong enough to survive. Cultures that have ignored this are many and are now read about in history books or found buried beneath the selfsame soils they destroyed.

Care for the Earth, grow your food regeneratively as nature does, know your garden, know your farmer. We can change the course of all of this. Each time one of us sets an example, heals the Earth, grows our own food or supports someone that does, or designs a food producing system based on nature’s ecology we create a small oasis with the capacity to spread. And spread it will from heart to heart, hand to hand to every corner of this beautiful globe but not without you.