Grassroots Pantry’s Response to SCMP’s “Why is less always more from the organic garden?” (published 11/10/12)
We would like to take a moment to address an article from last Thursday’s South China Morning Post. This article questions the value of organic farms in Hong Kong, citing the small size of individual Hong Kong farms; organic smallholder farmers’ supposed lack of significant output; and the cost of organic, local produce—a cost the article’s author makes abundantly clear that he considers exorbitant. The article’s writer documents his admittedly “unscientific” taste vs. cost comparison of organic and conventionally farmed basil, cucumbers, and ginger; and draws the following conclusions:
Given that organic food has been shown to have no special nutritional value, that it may often involve the spraying of more chemicals than in conventional farming (organic pesticides may be less effective), and how overpriced the final product is, one has to ask what the point is?
Is this just an indulgence for urbanites unhappy with the hectic nature of modern life? The question is, how, in a world with an expanding population, those whose job it is to produce food can think it is better to produce less and not more of it.
Essentially, the article’s argument is twofold: 1) that organic food does not taste better and, thus, that its cost should not be higher 2) because we are facing issues of global food security as the population expands (the FAO has stated that we will have to double current food production in order to meet demand by 2050), and because land is limited in Hong Kong, the plots currently used in organic farming should either be developed or farmed conventionally in order to increase output. In making these arguments, the article’s author implies that we should continue to push our resources to their limit; engineer plants and animals to be more robust (given changing climatic conditions that are due, in part, to pollution from conventional agriculture); and poison our soils and bodies with the chemicals we use to kill plants and weeds that get in the way of producing more, bigger, faster. The article’s author asserts, in fact, that farmers who produce food on small farms without the use of synthetic chemical inputs are being irresponsible and self-indulgent.
At Grassroots Pantry, we consider freedom of speech to be an essential liberty. Thus, we respect the fact that this article is an expression of an opinion; all people should be free to opine. We are choosing to write this response because we feel that it is our responsibility to do so—both as a collection of individuals who care deeply about the health of our food systems and our planet, and as an organization that desires to educate the public and help it to better understand why the issues at the core of Grassroots Pantry’s value system should matter to all of us.
First, we would like to address several of the article’s claims, the first being that organic farms may have to use a higher volume of pesticides/herbicides than conventional farms and, thus, that their products are no better for the environment or for our health than are their conventionally grown counterparts. It may be true in certain cases that higher levels of organic pesticides/herbicides must be added in order to ward off insects and weeds; but by and large, these types of natural inputs on organic farms are far less toxic than synthetic chemicals. And many organic farmers choose not to use any pesticides and herbicides at all. Of course, countries differ in their certification processes for organic farms and produce. According to the Hong Kong government, “organic” means:
- For planting, the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers is avoided. The farming process emphasises crop rotation, animal and plant manures, hand weeding and biological pest control.
- For raising animals, the use of antibiotics, growth hormones and other animal feed additives is avoided.
- No genetic modification and ionising radiation is applied.
Why is it a bad thing to want to add less (or no) chemicals to our bodies and to the earth? Shouldn’t we care that nearly 100% of synthetic pesticides and herbicides reach nontarget species? That they leach into our soil? That they accumulate in soil and water to which we’re exposed? That they can cause endocrine system disruption, cancer, and neurological disorders in humans and other animals?
In response to the article’s claim that organic farms have “famously small yields”, we point out that studies have shown that organic farms are, in fact, as productive as conventional farms. The argument, often made by “big agriculture” (large scale, conventional, corporate farms and those who run and support them) that organic farming “can’t feed the world” is simply not true. And even if it were, why would it ever be worse for people to be able to choose between organically and conventionally grown produce than for them to have only conventionally grown food available to them?
It is true that organic fruits and vegetables cost more than do those that are conventionally grown. The reason for this is that cultivating plants without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides requires more manual labor. More time and labor means more costs to the farmer, which translates into a higher cost to consumers. If organic farming was encouraged, and perhaps if that encouragement came in the form of governmental subsidies, the cost to both the farmer and the consumer would go down. Moreover, if more people farmed organically and the market was flooded with organic produce, the price of that produce would also go down. Supply and demand works the same way, no matter how goods are produced.
It also true that studies have shown no difference in nutrient density between organically and conventionally grown produce. Yes, it’s accurate to say that a conventionally grown orange has the same amount of Vitamin C and the same number of calories as the one that is grown without synthetic chemical inputs. But, as we previously mentioned, incidental ingestion of the synthetic chemical inputs used in conventional farming is very, very bad for all of us. If we consider the potential negative impacts of eating those chemicals that we put on plants to make them grow bigger and faster (many of which are lipid-soluble and, thus, accumulate and concentrate in our fatty tissues and eventually cause health issues), do we really think the two oranges nourish our bodies in the same way?
This article, in effect, skewers the efforts of people working to ensure that Hong Kong’s food supply doesn’t remain reliant on 90% imported goods; denigrates those who are trying to encourage Hong Kong’s people to eat consciously; and claims that it would be better to develop (or conventionally farm) the land currently used by organic smallholders, thus depriving Hong Kongers the opportunity to eat sustainable, local produce. These sentiments are dangerous. They appeal to our lowest selves, the parts within us that would rather not think about how our individual choices affect global health. This article tells us that we are off the hook, and that we don’t have to work hard to change the way we eat and live here.
As of late, we have felt a shift in the collective Hong Kong mentality. People are questioning whether money can solve everything, whether we should keep pushing further, faster; or if, in fact, we need to slow down, take a breath, see the toll that our tireless, blind march toward a bright shining future may be taking. Our landfills are near capacity, overflowing with the food we waste and the materials we don’t recycle. Our air is some of the worst in the world. Our seas are full of plastic and shipping run-off. We need a change, and it starts with each of us as individuals caring about the issues that affect our health and the health of our planet. It starts with us knowing that it is our responsibility to live for our future, for our children’s future, for tomorrow.
This year’s UN summits on food security focused on sustainable agricultural development and better support for smallholder farmers, who produce 80% of the food in developing countries. Smallholders make up an important part of every region’s production of food, and that includes Hong Kong’s. As we mentioned before, we are importing 90% of our food, and only 3% of the fruits and vegetables we eat here are grown locally (that includes both organic and conventionally grown varieties). We should be encouraging people to grow food and non-edible plants in any and all small spaces, instead of disparaging those who do, and acting as though their efforts are a waste of time and space. If our incredibly poor air quality and excessive waste production are any indication, we can always use more vegetation and less development in Hong Kong.
We have the chance, today, tomorrow, and every day of our lives hereafter, to make a stand. We have the chance to change ourselves and our world by asserting that small steps in the right direction matter. No one should be forced to buy organic food. No one should be forced to believe anything or do anything that they feel is fundamentally wrong. But we should all have the opportunity to choose for ourselves, and to try to make the world better, healthier, and more conscientious through our choices. Hong Kong’s small farmers are not using the term “organic” as a mere buzzword. They are not getting rich from the limited amount of produce that they are able to sell to all of us. We are the inhabitants of an international, cosmopolitan city, with a taste for the best the world has to offer. But because of this, we often forget to deeply experience and appreciate what is right here, what is produced from our own soil, by our own farmers, and to be grateful that those farmers have given us the freedom to choose.