On January 26, 2005, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston handed down a ruling in a case brought by a small organic blueberry farmer from Maine. Although unreported in the mainstream press, it sent shock waves through the $11 billion organic food industry, which had been growing without interruption for two decades or more. The ruling, it was feared, threatened to destabilize the entire sector by removing the ORGANIC label from a host of packaged goods or forcing the products to be reformulated. The label, which had taken effect a little over two years earlier, lay at the heart of consumer trust in organic food.
The farmer, Arthur Harvey, who was seventy-two, had waged the suit on his own, fed up with what the organic food industry had become—with its mainstream processed and packaged goods clogging the arteries of supermarkets; with what he saw as the abusive actions of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversaw the program; with the entire regulatory mess that seemed to miss the point that organic food was supposed to be pure, wholesome, natural, and small-scale, a true alternative to conventional food. Somewhere along the way, organic food had gone hell-bent for growth, taking a turn away from the ideals that had given birth to the movement.
But rather than get angry about this state of affairs, Harvey had holed up on his farm in Hartford, Maine, and decided to get even. He knew the entire body of organic regulations, since as an organic certifier it was his responsibility to make sure other farmers abided by them, however objectionable he found them. He read through all 554 pages, comparing the rules with the underlying law that governs organic practices, the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. He found inconsistencies that were strong enough, he thought, to sue the then secretary of agriculture Ann Veneman. Harvey had several complaints, but the most potent focused on the nonorganic synthetic ingredients that the regulations allowed in the processing of organic food, to ease manufacturing. He also objected to the way the rules reduced a 100 percent organic feed requirement when transitioning a cow to organic milk production. These lax practices, he thought, contravened the underlying law and cheapened the purity of organic food.
Harvey’s lawyer told him the fight would cost $250,000—far more money than Harvey had. The $50,000 estimated by an environmental lawyer he contacted next was still too high. But Harvey wasn’t dissuaded. “Since I was trained by the Maine Municipal Association to do my work on the planning board in my town, I knew enough about regulations to see what was wrong with the organic rule,” he said. So he pursued the case on his own for $10,000, filing suit in October 2002, just days after the national organic regulations took effect with great fanfare.
It was not the first time Harvey had gone up against the federal government. As a tax resister opposed to military spending, “especially nuclear weapons, and the export of arms and military forces to many places around the world,” Harvey had refused to file or pay federal income taxes since 1959. His wife, Elizabeth Gravalos, hadn’t paid federal taxes since the 1970s. Instead, they donated time and money to social service and environmental organizations. The IRS had come knocking at their door a couple of times, then seized the family’s property in 1996 and demanded $62,000 in back taxes and penalties—about three times the annual income of the farm. When they did not pay, the IRS took the rare step of auctioning off the property at a town office across the street from their house, with protesters outside. They initially lost the blueberry field to a bidder, though luckily no one bid on the house, perhaps because it had only rudimentary plumbing and no electricity. Eventually, Gravalos’s mother bought the house, and the couple’s daughter successfully bid on another parcel of the land, which she later swapped for the blueberry field. They were back in business.
Harvey, an affable and intelligent man with a wiry physique, perhaps owing to his vegetarian diet, said the lesson he learned from that fight was not to stop being a tax resister, but to avoid owning property in his own name that could be seized by the government. “We own a couple of cars, so I guess they could go after those, but they aren’t worth much,” he told me.
Now Harvey had taken on a battle with higher stakes, to return the organic food industry to its roots, away from crass commercialism, away from industry, away from all the compromises that two decades of growth had wrought. Whether Harvey would actually achieve that goal through the court system was an open question. But once the federal appeals court in Boston ruled in his favor on that cold day in January 2005, finding that the USDA regulations did contravene the underlying organic law, the industry perked up. Many were incensed, including those fighting on another front—to win over consumers so that more people would buy organic food, expanding the market and allowing more farmland to be converted to chemical-free organic food production. This camp was growing the industry with everything from organic candy to frozen TV dinners, along with dairy, fruits, vegetables, and meat. Craig Weakley, a longtime industry participant who was director of organic agriculture at Small Planet Foods, an organic food company owned by General Mills, said standards for organic food “were not broken, but unfortunately, someone decided to fix them and was able to convince three judges.”
As Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, said at the time: “If this goes through, in the worst-case scenario, it could devastate the industry.”
What was this battle about, and why did a small farmer feel compelled to take on a multibillion-dollar industry? How had organic food evolved to the point that an internal battle might rip it apart?
Questions like these had been on my mind for two years, as I traveled around the country, visiting organic farms, talking to people who had built this movement and industry, hearing their stories and learning what drove them to grow, make, and sell organic food.
I had a couple of strong motivations. I was a longtime business reporter, often gravitating toward the start-up arena, writing about people who were either naive or strong-headed enough to build new companies. I was particularly interested in people who sought to manifest their values in their businesses, who used business to extend a larger ethical or social mission. The intersection of idealism and business was not an easy place to stand, since one usually trumped the other, leading to a downward spiral of disillusionment or compromise. But I found a few who kept at it for the long haul, who managed to reach, if not success, at least enough of a balance of idealism and pragmatism to keep them going.
I wondered how this dynamic played out in the organic food industry, springing as it did from a range of motives and movements: back-to-the-land simplicity, agrarianism, anti-industrialism, environmentalism, nutritional and health concerns, and, of course, the love of fresh, whole, natural food. The foundation of the industry had been laid by strong-minded and often eccentric idealists who took their ideas extremely seriously and tried to realize them on the farm and within business, to bring them into the world, in a. way that resonated with four centuries of Utopian pursuits in America. Harvey was just one of the more volatile examples. There were many others like him on this landscape, even among the entrepreneurs who loathed him for what he was doing to the organic market. It took a while to parse the specifics of Harvey’s complaint and his adversaries’ positions, to understand what it all meant—a book really to put him in context, which is why I won’t return to him until the latter stages of this story.
My curiosity, though, was also selfish, fed by my appetite. I had been aware of organic food since at least the early 1990s—a sister was a devotee—but I didn’t plunge in for another few years. The turning point came not because of a health scare, or some article about pesticides, or yet another nutrition study, or because I started gardening, or suddenly became passionate about the demise of family farms, or any of the other myriad factors that lead consumers to buy organic food. It came because I had moved from my hometown of Brooklyn to Washington, D.C., for a new job and to move in with my future wife, Ellen.
Settled in our town house on Capitol Hill, I soon became part of a small but noticeable wave of men with a bookshelf full of cookbooks and multiple subscriptions to food magazines. Ellen had a hellish commute to work and didn’t care much for cooking, so the kitchen became my domain. I was always on the lookout for the next best recipe, grilling salmon in the garden in the middle of winter, tossing dry rubs on pork loin, slow-braising short ribs in the oven, trying my hand at Moghlai Saag and Ma Po Tofu, making pizzas, pastas, and muffins on the weekend and sauteing any kind of green.
Soon I was baking bread, with various concoctions of sourdough starter taking up residence on top of the refrigerator, or in the oven where they could grow in the faint heat of the pilot light. Ellen called them my “experiments” and railed about flour on the floor, in drawers, and in cabinets. I bought books by artisan bakers, traded recipes and tips with other enthusiastic amateur cooks, sneering at the mention of a bread machine.
Generally, though, I sought fresh and flavorful foods, which could be prepared quickly, barbeque and Indian food being exceptions. But while I wasn’t slaving over multicourse gourmet meals every night, cooking was more than a hobby. It had assumed a central place in my life. When I was single in New York, with a work schedule that regularly stretched into the evening, I’d eaten a lot of takeout and restaurant food and limited my cooking mostly to the weekend, much as I enjoyed it. Now, in a more domestic setting, with a paltry choice of decent places to dine nearby, I lost my appetite for eating out. “I could make this better at home!” I’d say, when faced with a subpar restaurant meal.
It was inevitable that this outlook would one day bring me to Whole Foods Market, already a fast-growing mecca for foodies in Washington. The first thing that grabbed me—just as it was designed to do—was the veritable garden of fresh fruits and vegetables that greeted me as I walked into the store. Containers of beautiful strawberries were piled next to raspberries from South America. Deep-red hothouse tomatoes from Holland, cherry tomatoes from Maryland, grape tomatoes from Baja, heirloom tomatoes from Pennsylvania. There was Lacinata kale, red and green Swiss chard, bok choy and baby bok choy, Napa cabbage, baby Asian greens, daikon radish, broccoli rabe, red-leaf, green-leaf, and romaine lettuce along with bulk spring mix. Organic peaches were available in the summer apples and pears year-round. Not all of the produce was organic, but much of it was, and I began buying it, figuring the lack of pesticides was a bonus for freshness and taste. Then I would move around the perimeter of the store, trying my best not to dump fresh seafood and meat and dairy on top of the produce. It would have made more sense to pick up the veggies last, so that they would be on top, but the hard facts of consumer enticement had dictated the layout of the store: the gorgeous array of fresh fruits and vegetable the gateway to this consumer paradise. They had certainly hooked me. Without kids I didn’t think much about cost. Quality was all.
In New York, you have to understand, I didn’t do supermarkets because they were impossible, nasty, and crowded. I relied on old-fashioned neighborhood and specialty stores like the Staubitz butcher shop on Court Street in Brooklyn, and Sahadi’s on Atlantic Avenue, where I stocked up on spices, dried fruit, hummus, thick Middle Eastern yogurt, and olive oil. In Greenwich Village, there was Murray’s Cheese Shop, where the long wait was exceeded only by the number of exotic cheeses in stock, and Faicco’s Pork Store across the street, with unequaled Italian sausage. You got fresh pasta at Raffetto’s on Houston Street and fresh mozzarella scooped by hand from the vat in the back of Joe’s Dairy on Sullivan Street. Then I would bike down to Chinatown for bargain seafood and vegetables or visit Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side for smoked salmon and pickled herring, as my elderly father kibitzed with the staff.
But in Washington, I discovered that Whole Foods had brought many of these specialty foods into one convenient, upscale setting. Even the lighting was spectacular—it was designed, a marketing consultant told me, to make people look better, feel better, and thus want to buy more. The quality of the goods themselves wasn’t always up to the stuff I bought in New York, but it was high, the produce especially.
I began to notice something else, too. The store was getting more and more crowded and competition for parking had become fierce. Soon, Whole Foods offered valet parking—at a supermarket!—but it was free, so I took advantage of it. My business instincts kicked in, no doubt influenced by the awareness of how much money we were spending at Whole Foods each week—and by implication, how much others must be spending, too.
I decided to get a piece of the action. Following the dictum of stock market guru Peter Lynch, who quaintly advised investing in what you knew, in companies you liked, I bought Whole Foods stock. This time, at least, it worked. Moreover, owning the stock justified whatever superfluous purchases struck my fancy—French soaps, organic orange juice, a pricey T-bone, sushi-quality tuna, Venezuelan chocolate, Italian ricotta. If they swelled Whole Foods’ bottom line, they also swelled mine.
The more I spent at the store, the more I made on the stock, give or take a few swoons along the way, such as the company’s ill-advised launch of a natural-food dot-com. Luckily, though, it always returned to what it knew best—selling good food in a pleasant atmosphere. And it grew steadily, even as the economy dipped into a brief recession. Overall, I earned a return in excess of 130 percent by the time I sold the stock, over a period ending in mid-2002, when I began this book project (thus cutting my sole financial connection to the organic food industry). Ellen and I had, in effect, eaten for free at Whole Foods for two and a half years. Had I continued to own the stock, it would now be up more than sixfold.
Who would have thought that a natural-food supermarket could have offered a financial refuge from the dot-com bust? But it had. Sales of organic food had shot up about 20 percent per year since 1990, reaching $11 billion by 2003, and had garnered outsized attention in the $460 billion supermarket industry. Whole Foods had grown in lockstep with the organic sector, which was no mean feat. Greater sales meant greater profits. With 172 stores in the United States, Canada, and Britain, where it had purchased the Fresh & Wild chain, it had become growth company boasting $4 billion in sales in a stagnant industry littered with casualties, thanks to Wal-Mart’s strategy of “everyday low prices.” Whole Foods managed to sidestep that fray by focusing on, well, people like me. And it had done so without many noticeable marketing expenditures, like the insert ads or double coupons that supermarkets routinely offer to keep customers shopping.
Something besides advertising was driving this market and Whole Foods had tapped into it. It was the alternative supermarket not just for foodies but for the health conscious, for mothers concerned about what their kids were eating, for anyone who was uneasy about the conventional food system and all of its familiar brands. The trend wasn’t lost on mainstream industry, which reacted by creating organic food aisles (or ghettos) in their stores or by buying up organic food companies for market share.
But my odyssey wasn’t over. I began to shop at farmers’ markets, which had proliferated in the 1990s, spurred by chefs, the food media, and the obvious quality they offered. I had shopped at them sporadically over the years in New York, but it wasn’t until I came to Washington and began cooking in earnest that I became a devotee. I often visited Eastern Market, the oldest market in the city, near our home. Then I began to frequent the Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market, which was “producers only”—only growers could sell there, not vendors who pick up produce at wholesale markets.
The bounty was unmatched, even by the hyperaggressive standards of Whole Foods. And it was fun. I began to experiment with grass-fed beef, heirloom pork, eggs from pastured poultry, along with the usual seasonal vegetables and fruit. I looked forward to the market each weekend, got to know a few of the farmers, and slowly began to insinuate myself into their world. If the farmers weren’t too busy, I could ask about their farms and their growing practices.
Whole Foods, it seemed, had figured out how to change the staid model of supermarkets, borrowing from the arena of specialty food stores and by heightening the customer experience. But the farmers’ markets had done something similar, renewing a traditional model of direct produce sales and becoming the local alternative to the distant, anonymous farm, bringing the farmer into focus for the consumer.
Often I would load up with fresh produce at the farmers’ market and then make a run to Whole Foods—which by then had opened a huge store on P Street in Washington—before heading home. The quality of the goods was a link between the two, but I wondered whether there was any implicit contradiction. Did Whole Foods represent a threat to the farmers’ survival, or had the chain and its ilk ramped up the market for the local farmers by converting new customers, as they had done with me?
This was my starting point, what got me interested in organic food. I am not an agrarian writing about the deep meaning of the land, nor a gardener focused on the best organic methods, nor a nutritionist in pursuit of the ideal diet, nor an environmental advocate preoccupied with ecology. I am a consumer who began to buy organic food, and then wanted to understand why. I sought to parse the myths from the realities and meet the people who were feeding me.
Along the way, I did learn about Jeffersonian agrarianism, organic methods and regulations, ecology, pesticides and horticulture, vegetarianism, spiritual food impulses, composting, food safety, and the diet of an ethnographic group of people who live in northern Pakistan, but only to inform the larger cause. Mostly, I spent time with people who created the organic market: a farmer who gave birth to a local food network in Washington, D.C.; a Californian who is credited with revolutionizing organic strawberry-growing methods; a New York City-born couple who became the largest organic produce sellers in the nation, if not the world; a Boulder-based guru of soy milk who created the largest organic packaged foods brand. My background as a business reporter gave me the skills to see how these people worked and what made the industry click into high gear. In this way, the two sides of my life—work and home, writing and cooking—came together in a way I never really expected.
This endeavor was a moving target. As I became a more informed consumer, my choices about what foods to buy, and where to buy them, evolved. In the same way, the organic food industry was evolving, too, altered by the consumers and producers coming into the fold, the choices of what products to make and how to make them, and simple market economics. Whole Foods grew up, as did a host of other companies that had started out as small farms and artisan ventures. Some participants left, clearly disillusioned. The success I participated in as a Whole Foods shareholder was heightening a tension with the founding ideals of the movement. This in no small way reflected the people involved, some of whom tempered the counterculture idealism of their youth and took jobs to alter the food economy in consumer-friendly ways. Such compromises rang hollow with the purists, however.
This, of course, is the nature of evolution, which dilutes the original gene pool to maintain survival. For some, like Arthur Harvey, too much of the founding essence had been compromised, sold out. But for an industry accounting for little more than 2 percent of food sales, 0.3 percent of crop- and pasture-land, 2 percent of vegetable acreage, and less than 1 percent of all farms, Harvey’s opponents thought the movement was just beginning.
1. Humus Worshippers
The Origins of Organic Food
The birthright of all living things is health. This law is true for soil, plant, animal and man: the health of these four is one connected chain. Any weakness or defect in the health of any earlier link in the chain is carried on to the next and succeeding links, until it reaches the last, namely, man.
—SIR ALBERT HOWARD, 1945
In 1998, Chensheng Lu, a researcher at the Department of Health at the University of Washington, began testing children in the Seattle area to see whether he could detect pesticide residues in their urine. He was looking for signs of organophosphates, a class of chemicals closely related to nerve agents developed during World War II, which subsequently came into widespread use as pesticides in a far less potent form, eventually accounting for half of all insecticide use in the United States. The chemicals inactivate enzymes crucial to the nervous and hormonal system, which, at high enough levels of exposure, can lead to symptoms as various as mild anxiety or respiratory paralysis. Long-term exposure increases the risk of neurobehavioral damage, cancer, and reproductive disorders.
Lu and his colleagues thought that children living near farms would have the highest levels of pesticide residues, since they were subject to drift from nearby fields. But the 110 two- to five-year-olds he studied in the Seattle metropolitan area turned out to have higher levels of pesticide metabolites (the markers produced when the body metabolizes the chemicals). This suggested that food residues or home pesticide use, not drift, were the primary path for exposure.
The study also had a curious anomaly: One child out of the hundreds they had studied had no signs of any pesticide metabolites.
“It was kind of surprising,” said Lu, who now directs the Pesticide Exposure and Risk Laboratory at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health in Atlanta. When the researchers interviewed the parents, they learned the family ate organic food almost exclusively.
This provided the first hint of scientific evidence that an organic food diet reduced pesticide exposure in children. Another study looked at pesticide residue data from 94,000 food samples from 1994–1999 and found organic food had about two-thirds less residues than conventional food. This showed that organic consumers were getting what they paid for—lower pesticides in food—but the study looked only at what was in the overall food supply, not what people ate. By identifying metabolites in the urine—through a technique known as biomonitoring—the researchers had evidence of pesticides children had actually consumed.
Cynthia Curl, another scientist then at the University of Washington, followed up on Lu’s finding and published the results in March 2003. She showed that a group of children who ate mostly organic food had one-sixth the pesticide metabolites of those who ate nonorganic food, but the study could not identify the pesticides, or determine their risk, since many different ones produced the same markers. The study only concluded that eating organic food reduced the children’s risk of exposure to harmful pesticides from an “uncertain” level to a “negligible” one.
Lu, with funding from the Environmental Protection Agency, has since buttressed this conclusion. When a research team he led substituted organic foods for a conventional diet in children for five days, they could find no evidence of pesticide metabolites in their urine. When they reintroduced conventional foods, the metabolites returned. The paper concluded that an organic food diet provided “a protective mechanism” against pesticide exposure in a manner that “is dramatic and immediate.”
Although the potential risks incurred by pesticide exposures over a lifetime are unknown, people who choose to eat organic for this reason have, in effect, decided to opt out of an ongoing social experiment into whether pesticides are safe. Given the number of pesticides that were once freely used but have since been removed from the market for health reasons, this is not a wild or unreasonable choice. For children the reasoning seems even clearer.
Chemicals are up to ten times more toxic in the developing bodies of infants and children than in adults, according to a 1993 report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), a nonpartisan, government-funded research body. At ages one to five, children also eat three to four times more food per pound of body weight than adults, and their diet is far more concentrated (infants consume seventeen times more apple juice than the U.S. average, for example). So not only are children subject to a higher dose of pesticides, but the chemicals also have a greater impact on their bodies. That conclusion, reached in the NAS study, led to an overhaul of U.S. pesticide laws in 1996, charging the EPA to consider the impact of pesticides on children, a réévaluation process that is still going on.
“If you can reduce some risk from some usage or pathway, you actually reduce your overall risk,” Lu said. “And it just so happens, for kids, the majority of exposure comes from dietary intake. So the benefit can be quite overwhelming.”
The curious thing about this conclusion was that the people who were buying organic food—largely women, who make most household purchasing decisions, and especially mothers—already assumed it was true. It was common sense. If you ate food from organic farms that shunned toxic pesticides, less residue would end up in your body. You might not know what substance you were avoiding, or what the actual risk was, but that didn’t really matter. Why consume pesticides at all if they added no nutritional value and might be detrimental to health? And why not support a farmer who had figured out how to produce food without them? This wasn’t a giant leap of faith but a conclusion consumers could easily reach, even if it required them to pay more for food.
Food scares have simply reinforced this conclusion, since they feed on consumer unease with the conventional food system. This became apparent in 1989, when CBS’s 60 Minutes aired a report about Alar, a pesticide that the government kept on the market even though it was a probable human carcinogen. Sprayed on apples, the pesticide was converted into a potential carcinogen when apples were heat-processed into juice and applesauce, products largely consumed by children. In the spotlight, the EPA banned the substance, saying that “long-term exposure to Alar poses unacceptable risks to public health.” The entire episode created, as Newsweek put it, “A Panic For Organic,” which was a mixed blessing for the young industry, since stores soon faced shortages of organic food and fraudulent items appeared, leading Congress to pass national organic food regulations in 1990.
More recent scares, surrounding meat, have had a similar effect, notably in Europe. Mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) arose in 1986, it is believed, from animal byproducts that were once routinely fed to livestock. By the mid-nineties, the British government acknowledged that people who had eaten the meat of infected animals were dying from a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which began with depression or anxiety and progressed to a crippling of the brain and death. More than 150 people died and cattle herds across Europe had to be destroyed. In late 2003, the first case of mad cow appeared in the United States, several years after cattle feed rules were revamped. No human deaths were attributed to the disease, nor did meat sales suffer, but organic meat sales jumped 78 percent. While the risk of tainted meat may be infinitesimally small, that didn’t really address the main fear. Why had the conventional food industry taken these risks, anyway when the natural diet of cattle was grass, not other animals?
Yet while a third of American women and a quarter of all men believe that pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics in food production pose a “high risk” to health, the growth of the organic food industry cannot be entirely attributed to food scares, which make headlines and then fade away. Nor can its rise be explained by fears about pesticides, although they, too, play a central role. Buying and consuming organic food has come to be viewed not only as a means of avoiding harm but as a benefit in itself, a personal way of aligning nutrition, health, and social and environmental well-being. A mother might buy organic apple juice for her child because she views it as healthier; a twenty-something single making a meal with friends might choose organic lettuce mix because she thinks it’s better for the environment; a couple planning to celebrate a special occasion with a fancy dinner at a restaurant might seek a chef who relies upon organic food grown by small farmers and harvested at its peak. Where food comes from, who grows and processes it, and what happens to people and the environment along the way can bestow attributes that make it extra appealing. “Consumers don’t just taste food, they experience it, and knowing a product came from a food system that treats farmers well may well enhance its flavor,” researchers at Tufts University in Boston write.
While critics often portray organic farming as a pre-industrial anachronism practiced by aging hippies, romantics, Luddites, and quacks who are incapable of feeding the world, this characterization never seems to get very far with consumers because it misses the central premise. Organic food exists because, like any industry, it fulfills a need, in this case arising from lapses in the perceived quality and safety of conventional food production, and from the desire for an alternative predicated upon personal and environmental health. This demand has not been manufactured (nor could it be—total U.S. sales of organic food in 2003 amounted to only a third of the $29 billion that conventional food firms shelled out for advertising that year). Demand has arisen because an alternative to the status implicitly made sense.
But the perception of organic food as environmentally sound and “healthier” didn’t appear out of thin air. Organic food was invented in the early twentieth century, not out of a blind yearning for an agrarian past, but as a reaction to new agricultural methods and materials whose purpose was to raise output and yield. The organic pioneers wanted to go forward, but on the premise that human, animal, and environmental health were not worth sacrificing for greater production.
Although strains of an alternative movement arose even further back, it was the British organic movement of the 1920s–1940s, which took shape as industrial methods reached the countryside, that first articulated the concerns about food production that would emerge decades later, with greater urgency. The organic pioneers came up not only with the methods but also with an alternative conception of what farming should be.
Among the most influential figures was Sir Albert Howard, a British agricultural scientist still revered in organic circles today. In India, where Howard developed new breeds of tobacco, linseed, and wheat, he was intrigued by the methods of local peasants, who grew a surplus of crops by relying on compost; he also noticed that oxen developed a high degree of disease immunity when fed from crops grown in rich composted soil. He sought the scientific basis for these observations, theorizing that the end result of a sound farming system was health. Healthy soil meant more vigorous plants, healthier animals, and more nutritious food. As British historian Philip Conford has noted, the founders came to view the organic method as a kind of “preventive medicine,” with health seen as the “harmonious functioning” of a whole system.
The organic school was also reacting against the new trend of boosting crop yields through chemical fertilizers advocated by German chemist Justus von Liebig. Von Liebig had argued in 1840 that chemicals could replace manure, since it was the minerals in manure that were the source of fertility. “Organic matters, however useful they are in manures, may be dispensed with; art is capable of providing a substitute for them,” Liebig said. If nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous were fed to a plant in the proper amounts, even on depleted soils, the plant would grow. The point was to feed the plant, rather than to nurture complex biological activity within the soil.
This approach implied an entirely new type of farming system. In the pre-chemical age, a farmer could ensure soil fertility only by spreading organic matter, such as manure, fish, or bird guano, or planting a leguminous crop that could add nitrogen to the soil, or growing a cover crop that would then be plowed into the soil. In addition to adding nutrients to the soil, these methods would enhance water retention and stave off soil erosion. Thomas Jefferson, who encountered weak soils at Monticello, his hilltop Virginia estate, became a big proponent. “We will try this winter to cover our garden with a heavy coating of manure,” he wrote to his daughter in 1793. “When earth is rich it bids defiance to droughts, yields in abundance, and of the best quality.” But Jefferson was the exception in his time and place, when the predominant method of guaranteeing successive cash crops of tobacco or corn was to abandon exhausted fields and clear fresh land by burning virgin forest. In America, this approach had propelled the westward settlement of the continent.
The advent of synthetic fertilizers in the twentieth century provided a way to grow the same crops year after year on the same soil, with less labor. Farmers still spread manure, but they began to rely primarily upon synthetic fertilizers, ensuring more intensive production on a fixed quantity of land.
Howard opposed chemical fertilizers because he thought they represented a highly mechanistic approach to soil fertility that never added up to a complete whole. Like other organic pioneers, many of whom were also agronomists, chemists, and doctors, he wasn’t antiscientific or antiprogressive; he simply sought to work within natural systems. He got his chance in 1924, when he became director of the Institute of Plant Industry, a British research hub in the Indian state of Indore, and came up with a way of creating compost in quantity.
The so-called Indore method, Howard’s legacy, would be familiar to any backyard or commercial compost maker today. Each day at the institute, workers bedded the animal stalls with vegetative waste, wood shavings, and sawdust. The next day, the bedding, now filled with animal “residues,” was removed to the compost pile. Every three months, the earth beneath the animals was broken up and added to the pile, as an “activator” to help break down the organic waste. Once the material had amassed into a windrow about thirty feet long, fifteen feet wide, and three feet deep, water was added to maintain the consistency of a “pressed-out sponge” and crowbars were plunged in at regular intervals to keep oxygen circulating, feeding bacteria and fostering decomposition. The piles were turned every few weeks to stimulate biological activity that processes organic matter and kills off pathogens. Turned into the soil, the finished compost adds nitrogen, increases the flow of oxygen, improves tilth, or texture, retains water, and supports bacteria and fungi, aiding plant growth. Unlike chemical fertilizers, compost decomposes slowly, so excess nutrients are less likely to drain out into ground-waiter or streams.
Howard postulated that composted soil improved plant health. “The maintenance of soil fertility is the real basis of health and of resistance to disease,” he wrote in An Agricultural Testament, published in 1940. In contrast, the Liebig method of chemical fertilizers “is based on a complete misconception of plant nutrition. It is superficial and fundamentally unsound . . . Artificial manures lead inevitably to artificial nutrition, artificial food, artificial animals, and finally to artificial men and women.” Compost’s positive attributes would cascade down the food chain. He cited several examples in his work, including a school in New Zealand that replaced chemical fertilizers with compost in its vegetable plots. “Formerly, in the days when artificials (chemical fertilizers) were used, colds, measles and scarlet fever used to run through the school. Now they tend to be confined to the single case brought in from outside,” he wrote. He also asserted that organic vegetables tasted better because of the quality of soil. Chemical fertilizers produced vegetables that were “tough, leathery and fibrous: they also lack taste,” he said.
The ideal Howard sought was nature itself, where animals roamed the forest and spread manure, and plants grew and died amid a diverse ecology. In nature, all the biological elements worked in concert. The core of the system lay on the forest floor, where decaying leaves, bark, stems and flowers, animal droppings, grasses, rodents, fungi—all of it, every remnant of a once-growing organism—combined with soil to make nature’s fertilizer. Fed by rain and air, billions of invisible microbes feasted on this organic matter and broke it down. The result, humus, was the fertility source for all plants, which in turn were the sustenance for all animal life. The forest’s “closed nutrient cycle”—as ecologists now call it—thrived in a cycle of death and regeneration.
Howard was influenced by the Eastern spiritual concept of the mandala, in which any sphere of life (or death) is connected with all others. “Such are the essential facts in the wheel of life. Growth on one side: decay on the other,” he wrote. “The only man-made systems of agriculture—those to be found in the East—which have stood the test of time have faithfully copied this rule in Nature.” He thought modern agriculture had ignored this balance, coaxing more nutrients from the soil than it could return, and thereby depleting fertility. As a result, farming had become “unbalanced,” the two halves of the wheel of life unhinged. “All over the world our capital is being squandered,” he wrote. “The restoration and maintenance of soil fertility has become a universal problem.”
Howard was not isolated in this concern, nor in the naturalistic alternative approach he proposed to remedy it. In Germany, Rudolph Steiner founded biodynamic farming, which sprang from his mystical view of nature and the age-old methods of European peasants. Civilization, he wrote in the 1920s, had lost “its knowledge of what it takes to continue to care for the natural world. The most important things are no longer known.” Biodynamic farmers, like organic ones, avoided chemicals, but they also tried “to improve the health and vitality of soil” by working with “the health-bearing forces of nature,” as one group described it. If the soil was healthy, “seeds will bring forth plants which are true to their own unique nature and have more life-giving vitality to offer animals and humans.”
The movement endured, and like their founders, biodynamic farmers today look to lunar and planetary calendars for auspicious times for planting. They rely on preparations made from, among other things, manure stuffed into cows’ horns, and dandelions placed inside cows’ entrails, buried over the winter, dug up in the spring and diluted, and sprayed on fields or compost to stimulate biological activity and harness “astral energies.” One organic farmer I met in California admitted he did not buy the cosmology, but he swore by the quality of the compost (since organic farmers are, if nothing else, pragmatic). A biodynamic farmer I buy from at the FreshFarm market, Swiss-born Heinz Thomet of Next Step Produce, has some of the best organic vegetables I have sampled but says he doesn’t always have time to follow proper biodynamic preparations or adhere strictly to the planting calendar. He and others I spoke with suggested that a big dose of the cosmology really amounts to observation, to being attuned to and working with ecological systems. “It’s really about good farming,” he said. Organic farming has thrived in large part on highly practical methods that originated with spiritual and idealistic motivations.
As for Howard, by the time he left India in 1931, the Indore institute was producing a thousand tons of compost annually, and the surrounding fields stood out like a “green jewel” in the countryside. With the publication of Howard’s work, the Indore method quickly spread. One British farmer adopted it on a three-hundred-acre estate and in 1939 began selling organic vegetables in London. The method was adapted to coffee plantations outside Nairobi, to hemp and orange groves in Rhodesia, and to sugarcane plantations in South Africa, which by 1949 were collectively making a half-million cubic yards of compost annually. In Malaysia, a health officer who heard Howard’s lectures built several municipal composting systems. Coconut and rubber plantations adopted the methods in Asia. In Central America, Howard’s work was translated into Spanish and applied to coffee plantations. Although the organic movement had a strong affinity with agrarianism and small-scale farming, the method as Howard conceived it was not limited by scale. It couldn’t be if the aim was to be the alternative to chemically intensive farming.
So even before World War II, food, health, and soil had been linked in a foundational concept that guided the emerging organic food movement, a holy trinity that lives on in the Whole Foods tagline: “Whole Food, Whole People, Whole Planet.” But not just any food—the right kind of foods, processed minimally and without additives, and preferably purchased close to their source. As in farming, the best food would be “natural,” too.
A prominent British physician and authority on nutrition, Major General Robert McCarrison, made this link explicitly for the organic movement early in his career. Like Howard, he traveled to India, in 1907, to the region Conford refers to as a Shangri-la for the early organic movement, the mountainous realm where the Hindu Kush, Karakoram, and Himalayan ranges meet in what is now northern Pakistan, near the borders of China and Afghanistan.
During the seven years McCarrison worked among the native population there, the Hunza, he claimed to have found no one with heart disease, cancer, appendicitis, peptic ulcer, diabetes, or multiple sclerosis. They owed their long and healthful lives, McCarrison said, to exercise, low alcohol consumption, and a simple, complete diet that consisted of whole wheat flour, from which they made chapati bread, dal made of lentils and other legumes, fresh vegetables and fruit, dairy products, and little meat. They farmed narrow terrace plots fed by ancient aqueducts that channeled glacial waters to their fields; gathered animal manure, vegetative waste, and night soil and “spread out the compost evenly like butter upon bread”; and produced crops that seemed remarkably free of disease. “They follow, in a word, the garden culture of the immemorial East,” he said.
McCarrison juxtaposed photographs of the Hunza, who as colonial porters had earned a reputation among the British for their “superior physique” and exceptional stamina, with people he termed the “poorer races” of India to show how superior the mountain tribe appeared. But unlike popular eugenicists of the day, who attributed this supposed racial superiority to breeding, McCarrison thought the differences were due to nutrition. The average Bengali or Madrassi subsisted on polished rice, robbed of what nutritious value the crop had; they consumed few milk products, no meat, and little fresh fruit or vegetables. “As the quality of the diet diminishes with respect to proteins, fats, minerals and vitamins, so do physical efficiency and health; a rule which applies with equal force to the European as to the Indian,” he wrote.
McCarrison decided to compare this natural diet with foods the modern British ate, by feeding both to rats. One group was fed the diet of Sikhs, which was similar to that of the Hunza, and the other, a diet of the “poorer classes in Britain,” which consisted of white bread, margarine, sweetened tea with milk, boiled cabbage and potatoes, and tinned meat and jam “of the cheaper sorts.” On the Sikh diet, the rats “lived happily together,” increased in weight and flourished, while those on the modern English diet became “stunted” and lived “unhappily together.” Like a bunch of soccer hooligans, the latter bit the attendants and then began to kill and eat the weaker members of the group. On a postmortem exam after the six-month experiment ended, McCarrison found a higher incidence of lung and gastrointestinal disease among the rats on the British diet. “We do in fact, find that these two classes of ailment are amongst the most frequent of the maladies afflicting the poorer class Britisher,” he said.
Just as chemical farming sapped soil fertility, the foods produced by the industrial system diminished health. Lost in the rush to modernity were all the nutrients found in whole foods grown in heavily composted soil. The arguments advanced by Howard and McCarrison spread in the interwar years in magazines and through Britain’s first health-food restaurants, laying a foundation for today’s alternative food movement. Unquestionably they and other organic pioneers romanticized the East, in their celebration of the noble, ageless Hunza peasants. “They are a people perhaps as ancient as the Incas but who unlike the Incas, have survived, and in their survival have preserved their ancient lore, and in the preservation of that lore have preserved the wholeness of their health and that of their crops and livestock,” said Lady Eve Balfour, author of The Living Soil and the first president of the Soil Association, Britain’s leading organic institution, founded in 1946. Such mythical views of the East were part of a “continuing European romance in which the West perceives some lack within itself and fantasizes that the answer, through a process of projection, is to be found somewhere in the East,” observes contemporary scholar of Tibetan Buddhism Donald Lopez.
Yet McCarrison was clearly on to something, for the northern Indian diet he describes is not dissimilar to what doctors and nutritionists recommend today to combat heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. A diet of whole grains, fresh vegetables, fruit, and legumes, with modest consumption of meat and alcohol, would be low in cholesterol and high in complex carbohydrates. The only quibble might be over how much whole-fat dairy one should consume. The diet also seems similar in principle to that popularized by Miami cardiologist Arthur Agatston, whose South Beach diet was all the rage while I was reading up on McCarrison. Agatston came upon his diet to combat heart disease among his patients, then turned it into a bestseller when they lost weight on it. After an initial low-carb phase, the South Beach diet focuses on whole grains, vegetables and fruit, low-fat dairy and eggs, lean meat, fish, and little alcohol. “Bad” carbohydrates, like sugar and white bread, are frowned upon. Agatston and others see a diet high in refined foods as the engine of a boom-bust cycle of satiation and hunger that leads to weight gain. The body easily digests these foods, spiking blood sugar levels and pushing the pancreas into overdrive to produce insulin and channel the excess sugar to muscles, organs, or fat. By working so hard, the insulin eventually depletes blood sugar causing energy to flag and hunger to arise, leading to a new cycle of consumption and depletion. Proteins, fats, fiber, acidic foods and complex carbohydrates like vegetables, on the other hand, are digested more slowly, allowing the pancreas to go about its work in a more reasonable way, keeping blood sugar steady and better controlling hunger cravings. But like any diet, Agatston also restricted calories, which is the key to weight loss along with exercise.
A diet of high-fiber foods—vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole-grain foods—can have other benefits, too. A Harvard University study of forty-three thousand health professionals found a 41 percent lower risk of heart attack on a high-fiber diet. Another study, of nearly twenty-two thousand Finnish men, found that those who ate high fiber each day had a 31 percent lower risk of heart disease. A study of more than forty thousand Iowa women also found a lower risk of heart disease among those who ate whole grains. The diet is also associated with lower rates of diabetes.
The South Beach diet didn’t offer up anything that nutritionists were not already saying, but thanks to its association with buff South Beach models, it took off, becoming the latest spin on a nutritional approach that echoed back to McCarrison’s findings about the Hunza.
The organic pioneers also found objects of veneration closer to home, in the small farmers, artisan craftsman, and rural village life then fading from the English countryside under pressure of modernization. Reinvigorating the small farmer by ensuring a “just price” for food could save the farm and civilization itself from the path of self-destruction brought on by agribusiness, chemical methods, money-lending, and middlemen—an argument reprised in the 1970s by agrarian essayist Wendell Berry. In Britain’s interwar years, these ideas fit neatly into a Christian concept of a Natural Order, in which the farmer and organic methods embodied God’s work.
In the wrong hands, however, the idea became perverse. In the 1930s, for example, a virulent fascist right conceived of a natural order overseen by a superior white race, whose land-based wealth avoided the corruptions of industry. Conford notes that in one publication, a glowing review of Mem Kampf appeared next to articles on the virtues of organic animal husbandry. British protofascists thought agrarian life could revitalize the urban-bound Englishman, and prevent the nation from being overrun by “the unfit and the alien and from the lowest types.” Others talked about the organic ideal as a return to a Golden Age of yeomen and craftsmen that had been destroyed by capitalism, socialism, and Jews. This was by no means the only strain in the organic movement of the time, but it was a central one A natural order, as an alternative to the industrializing world, metastasized into concepts of racial superiority.
Today’s organic movement appears to be more closely associated with blue states and liberal baby-boomer enclaves, but it, too, has its radical right fringe. Joe Smillie, a longtime organic farm certifier with Quality Assurance International, told me he had visited right-wing militants in Montana to certify their organic grain farms. One farmer even took him to his basement to show him his arsenal of weapons. Terry Nichols, convicted in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, once farmed organically. His brother James, who appears in Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine, was an organic soybean farmer.
This should not be too surprising, since the rural right wing surged in the 1980s, when rising interest rates and falling commodity prices crushed many debt-laden independent farmers. A simplistic message laying the blame for this collapse on industrial farming, bank lending, the federal government, the New World Order, the United Nations, globalism, Jews, and immigrants found an audience among the newly disenfranchised. Organic farming not only provided a libertarian economic alternative to the “system,” but it also dovetailed with doctrines like the “salubrious living” promoted by the Church of the Creator, which advocated “eating fresh wholesome food in its natural state” as well as the perpetuation of the white race. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks these extreme groups, reported that deep ecologists on the left found common ground with the militant rural right in their antiglobalist agrarian agenda. Both might be surprised to know that they are bedfellows with that last bastion of socialism Cuba, whose renowned organic farms and widespread organic city gardens are the result not so much of political belief as economic necessity, after an embargo limited foreign chemical imports to the country.
The organic movement contains an extremely wide spectrum of participants. They may be driven by health and nutritional concerns, a family or personal history of illness, fear of pesticides, environmental ideals, adherence to principles of agrarianism or biodynamics, spiritual or religious beliefs, a desire for high-quality fresh food, left- or right-wing politics, a commitment to sustainable farming, economic necessity or economic opportunism. This diversity has always been a strength of the movement, since it increases the pool of potential consumers and prevents any one interest group from controlling its fate. At the same time, it has led to pitched conflicts, especially between those who are determined to grow organic farming above all and those who primarily want to protect family farmers from economic annihilation. But one belief about food unites all—they are the alternative to the status quo.
Before this alternative movement could take off, it had to be popularized. J. I. Rodale, perhaps the most influential figure in the American organic food movement, grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the son of Polish Jewish immigrants who owned a grocery store and wanted him to become a rabbi. He trained as an accountant instead and embarked on a career as a manufacturer, then a publisher. When he stumbled upon the work of Albert Howard in a British magazine in the early 1940s he became an evangelist for the nascent organic movement. “I had been mildly health-conscious since young adulthood and the methods I resorted to for prevention of catching colds and elimination of regularly recurring headaches were legion, but none were effective,” he later wrote. “Sir Albert Howard’s idea made common sense Surely the way food is grown has something to do with nutritional quality.”
Rodale wasn’t the first American to see the value of an organic method. His predecessors included Franklin H. King, who, skeptical of new developments in American farming, had retired from the Department of Agriculture and, like Howard and McCarrison, traveled through the Far East, in 1907. His Farmers of Forty Centuries, another canonical text of the organic movement, described how Chinese peasants maintained soil fertility for four thousand years with manure and night soil, composting and crop rotation. By the time Rodale stumbled upon Howard’s work, even the U.S. government had been forced to take cognizance of the ruinous consequences of conventional farming. In 1938, as topsoil blew off the Great Plains, leaving tens of thousands of farmers destitute, a USDA report, Soils and Men, discussed the way agricultural practices depleted the soil. The report is still cited in organic circles, as an early argument for a sustainable alternative in agriculture. As for the agricultural use of the term “organic,” it first appeared in the work of an influential British biodynamic farmer, Lord Northbourne, in 1940.
Rodale brought an entrepreneur’s zeal to building the movement from his farm in Emmaus, in northeast Pennsylvania, where he experimented with organic farming and composting. In 1942, he launched the magazine Organic Farming, with Howard as associate editor. He was, as they say, ahead of the curve. When he sent out ten thousand magazine samples to farmers, he got back only two dozen subscriptions. Undaunted, he renamed the magazine Organic Gardening and Farming, then dropped the word “farming” altogether. Organic Gardening still exists today.
Rodale likened chemical fertilizers to whipping a horse, speeding up growth but hastening tiredness. He blasted “vegetable factories”—large-scale farming—and in the early 1960s condemned the practice of giving animals vaccinations, tranquilizers, and other medicines. As a result, he was lambasted as a cultist, comic chemist, disciple of the muck-and-mystery school, part of the lunatic fringe, pseudoscientist, humus worshipper, and apostle of dung.
Undaunted, Rodale invited additional controversy by promoting his interests in alternative health. He launched Prevention magazine in the 1950s, offering summaries of medical research and articles on alternative treatments of the day, earning the enmity of the American Medical Association, which kept a file on him for decades. This wasn’t just a passing interest: Rodale’s father had died of a heart attack at age fifty-six, and over the years, five siblings had succumbed to heart disease, too. His mother suffered from diabetes, and Rodale himself fell ill frequently. To steel himself, he took more than one hundred nutritional supplements daily. He ate sunflower seeds for his eyesight and pumpkin seeds for prostate health. Meanwhile, he hypothesized that sugar caused juvenile delinquency and that white flour—in fact, all wheat—was the source of colds. He eschewed plastic and aluminum utensils and tin, copper, and silver polish as well. As for medical treatment, “I do not say we should ignore doctors when we are sick. But sickness and health are two entirely different things and each one should have its own specialized treatment.”
In Pay Dirt, published in 1945, Rodale warned about the dangers posed by DDT, which had been introduced only five years earlier. When Rachel Carson eloquently expanded the critique of DDT in her book Silent Spring in 1962, sparking the environmental movement, she gave substance to Rodale’s campaign. Carson herself was not an organic food proponent—she distanced herself from Rodale, whom she viewed as eccentric—but together they created a platform upon which the American organic movement could grow.
For sixteen years, Rodale lost money on Organic Gardening, but the times were catching up with him. In 1966, a free-form anarchist group known as the Diggers drove around San Francisco in a bus called the Yellow Submarine, scavenging food and then distributing it free to the local freaks in “feeds.” In an essay titled “Sounds From the Seed-Power Sitar,” one Digger wrote it was time to return to the land, “to straighten out our heads in a natural environment and straighten out our bodies with health foods and do Pan’s work, toe to toe with the physical world.” The freaks would feed each other, and this free-food system would ensure “the healthy, organic, harmonious evolution of the tribe.”
In 1969, the summer of Woodstock Nation, circulation of Organic Gardening jumped 40 percent. By then, Carson’s Silent Spring had spread far and wide. In April that year, several hundred members of the Robin’s Hood Park Commission took over an empty lot in Berkeley, planted vegetables and trees and grass, put out park benches, and tacked up a sign: PEOPLE’S PARK: POWER TO THE PEOPLE. The commission set up a free-food store, with “no owner, no manager, no employees, and no cash.” Poet Gary Snyder called the event a guerilla strike on behalf of the “non-negotiable demands of the earth.” That same year, an oil spill marred the beaches of Santa Barbara, and pictures of oil-drenched birds landed on front pages. The polluted Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland. “Rising concern about the ‘environmental crisis’ is sweeping the nation’s campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam,” warned the New York Times. News stories about DDT, soil erosion, the population explosion, and world hunger made the front pages.
This sense of doom only heightened in the coming years. “The more we strive to reach the popular science future, the more likely we are to achieve environmental disaster,” wrote Garrett De Bell, editor of The Environmental Handbook, a guide for the first environmental teach-in in the mid-1970s. Organic food was part of the alternative solution, appealing to baby boomers and their distrust of chemicals and processed foods and corporate poisons developed since World War II. The goal was to avoid “anything complex, anything you can’t pronounce, anything chemical, synthetic or plastic,” writes cultural critic Warren Belasco. Natural food was a “liberated state of mind, a symbol of opposition to mass production, efficiency, rationalization.” Any white food—sugar, flour, rice—was out; brown rice and whole grains were in. Meanwhile, The Whole Earth Catalog, the do-it-yourself bible of the counterculture, called Rodale’s Organic Gardening the “most subversive” publication in the country.
The Natural Order of the British organic pioneers had evolved into a starry-eyed, left-leaning vision, not unlike Howard’s circle of life, but with the psychedelically charged possibility of transforming the food chain. “There’s No Reason We Can’t Exchange Our Goods And Smoke Our Money,” read one headline in an alternative newspaper. Cooperative ventures linked organic farms with small markets, creating an alternative system based upon enlightened values. Food co-ops had “an almost religious spirit that seeks to satisfy the human needs forgotten in the plastic-coated world of a corporate supermarket,” journalist Daniel Zwerdling wrote. “Some of the people who work and shop at co-ops seem almost starved for a. sense of communion with the earth and with their food and the co-ops help provide it.” Paul Hawken, the organic food entrepreneur turned environmental author, said in one interview: “Massive scale and centralization of power and capital is the antithesis of what we had in mind when we started the natural and organic-food business in the U.S.” But as the organic food movement drew more adherents, that massive scale and centralization became integral to feeding the growing tribe before food giants could get in and corrupt it Production distribution and making money chaffed with the original ideals leaving the movement “conflicted and vulnerable,” Belasco writes.
Meanwhile, the food and medical establishments fought back against this growing alternative movement. Aside from Rodale’s nemesis, the American Medical Association, the Federal Trade Commission filed charges against Rodale for alleged false-advertising claims in the 1960s. They died in court after a lengthy battle. Establishment nutritionists, funded by food companies, claimed that the whole-grain, whole-food dogma was nothing more than fiction (until the 1980s, when the industry realized it might actually be profitable). The founding chairman of Harvard’s nutrition department, Frederick Stare, wrote that “food additives are like friends . . . Eat your additives, they are good for you.” Stare called the back-to-nature “mania” a “hoax, perpetrated by opportunists.” Modern technology was superior to nature and should be embraced in the production and manufacturing of food. Earl Butz, secretary of agriculture in the Nixon administration, said in 1971: “We can go back to organic farming if we must—we know how to do it. However, before we go in that direction, someone must decide which 50 million of our people will starve.”
These arguments are still advanced by critics today who now claim that manure and compost introduce pathogens into the soil and make organic food unsafe. Yet manure is used by farmers of all stripes, which is why conventional farmers—who produce 350 million tons of it a year—have failed to join the chorus. In fact, with conventional farmers packing more and more animals onto vast factory-style farms, manure itself has become an ecological hazard. In June 1995, an eight-acre manure lagoon burst through its dike in North Carolina, spilling 22 million gallons of manure into a local river—twice the size of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The pollution from these confinement farms has become a source of lawsuits in rural communities, and the subject of new EPA regulations.
Organic farms actually account for only a fraction of the manure used in agriculture, yet they face the most stringent regulations over its use. Under organic rules, raw manure must be spread on fields no fewer than ninety days before harvest, to ensure that potential pathogens in the soil will die. Other farmers face no such restrictions. Organic compost must also be produced under a regime that brings the temperature high enough, and maintained long enough, to kill pathogens, with the results recorded each day. Again, these regulations do not apply to conventional farms. Municipal sewage sludge—60 percent of which is spread on conventional farm fields because of oceandumping restrictions—is banned on organic farms because of concerns that the sludge may leach heavy metals.
As for the issue of whether compost is safe, the USDA Agriculture Research Service’s Environmental Microbial Safety Laboratory estimates that proper composting reduces E. coli and salmonellae pathogens by 99.999 percent. The first study comparing pathogens on organic and conventional produce, at the University of Minnesota, found contaminates at slightly higher levels on organic produce, but concluded it was “not statistically different” from conventional samples. The lethal E.coli O157:H7, caused primarily by cattle fecal contamination in meat-processing plants, which has led to numerous recalls of hamburger meat, as well as to deaths, was not detected on any sample and the researchers deemed all the food tested safe.
These arguments about the dangers of organic food amount to a PR sideshow compared with a growing body of mainstream research into the consequences of conventional agriculture. By 1989, for example, the NAS found that conventional farm practices increased soil erosion; that the application of chemical fertilizers fostered the growth of algae in streams, bays, and estuaries, choking off oxygen and killing aquatic life, to devastating effect in the nation’s fisheries, and accounting for half of the nation’s water pollution. The leaching of these nitrate fertilizers into water sources has since been associated with bladder and ovarian cancers, and possibly colon cancer. The NAS noted that toxic pesticides ended up in drinking-water supplies; that illnesses on the farm were associated with pesticide use; that rampant pesticide use was leading to chemical resistance among insects and to reducing populations of insect predators; that large-scale confined livestock farms had higher rates of disease, which in turn was being fought with medicines and antibiotics that had shown up in food.
Although avoiding these practices may result in lower yields—or output per acre—that also is changing as organic methods grow more sophisticated. And even assuming some yield sacrifice, the trade-off might be worth it, as a Swiss study, comparing organic and conventional farm systems over twenty-one years, found in 2002. Organic crop yields were on average about 20 percent lower, but they required only half to two-thirds as much energy and fertilizer, and 97 percent less pesticides, a finding that takes on added significance considering that the production of chemical fertilizers and pesticides consumes one-third of the energy used in conventional farming. Wheat yields were only 10 percent lower. The organic soils also had far greater biological activity, hosting up to three times as many earthworms, and the organic fields supported a more diverse animal population, including endangered species.
“This study is as complete a picture as we have from anywhere,” said Phil Robertson, a Michigan State University agricultural ecologist, in an accompanying article in the journal Science, which published the findings.
Rodale, the “Guru of the Organic Food Cult,” would not have been surprised had he lived to see these results, but he died of a massive heart attack in 1971, while appearing as a guest on the Dick Cavett Show. He was seventy-three. His empire has endured, as a rare family-held publishing company in a business dominated by conglomerates. The family publishes Men’s Health, Runner’s World, Organic Gardening, and Prevention, in addition to books, and runs the Rodale Institute, a nonprofit organic-research organization, still based in Emmaus.
It was not until 2003, however, that the sixty-year-old company scored a major hit, publishing Agatston’s South Beach Diet and selling five million books in several months. While the doctor did not tie his message to organic food, he did spin a nutritional theme about the virtues of whole grains and complex carbohydrates central to the organic movement. No doubt, Rodale would have been proud.
I saw how far the organic ideal had evolved, when I visited Austin, Texas, in May 2003. The city was baking in ninety-five-degree heat and dripping with 90 percent humidity, but I decided to walk from my hotel to the Austin convention center, several blocks away, where the newly formed Organic Center for Education and Promotion was due to hold an open board meeting.
I walked into the room and grabbed a “natural” soda, while the board members arrived: a casually dressed group of people who had been in the organic food business for years and were now leading significant companies, like the dairy cooperative Organic Valley, the retailers Whole Foods and Wild Oats, the soy milk company White Wave, and Small Planet Foods, which owns the Cascadian Farm label. Now that these entrepreneurs had made a bit of money, they were plowing some of it back into a nonprofit research-and-promotional institute for organic foods, not unlike the way conventional agribusiness sponsors research initiatives. But this kind of organized thrust was new for the organic industry, if only because the type of money that could back it was quite fresh.
The group thought the public lacked understanding about the benefits of organic food and hoped to fund research to substantiate a health-claim label for their products. Britain’s Soil Association had published a report, “Organic Farming, Food Quality and Human Health: A Review of the Evidence,” which pored over more than four hundred scientific studies to try to establish a scientific basis for the value of organic food. The studies had found that pesticide residues were rarely present in organic crops and that organic fruits and vegetables had, on average, higher vitamin, mineral, and phytonutrient content. Now the group in Austin wanted to advance the argument. What work could be done to evaluate existing studies, and what additional studies could they fund to further substantiate the benefits of organic farming? And ultimately, what would it take to make a health claim for organic foods that could meet the standards of the Food and Drug Administration?
Those questions were being asked only in the most tentative fashion, and mostly as background chatter at a meeting that largely focused on matters like fund-raising. The stated mission, though, was clear. What the organizers wanted to prove, with a bevy of rigorous scientific studies, was what Howard had asserted seven decades before: that organic food is better for human health.
Currently, the “organic” label does not reflect a health claim, as USDA officials have pointed out repeatedly. The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which regulates organic practices, defined organic agriculture only as an “ecological system of production.” The “organic” label means that the food was produced using organic methods sanctioned by the USDA. No food producer can say, for example, that consuming organic food may reduce the risk of cancer because organic food has been shown to have fewer toxic pesticides. If such a health claim were substantiated and allowed, it would imply that the conventional 98 percent of the food supply was less healthy. While organic food was conceived as healthier, and consumers view it this way, the law severs an explicit link. “It’s a terrible irony,” said Urvashi Rangan, an environmental scientist at Consumers Union active in organic regulations.
Part of the reason for this limiting definition was pragmatic. The organic industry—and its proponents in Congress—knew that any attempt to establish a health claim would have killed the law. What lawmaker from a farm state would vote for a bill that called a constituent’s crop nutritionally inferior? Plus, the law was facing stiff opposition at the USDA, which had rarely been receptive to alternative agricultural methods. Kathleen Merrigan, a former senate staffer who worked on the organic food bill, recalls being sabotaged by USDA officials who wouldn’t respond to requests or who lost information. The bill only got through the House of Representatives when it was rewritten to remove any research funds for organic farming. The young organic food industry won legitimacy, but only by distancing itself from its core idea of the connection between soil, food, and health.
What the founders of the Organic Center for Education and Promotion wanted was to reestablish that link, not with alternative nutritional theories or Eastern mysticism, as so many others had done in the past, but with hard science. In essence, they were trying to do what the conventional food industry had been doing for years, and with similar aims. Like every other health claim the food industry has won, this one, too, would not only undermine critics but also boost sales. And this thrust wasn’t underway only in the United States, but also in Europe, where Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Italian, French, and British researchers were launching similar investigations into the nutritional value of organic foods.
Are organic foods healthier? A researcher might parse this question any number of ways, looking at pesticides in the diet-like Lu and his colleagues—or studying the nutritional makeup of the foods. But these approaches compartmentalize the answer in a way that chafes with the original organic concept. Health as the organic pioneers conceived it encompasses the whole system, not just you or me. To hold a similar view today, health would have to take into account the environment, the quality of drinking water, the incidence of cancer among farming families, the pesticide-poisoning incidents suffered by farmworkers, the risks to infants and children, and perhaps even the pleasure and taste of well-grown food. But health is affected by a host of factors, not least of which is wealth, for the wealthiest people tend to be the healthiest. Once basic needs are met, people make better choices, like avoiding smoking, and eating more fresh fruits and vegetables. Organic food is a component in that universe of decisions, but as McCarrison argued nearly a century ago, it should not be considered alone.
In buying organic food, consumers become actors in this larger picture of health, contributing to consequences they may not even understand. In a direct way, they are also providing the investment in research and development that the government has largely avoided making in organic farming until very recently. Agribusiness has not pushed deeply into this area, either, since, unlike research into genetically modified crops, the results cannot be patented, owned, and licensed. The only funds to improve organic methods have come from consumers who buy the fruits of this labor. Indeed, if there is an unsubsidized free-market sector in American farming today, it is to be found in organic agriculture.
The methods were developed by highly pragmatic and individualistic farmers, spurred by sixties counterculture, environmentalism, health, even spirituality. But whatever their original motives, the innovators pushed forward, tweaking old methods and coming up with new ones, and taking their cues from the results they could see in the soil, the environment, their crops, and, above all, with consumers. In the end, they only succeeded because they gave consumers what they wanted.
It was an approach I began to understand when I looked into a food I consume with passion: strawberries.
2. The Organic Method
Strawberries in Two Versions
An organic farm, properly speaking is not one that uses certain methods and substances and avoids others; it is a farm whose structure is formed in imitation of the structure of a natural system; it has the integrity, the independence, and the benign dependence of an organism.
—WENDELL BERRY, The Gift of Good Land
I came across Swanton Berry Farm at the farmers’ market in Berkeley, California, one glorious Saturday morning in March, at the opening of the strawberry season. The farm’s stand sat in front of a beat-up white commercial van, with UNITED FARM WORKERS OF AMERICA and CERTIFIED ORGANIC signs prominently displayed. I could smell the strawberries as I approached, then waited my turn and bought two boxes, which the vendor put in a paper bag. As I walked away, I pulled out a plump berry and popped it in my mouth. The fruit was tender, not mushy, releasing a gush of sweetness that mingled with the rounder, deeper note of strawberry flavor, and while not all the berries were quite as sweet, every so often I’d get another wallop. As a couple of friends and I walked past the farm stands on the street, with their oranges y lemons, mixed greens, herbs, olive oils, and artisan breads—so abundant compared with the scarcity back home this time of ye ar—we finished off an entire box. So I swung back up the street to buy more, since we’d obviously need at least three for dessert that evening.
To say I had flown across the country to taste these strawberries would be a stretch, but not much of one. I had called the farm’s owner, Jim Cochran, when I learned he was a central figure in the creation of the organic strawberry industry on California’s central coast. Strawberries rank second after apples in sales of American fresh fruit and, like them, are routinely found on lists of foods with the highest pesticide residues. When the USDA tested 518 samples of fresh strawberries in 2000, it found pesticides on 91 percent. Two-thirds had two or more separate residues and a third had from three to seven. In all, it detected twenty-five different chemicals. The $1.1 billion California strawberry industry isn’t an anomaly in pesticide use, ranking fifth in total pounds used in the state (wine-grapes rank number one). But the strawberry industry has been faced with the imminent demise of one of its most cherished chemical aids, the soil fumigant and neurotoxin methyl bromide. Central to the growing regime and the linchpin of the industry’s success since the 1960s, the chemical was set to be phased out by an initial date of 2005 under a United Nations treaty designed to protect the earth’s ozone layer Could organic methods offer a true alternative altering the widely accepted belief that strawberry growers need pesticides especially their valuable but toxic fumigants to farm successfully?
If you look only at yield—the amount produced per acre—the answer is clear. Organic methods of production produce about 15 to 20 percent fewer strawberries than conventional methods. Organic growers also have to farm in a rotation, either hopscotching to new fields or growing different crops on the land each year to avoid crippling soil diseases. But the bigger picture is far more complicated. For farmers, profits, rather than yield, matter most. If the market price fails to cover the cost of the crop, high yields don’t matter. The focus on yield also ignores the larger cost of chemicals to the environment, communities, and health—measured in the size of the ozone hole over the Antarctic or the potential impact of drifting pesticides on a nearby school. These so-called external costs, which society must bear, don’t show up in yield studies.
In any case, farmers don’t choose an agricultural method or system like a product from the shelf. Once farmers work a certain way, breaking out requires not simply changing a few practices but altering the conceptions of their farms, land, and even way of life. For a conventional farmer, switching to organic production means jettisoning an entire production system that evolved over a half-century and cutting ties with a ready-made network of researchers, pesticide experts, advisers, and companies. For a lot of farmers, it just looks too risky.
Cochran didn’t face this dramatic choice because he was a relative newcomer when he began farming. Like so many other pioneers in organic farming, his decision to farm without chemicals meant inventing a new method along the way. In many parts of the country, you can find this kind of innovator, whose work on farms created the foundation for the organic food industry. In strawberries, a cornerstone of that foundation was laid by Cochran.
Swanton Berry Farm sits on a breathtaking stretch of beachfront, two hours south of San Francisco, where the fields angle gently down toward the Pacific Coast Highway and then to the blue ocean. Sea salt mingles with the aroma of strawberries, and a near constant breeze chills the air. Because local activists fought to preserve this coastline from real estate development in the 1970s, all that remains now is what was here before: cove beaches, where kite surfers ply the waves; sharp cliffs that fall into the water; the occasional home grandfathered into the land-use restrictions, and farms like Swanton Berry, which rents this property from a seven-thousand-acre private land trust. Cochran also grows on land belonging to the state park service and on a. couple of privately owned parcels. In all, he farms about two hundred acres, with twenty-five acres in strawberry production.
A sign beside the two-lane highway says STRAWBERRIES UP AHEAD, but the place looks like any other farm: a couple of barns, a former Army-barracks building, a dirt parking lot. The barracks, moved here decades ago to house Mexican farmworkers, now serves as an office, kitchen, and store—though “store” might be overstating it. Cochran places boxes of strawberries on a counter and has a container where you can leave your money if no one’s around.
The morning I visited him, Cochran grabbed two pint-sized strawberry shortcakes (an example of how he is “vertically integrating” his business) out of a refrigerator, and we sat down at a picnic table beneath a photograph of Cesar Chavez, who founded the United Farmworkers Union in the early 1960s. At fifty-five, Cochran is lean, silver-haired, and sharply opinionated but also funny—a useful combination in a highly contentious field. He remains the only organic grower to have signed a labor contact with the union.
Cochran started out in 1979 by helping about two hundred Latino sharecropping families in the Salinas Valley, two hours south, set up a co-op, Confederacion Agricola de California. “They marketed together, bought equipment, but they borrowed too much and management was spotty,” he said. The co-op grew strawberries conventionally, but having read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring as a teenager, Cochran was curious about an alternative. When he talked to the co-op workers about going organic, “People didn’t care,” he said. “They told me to try it myself.” So in 1983, he left with a friend to start a small farm.
Finding land proved a challenge on the central coast of California. Bordered by coastal-range mountains and the Pacific Ocean, the region boasts some of the richest agricultural acreage in the world. Toward the northern tier of this region, in the Pajaro Valley and town of Watsonville, where the cool ocean air makes an ideal spot for growing strawberries, the now century-old strawberry industry took root. Land rents for up to $2,500 an acre a year, though the choicest parcels have long been carved up. So Cochran and his partner looked an hour north, in Davenport, just north of Santa Cruz. In a place called Swanton Canyon, they found a two-acre cow pasture that rented for about $400 an acre. The soil wasn’t as rich, the climate cooler, water access spotty, but the rent allowed them to conserve cash. They bought a $2,000 tractor, which Cochran still has, though it rusted out badly because they didn’t have a barn to park it in. For the first two seasons^ they grew both conventional and organic strawberries, but then Cochran’s partner left to pursue a safer course—an MBA degree. Cochran stuck with the farm, going entirely organic in the third year. He worked in construction in the winter to make ends meet.
In organic circles, a few others also grew strawberries, but Cochran was only vaguely aware of them. Mostly, he encountered critics. When reps at TriCal, a big chemical supplier in the region, heard of his organic farm, “They told me I was crazy,” Cochran recalled. “They offered to come out and fumigate my fields for free.” Even old-timers who had farmed before chemicals were widespread told him he would have a hard time making it. Conventional wisdom held strawberries could be grown on the same land only once every ten years, or even every twenty-five, because soil diseases would decimate the crop.
Cochran gradually moved onto nearby parcels, and he found the strawberries did well in soil where brussels sprouts had previously grown. They grew poorly following carrots, and he ran into trouble after beans, but the berries also thrived if they followed broccoli. He read that mustard attracted lygus bugs, a tiny insect that migrates from weeds to strawberries and damages the fruit. As long as mustard was in bloom, the migration slowed, so Cochran planted mustard in sync with the berries, though it was hard to get the timing just right.
In this way, Cochran discovered what farmers had long known: Breaking up a congenial monocrop by mimicking the diversity of nature could hold in check the pests and diseases that thrive on a particular plant. Managing the habitat this way didn’t work 100 percent of the time, sometimes barely 50 percent, but the more Cochran learned, the more the farm improved.
Cochran’s observations were also keen. Brussels sprouts and broccoli are members of the Brassica family, and each to varying degrees inhibits a potent fungal disease, verticillium wilt. This disease can lay dormant in the soil for as long as a decade, but once a receptive host such as a strawberry plant appears, it comes alive and attacks the plant’s water-conducting tissue. The leaves turn brown or off-green, dry up, and an entire field can be wiped out. One reason soil fumigants such as methyl bromide became prevalent in the 1960s was that they snuffed out this ravaging disease.
Cochran, though, wasn’t the only one who noticed broccoli’s uncanny protective quality. Roughly a decade later, during a virulent outbreak of verticillium wilt in cauliflower fields, a plant pathologist at the University of California, Davis, Krishna Subbarao, noticed that, while cauliflower died, nearby broccoli fields were immune to the disease. Subbarao thought this was curious since both plants were members of the Brassica family. Over several years of research in the mid-1990s, he found that a natural fungicide within broccoli, glucosinolate—similar to the substance that gives mustard its pungent odor—kept verticillium at bay. The substance feeds beneficial soil bacteria, increasing populations one-thousandfold, and they in turn attack the disease. In field tests, the incidence of verticillium dropped by 94 percent after two plantings of broccoli, compared with a fivefold increase in plots without broccoli. “I have a pile of soil from 1995, where we applied broccoli residues, and I still cannot detect any verticillium,” Subbarao told me. The next step will be identifying the exact bacteria at work, an ambitious task since a single gram of soil contains ten thousand species of bacteria, only half of which have been cataloged.
“When I began to investigate this,” Subbarao said, “I talked with a number of farmers, including Jim Cochran, and found they knew about broccoli, but basically had kept it a secret”—a common strategy among farmers torn between a desire to spread organic methods and an urge to maintain a competitive edge. Cochran even left broccoli off his sale’s list in the early years because he didn’t want people to know what he was planting. Ultimately, though, he shared his knowledge, and with Subbarao’s work, broccoli became a well-known crop-rotation strategy even on conventional farms.
Cochran continues to revise his rotational strategy and has found a way to bring strawberries back more quickly. Aside from broccoli, he may put in artichokes or cauliflower and, in the winter, plant a cover crop that will be plowed into the soil to build up organic matter. Some years, he lets the ground lay fallow to rebuild its fertility, which is an uneconomic strategy on more expensive land.
Cochran also plants flowers and native grasses to attract insects that feed on pests. The insects don’t work as well as pesticides, but that’s the point. When chemicals knock out entire populations of harmful insects, as well as the insects that prey on them, the bugs that do survive are the ones with a genetic resistance. They establish a new population, rendering the pesticide useless. While it can take over a decade for regulators to approve a new chemical, insects can evolve immunity in a few years. For this reason^ “integrated pest management” is the watchword for conventional farmers. Conventional farms that practice these methods spray only when bugs appear rather than on a set schedule, thus reducing pesticide use.
Under organic regulations, farmers can turn to a small arsenal of approved botanical pesticides, but only if the land-management measures—rotations, cover crops, beneficial habitat—prove ineffective. Cochran tried a number of these plant-derived insecticides, including neem tree oil, which attacks insect larvae, and pyrethrins, a toxin derived from chrysanthemums. While these substances break down quickly in the field, they are not benign. Pyrethrins can cause convulsions. Sulfur, a fungicide used on organic and conventional farms, can burn skin. Rotenone, also approved for use on organic farms, is a plant-derived nerve toxin. Over time, Cochran shied away from these botanicals because they also targeted beneficial insects. “When I have used them aggressively, they have backfired on me,” he said.
Cochran’s caution about pesticides—of any type—is not unusual among organic farmers. A 1997–1998 survey of more than one thousand organic farmers conducted by the Organic Farming Research Foundation, a nonprofit based in Santa Cruz, found 52 percent never used botanical insecticides and just 9 percent used them regularly. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a microorganism toxic to insects, was the most common pesticide—applied regularly by 18 percent of those surveyed—followed by insecticidal oils and soap, which about half those polled used at one time or another. These pesticides have very low impact on humans. (Even humans who ingested Bt for five days showed no adverse health effects.) Sulfur and copper were applied regularly by only 12 percent and 7 percent of the organic farmers respectively.
In comparison, crop rotations were used by 74 percent of respondents to combat pests and by 80 percent to address plant diseases. The next most-common methods were to plant beneficial habitat and disease-resistant cultivars and to apply compost. Overall, 75 percent of organic farmers said they managed diseases without any difficulty, while 21 percent cited only moderate problems. Sixty-eight percent had no trouble with insects. Weeds were the biggest issue, with 20 percent of organic farmers citing serious difficulty, which is why hiring laborers to weed is a common practice on organic farms.
Cochran felt these natural pressures forced his strawberry plants to be stronger than conventional plants, which are coddled by a chemical shield. Researchers have suggested that these internal strengths might result in a more nutritious berry, because the plant’s immune system is composed of phenolic compounds that include vitamin C and antioxidants, which reduce cell damage in humans. A study published in 2003 showed that organically grown strawberries had higher levels of phenolics than conventional berries. In the absence of synthetic fertilizers, researchers believe, organic plants create more phenolics as a protective measure against diseases, pests, and stresses.
When Cochran explained his entire system—the plant breeds, compost, insects, crop rotations, the presence of disease, and the vigor of his fruit—I asked, “So, then everything’s in balance?”
“No, it’s not really a balance, it’s more like chaos theory—where everything seems to work one way for a while, and then all of a sudden it doesn’t, so you try something else,” he said.
What he observed was a dynamic system, because the soil and ecology around him were very much alive. Other farmers have found that soils change progressively on organic farms. “Some of the soil fertility practices that worked well when we first started organics need to be altered and re-thought as our soils change,” notes Mary-Howell Martens, an organic wheat farmer in upstate New York.
Cochran didn’t always know why or how a method worked, or in what measure, because there had been little scientific research into organic production, but soon, a neighbor in Swanton Canyon took a strong interest in his work.
In 1980, the University of California, Santa Cruz, which already had an influential organic-farming program, hired ecologist Stephen Chessman to start a Center for Agroecology. Agroecologists look at farming as part of the larger ecosystem, focusing on the wider environmental and social impact of the farmer’s methods. As Gliessman writes in his book Agroecology: Ecological Processes in Sustainable Agriculture, conventional agriculture’s primary goals of high yield and output aren’t enough: “Modern agriculture is unsustainable—it cannot continue to produce enough food over the long term because it deteriorates the conditions that make agriculture possible.”
Gliessman received his PhD in ecology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, around the time of the first Earth Day (April 22, 1970), and went to work in Central America, focusing on the methods of subsistence farmers. Their rotations of corn, beans, and squash, rooted in Mesoamerican agriculture, renewed fertility so that the farmers could cultivate the same land rather than continually clearing tropical forest to plant crops. At an agricultural college in Cardenas, Tabasco, Mexico, he studied these small peasant plots in relation to a nearby World Bank-funded project for banana and cocoa exports, which relied on imported chemicals and technology. Gliessman realized the small farmers had a more sustainable approach not only for the local ecology but for their own livelihood.
Back in the United States, however, funding for research into alternative agriculture was virtually nonexistent before 1987, when the University of California first set aside grant funds for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP). Gliessman decided to apply for these funds and study Cochran’s fields.
“At that time,” Gliessman said, “there was a lot of criticism of organic agriculture being snake oil or hocus pocus—that it didn’t have any science behind it. We knew it did, but we had to show it.”
With a $75,000 three-year grant from SAREP, Gliessman’s research team created twelve plots on Cochran’s farmland, designating half conventional and half organic. On the conventional land, they fumigated the soil with methyl bromide and chloropicrin, a commonly used and highly effective mix for controlling soil diseases, weeds, and pests. In this process, a tractor with a deep metal shank attached to the front end rolls down the field, pumping gas into the soil. Plastic rolls off the back, and workers shovel dirt over the edges to seal in the gas. They can smell the fumigant if it leaks, however, because chloropicrin, a component of tear gas, is used as a warning agent. (The more highly toxic methyl bromide is colorless and odorless.) The plastic is often left on the ground as a mulch to inhibit weed growth. When they are ready to plant, workers cut holes in the plastic and set the young strawberry cultivars in the soil. The rest of the conventional regime consisted of dipping the plants’ roots in a preplanting fungicide, applying time-released chemical fertilizers, and spraying pesticides to control lygus bugs and two-spotted spider mites—common pests that reduce yield.
In the organic plots, researchers spread compost made from dairy waste, alfalfa, cotton-gin trash, and apples. They applied blood-meal and bonemeal fertilizers—materials that break down slowly in the soil, providing a steady supply of nutrients rather than a burst of food. In place of fumigants to control weeds, they rolled out black plastic mulch and relied on hand hoes. And instead of chemical insecticides, they released a predatory mite (Phytoseiulus persimilis)—which had been used in Europe but was not yet common in California—that reproduces rapidly and feeds on the two-spotted spider mite.
The team reported its first-year results, in 1990, in California Agriculture, the agricultural journal of the University of California. Measuring soil nutrients and pest populations, they found the predatory mites performed as well as insecticides. They also found traces of DDT in the soil sixteen years after it had been banned by the EPA. (This is not unusual on crop land that has been converted to organic production, since older, now-banned pesticides may persist in the soil for decades.) As for production, the study found that while the organic plots had a 38 percent lower yield in the first year, profits were only 9 percent lower, which showed how the price premium for organic strawberries offset lower productivity.
Ironically, the bulk of that July–August 1990 issue of California Agriculture was devoted to looming state and federal bans on some of the most widely used chemicals in agriculture. “Growers face an urgent need to find alternatives to many chemical pesticides targeted by such legislation, but they fear those alternatives will be unavailable or either more costly or less effective than conventional pesticides,” one article stated. While the article suggested a thorough research agenda to look for pesticide alternatives, it wasn’t clear Gliessman’s work would be on the agenda. Even as broccoli became central to Cochran’s strawberry system, another article in the issue stated crop rotations and fallow periods were no longer widely practiced. Organic agriculture still off the map, even as the universe of chemicals was narrowing.
California Agriculture did not publish Gliessman’s next article on the field trials until the January-February issue of 1996—several years after the project had been completed and after the article went through a brutal four-year review. “They would send it out to people, criticize it, ask for more input, make changes, sit on it six months, and finally give it back to us. We’d work on it, send it back in again and the same thing would happen. I’ve never seen a paper get torn apart like that,” said Gliessman.
He viewed the opposition as political, for the article demonstrated the viability of an organic operation. Cochran’s organic plots yielded fewer berries, but the deficit shrank steadily over the three years. Expenses fell, too, because the additional labor needed for weeding still cost less than chemicals. After lagging, the organic plot earned more than the conventional field in the third year ($9,738 per acre vs. $6,087) helped by the higher price for organic strawberries. While the article ignored the long-term economic impact of rotations—broccoli would earn only a fraction of what strawberries brought in—it showed a farmer could make money with organic strawberries.
After his SAREP grant dried up, Gliessman was unable to find additional funding. It would be another decade before Subbarao substantiated Cochran’s rotational method, and it took until 2004 for the USDA to award Gliessman a $507,000 grant to pursue research in organic strawberries. Overall, organic agricultural research is still in its infancy. While land used for organic research doubled between 2001 and 2003 to 1,162 acres, this represented only 13/100ths of 1 percent of all public agricultural research lands. The roughly $8.5 million appropriated for organic-farming research each year also compares with a $2.5 billion federal agricultural research budget.
Looking back over twenty years, entomologist Sean Swezey, the director of California SAREP, said Cochran’s methods proved groundbreaking. Farmers now plant “trap crops” such as mustard and alfalfa to lure lygus bugs; the predatory mite, P. per-similis, has become the standard way to control the two-spotted spider mite in both conventional and organic strawberry fields and broccoli is a common rotation.
The only approach that hasn’t been replicated among other organic farms is Cochran’s contract with the United Farm Workers. Labor practices were never codified into the certification standards for organic farms, even though social justice was a powerful strand in the early organic movement. Most farmers wanted to address these social issues on their own.
Driving to his fields one day, Cochran pulled his Volvo station wagon over, got out, and walked into the knee-high foliage by the side of the road. He picked a tiny wild strawberry from the grasses.
“This is the native plant,” he said.
Fragaria chileonsis grows from the northern reaches of Alaska to the beaches of South America. In 1602, when Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino came ashore in Monterey Bay—perhaps an hour south of here—he found wild berries growing in abundance in the middle of winter. Native Americans cultivated patches with irrigation networks. Entire villages would decamp to the fields when the berries ripened, evolving into strawberry festivals begun by the earliest Spanish settlers.
Cochran found the plant quite hardy and easy to grow, but getting it to produce our idea of what a strawberry should be—“well, that’s the harder trick.” In pursuit of this ideal, horticulturalists have bred cultivars for at least four hundred years and nurtured them over the past half century with an intensive, chemical regime designed to ensure a standardized, profitable product, with repercussions far outside the strawberry patch.
First appearing in Greek and Roman texts, wild strawberries were enjoyed as an ornamental and medicinal plant, treating melancholy, fainting, inflammations, and diseases of the blood. Cultivation began sometime in the fifteenth century, and the fruit was sold on the streets of London by the sixteenth century, when it appeared in the works of William Shakespeare. (“The strawberry grows underneath the nettle, and wholesome berries thrive and ripen best neighbour’d by fruit of baser quality.”) The native European variety, fraise des bois, now a culinary specialty, became quite popular.
With the discovery of the New World, however, explorers and settlers located the distant parents of the modern strawberry and shipped them to Europe. The patriarch in the line, Fragaria virginiana, was discovered by the English upon their arrival in the Virginia Colony in the 1600s—both in the wild and in patches cultivated by Indians—although its first appearance in Europe may owe to Canadian explorers in the 1500s. Not much more than a botanical curiosity, the plant languished there for nearly a century, until its mate, F. chileonsis—the variety Cochran purled out of the grass—arrived from the Pacific coast of South America in the hands of a French spy.
Amédée Francois Frézier first came across the variety while posing as a merchant during a reconnaissance mission to Chile, then a Spanish colony. “The fruit is generally as big as a walnut, and sometimes as a hen’s egg, of a whitish red, and somewhat less delicious of taste than our wood strawberries,” he wrote. “The berries are brought back in such abundance to the city of Concepción (that) for half a real, which is the lowest money, one gets one or two dozens, wrapped in a cabbage leaf.”
He sailed home in 1714 with five plants, not realizing all were female. While they grew vigorously in the king’s garden in Paris, they failed to fruit, deflating Frézier’s claims. The story would have ended there, were it not for F. virginiana, imported earlier from North America. When gardeners in the coastal region of Brittany planted the two species near one another, the Virginian plants pollinated the Chilean ones. Growers soon recorded berries up to seven and a half inches in circumference, vindicating Frézier after all. By the mid-eighteenth century, the cross of the two, F. ananassa, became a commercial success in England, Holland, and France. A century later, the cross had returned to America, where farmers bred more than eight hundred varieties. Breeding let the human hand direct evolution to emphasize certain traits—such as size, sweetness, yield, drought and disease resistance, and hardiness—that nature in its imperfection and diversity failed to ensure.
The Wilson strawberry was the first ringing American success, because it vigorously adapted to various soils, expanding the strawberry industry fiftyfold from 1850 to 1880. The Marshall, which originated south of Boston and was known for its flavor, size, and deep red color, later gave rise to the freezer industry in the Pacific Northwest.
Chance discoveries often proved as profitable as carefully executed crosses, since the berries bred like mad between the porous borders of wild and cultivated fields. The Sweet Briar, found near an irrigation ditch in Shasta County, California, in the late 1900s, proved superior to any other variety. Joseph Reiter and Richard Driscoll, founders of Driscoll Strawberry Associates, introduced it to the Pajaro Valley in 1904 and renamed it the Banner, giving birth to California’s strawberry industry. In 1921, the first railcar of Banner strawberries took off for Chicago, beginning the long process of concentrating production in the fields of California. The same year, the state’s first freezer plant was built to absorb excess supply.
As soon as strawberries were grown on a large scale, however, crippling diseases and pests struck. A field of cultivated strawberries presented, in effect, a super-sized habitat in which pests and diseases could thrive. Without the checks and balances of nature, more plants meant more pests.
This was not unusual in California’s rapidly evolving landscape. From 1810 to 1942, close to 570 species of trees and 260 vines were brought into the state. “Along with them came new pests, which in their native habitat might be fought off by predators, but once in a different environment, only human intervention could stop them from spreading,” historian Steven Stoll writes. Among the invaders were the San Jose scale, grape scale, flea beetle, berry moth, leafhopper, blister mite, wooly apple aphid, codling moth, cottony cushion scale, red scale, red spider mite, and Hessian fly—all new to California since the gold rush. Farmers in the late-nineteenth century fought them with petroleum, sulfur, tobacco juice, and whale oil, with no firm idea what worked and what didn’t. Today, entomologists estimate that on average a new insect is introduced to California every sixty days, with economic damage of $3 billion a year. A quarter of the state’s crops are lost to pests and diseases. Globally, pests, weeds, and disease destroy about 37 percent of all crops, despite the annual use of 5.6 billion pounds of pesticides.
Stoll tells a prophetic story from these early years of California fruit farming, showing how the chemical response to pests developed. In 1868, a nursery in San Mateo County received a shipment of Australian lemon trees infected with the cottony cushion scale, a pest that clings to branches and leaves. In its native habitat, the scale would have been contained by predators, but in California it spread and soon became one of the deadliest citrus pests ever to enter the state. Growers threw alkalis, oil soaps, and new arsenic-based chemicals at the pest, but its waxy skin shielded it from poisons. The growers resorted to digging out citrus groves and burning them, but after new trees had been planted the pest returned. Growers thought there might be a natural predator in Australia, since the country was not afflicted with the pest, and enlisted a USDA specialist to visit Melbourne, in 1888. He returned with a lady beetle (Rodalia cardinalis), which was released into California citrus groves and caused the scale to vanish overnight. With this success some argued pest control should focus on “nature’s way,” rather than chemicals.
Others weren’t swayed, though, since the lady beetle wasn’t effective against many other pests. Better to spray and wipe out all the insects quickly than experiment with targeted biological solutions. While the state Board of Horticulture discovered thirty-seven beneficial insects by 1906, the University of California did not issue a single farm bulletin on the subject until the 1950s. “The university, largely by winning the allegiance of orchardists to chemical cures, rendered itself the central institution in the matrix of industrial farming,” Stoll writes.
Farmers facing this onslaught of pests were so desperate, they fell prey to hucksters selling fraudulent or improperly mixed chemicals. The nation’s first pesticide law, passed by California in 1901, was written not to protect public health—as we might think from the vantage point of the twenty-first century—but to ensure the purity of the substance. All pesticides had to be registered with the state so that farmers could make sure they were getting what they paid for. Paris Green, made of copper and arsenic, and another substance called lead arsenate were the toxic pesticides of choice. Lead arsenate went on to become the most widely used substance before World War II. Its toxicity was not even questioned until the 1930s, when farm interests opposed attempts to curtail its use. We now know lead accumulates in the body and damages the central nervous system, especially in infants and children.
For much of the last century, pesticides were seen as a miracle, an incontestable sign of progress that allowed farming to expand and crops to thrive. They did provide this sort of miracle as long as their risks and toxicity were unknown or patently ignored. DDT, developed in 1939, quickly replaced arsenic and lead during the Second World War as a broad-spectrum agricultural insecticide and was also sprayed widely in a successful campaign to eradicate malaria. Pictures from the era show children playing behind DDT spray trucks; the spraying of public beaches; and nurses with special guns, fumigating beneath the clothes of children.
But DDT had a downside. It turned out to be bio-accumulating, rising in concentration as it went up the food chain, from the insects in lakes that were sprayed to the fish that consumed them to the birds that ate the fish and died, giving Carson the title Silent Spring. For humans, DDT and the metabolites it breaks down into increase the risk of low-birth-weight babies, premature births, impaired lactations, and height abnormalities in children, according to a U.S. toxicology assessment. DDT also has been deemed a probable carcinogen by the EPA. Finally, it is highly persistent and fat-soluble, which is why more than three decades after it was banned by the EPA, it is still detected in food. Between 1993 and 2003, residues of DDE (a metabolite of DDT) were found in 37 percent of carrots, 39 percent of spinach, 7 percent of potatoes, 44 percent of beef fat, and 15 percent of cow’s milk, although at levels below what the FDA views as a health risk. Residues will remain in livestock and fish for decades to come, at ever-diminishing levels.
Following blanket spraying in agricultural applications, insects quickly built up resistance to DDT and “benign” pests became a far greater threat once predators were wiped out. These secondary pests became primary ones, requiring new pesticides to combat them, such as the organophosphates that replaced DDT. These neurotoxins were attractive because they were not bio-accumulating and could be used in smaller quantities. Yet only later were their mechanisms—and effects on children—better understood, leading to their réévaluation and, in some cases, withdrawal from the market. In this historical progression, each chemical class was replaced by a new one, which only later was found to pose its own health risks. At the same time, growing insect resistance prompted continued chemical replacements.
Cornell University entomologist David Pimentel estimates that despite a more than tenfold increase in pesticide use since 1945, crop losses due to pests have nearly doubled. The NAS counted over 440 pesticide-resistant insects in 1986 and found the number rising. An international survey identified 289 herbicide-resistant weeds by 2004, with the biggest number in the United States. The adoption of genetically engineered crops has allowed freer use of herbicides, but this has also led to a rise in herbicide-resistant weeds.
The strawberry industry conformed to this evolution of chemical use, though it took until the 1960s to get the formula right. The industry’s first response to the problems that monoculture wrought had been far more benign—to breed a strawberry that would resist diseases.
This began in earnest in the 1920s, when the popular Banner variety was hit by “strawberry blight,” later identified as xanthosis, causing its leaves to turn yellow, and stunting growth. It took a decade to figure out the blight’s viral nature, spread by aphids from mother to daughter plants in nurseries and then shipped around the state. Driscoll and Reiter also faced a devastating case of verticillium wilt in the 1920s, when eighty acres of strawberry plants collapsed in a Palo Alto field where tomatoes had previously grown. From then on, growers made sure their fields had been free of tomatoes for at least a decade and moved fields every year—often ripping out the trees in old apple or prune groves, which they considered lower risk. But these lands were in short supply. Farmers escaped to the foothills of the central coast, but after wet winters, plants died from Phytophthora fungus, or late blight—the cause of the Irish potato famine. Then the industry was hit by spider mites, which prompted the state legislature to appropriate funds to the University of California with a directive to get these diseases and pests under control.
Plant pathologists at UC Berkeley tested more than one hundred plant varieties, some from as far away as England, in 1925, and two hundred and fifty varieties from the USDA a year later. They created tens of thousands of hardy hybrids, including the remarkable Shasta and Lassen cultivars, which soon came to dominate the California strawberry industry. On the backs of these breeds, the industry grew to $30 million by the 1950s, capturing a third of the national market. But soil diseases continued to hold back the full potential of these plants.
Then, in the mid-1950s, agricultural researchers made a remarkable discovery that would allow growers to stay on the same soil year after year. When methyl bromide, which dates to the nineteenth century, and chloropicrin, an element in tear gas first tested in the soil after World War I, were pumped into a strawberry field, they synergistically controlled a host of diseases, including verticillium wilt, Phytophthora root and crown rot, anthracnose, black root rot, and charcoal rot. The gas kept a host of weeds in check, wiped out insects, and killed rodents, too. Growers could ease their worries about losses and low yields, as long as they blasted their fields with enough gas to keep all threats in check. By 1965, nearly all the strawberry fields in California were fumigated with methyl bromide–chloropicrin.
With this advance, breeders could focus on traits such as the berry’s aroma and size, ease of harvesting, yield, hardiness in shipping, and long shelf-life. Two plant pathologists at the University of California, Stephen Wilhelm and Albert Paulus, wrote in 1980 that even a tenfold advance in breeding disease-resistant plants would not equal the benefits derived from soil fumigation. This was the premise of the green revolution in the 1960s and 1970s: Develop new plant varieties and protect and nurture them with as many chemicals as needed, leading to an explosion of yield and output.
In the strawberry patch, statistics tell the story well. Before fumigation, the yield was around ten thousand to twelve thousand pounds of strawberries per acre. After fumigation took off in the early 1960s, yield shot up. It hit thirty-nine thousand pounds per acre by 1978 and continued to rise to sixty-two thousand pounds per acre in 2003. With just 2 percent of the market before World War II, California now supplies 86 percent of the nation’s strawberries, and Florida is a distant second. Production in other regions of the country could not keep up in the face of this competition and largely shut down.
A higher yield can have enormous financial benefits for a farmer, since it means more revenue per acre of land. A University of California Cooperative Extension report on strawberry production costs spells out the return at various prices. Consider a tray of strawberries (eight one-pound boxes) that fetches $7 wholesale. At that price, an acre yielding four thousand trays will return a profit of $154 after costs—or break even. If the farmer has a great year and gets seven thousand trays per acre, the profit jumps to $11,249 per acre. Higher yields require more laborers to pick the berries, but the greater revenue more than covers the additional harvesting costs. According to these estimates, on a strawberry ranch of twenty acres, seven thousand trays per acre at a price of $7 per tray nets a $250,000 profit. As one grower put it, “When you hit it, you can hit it big.” If everyone hits it big by pursuing the same strategy, however, supply can swamp demand, pushing down prices and wiping out profits.
Still, the modern cultivar gave strawberry growers what every business craves—a desirable product—and the chemical regime of fumigation, fertilizers, and pesticides created an artificial ecology in which the plant could thrive. In 2002, growers applied 8,274,926 pounds of pesticides in California strawberry fields, 89 percent of which were soil fumigants. In Monterey County alone, 2.36 million pounds of methyl bromide and chloropicrin were pumped into strawberry fields. But take away a key element, such as methyl bromide, and the plant, the farm, the entire system, could wilt like a field without water.
People have died from breathing methyl bromide when it was used improperly to fumigate homes. Farmworkers have been hospitalized and people evacuated from their homes when the pesticide leaked from containers or drifted the wrong way. But methyl bromide has a benefit compared with other pesticides: It does not cling to food as a residue, when used as a soil fumigant. Nor does it leave a toxic footprint in the soil, because the gas evaporates. But this quality turned out to be its undoing, for as methyl bromide rises into the stratosphere, its bromine atoms break down the ozone layer, allowing more ultraviolet radiation to reach the earth, where they in turn can cause skin cancer and cataracts, weaken the immune system, and even hinder plant growth.
Deemed an ozone-depleting substance in 1991, methyl bromide now fell under the United Nations Montreal Protocol. Negotiated after the discovery of the ozone hole over Antarctica, the treaty banned chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons once used in aerosol cans and refrigeration, because the chlorine atoms within them attacked ozone. Since the bromine atoms in methyl bromide are fifty times more potent than chlorine, the treaty set a target to phase out the fumigant in the developed world by 2005. In a controversial decision, developing nations got another ten years. “Critical” uses—such as quarantining fruit shipments to prevent the spread of pests—were exempted from the phaseout.
Meanwhile, its status as a neurotoxin made methyl bromide a focal point for environmental, farmworker, and public-interest advocates in California. The nature of this “category-one acute toxin”—the highest in the EPA scale—is not in dispute. On the opening page of Methyl Bromide: Risk Characterization Document, volume 1, Inhalation Exposure, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) notes that early symptoms of inhalation of the toxin include malaise, headache, visual disturbances, nausea, and vomiting. Delirium and convulsions eventually set in, followed by suffocation, heart attack, and death. A nonlethal dose can still have neurological effects and cause skin lesions, but as with most toxins, the severity depends on the amount and duration of the exposure and the age and health of the person exposed. Since two hundred to four hundred pounds of methyl bromide are injected in every acre of strawberry fields—compared with most pesticide applications of one to five pounds—the potential for both acute and nonlethal poisoning is great.
Cochran recalled getting a whiff of gas while working the fields in Salinas, since it would leak out before workers could shovel dirt over the plastic to contain it. (Now workers are required to wear respirators.) “You’d get all jittery, and it smelled awful,” he recalled. By the time Cochran smelled the tear-gas agent chloropicrin, the concentration of odorless methyl bromide was likely one hundred times higher than its chemical partner.
The only way to mediate this risk, short of banning the substance, is to protect workers in the field and come up with ways to prevent the gas from drifting into nearby communities. Over the course of a decade, with environmental lawsuits and pressure mounting, California’s DPR gradually tightened its restrictions on methyl bromide. By 2004, the DPR had mandated permeability limitations on tarps covering fumigated fields, notification for nearby property owners of fumigation, renotification when requested, minimum buffer zones between fields and nearby buildings, the minimum gap between fumigation and the start of a school session (thirty-six hours, when the school is within three hundred feet), time limits for application workers in the fields, record-keeping of hours worked, the type of gas masks workers should wear in various fumigation situations, the duration between fumigation and the cutting of field tarpaulins, the method of cutting tarpaulins, the wording on methyl bromide warning signs, the distance between these signs, and so on. These regulations, which are far more stringent than any at the federal level, added another layer of costs to the growing regime, causing an uproar among strawberry farmers. The DPR was thus under fire on two fronts: from farmers who viewed the measures as extreme and from environmentalists who criticized the agency for being too lax.
Drifting pesticides account for about half of all reported poisonings in California fields, but they can also threaten nearby homes and schools. Children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to low-level exposures, which can cause symptoms similar to a cold or the flu. While acute-poisoning incidents can make headlines, more subtle harm can result from “subchronic” exposures that last a season for people who live by the fields, or from “chronic” exposures over a lifetime. The health effects of these exposures are much harder to estimate and must be extrapolated from tests on animals, which involves guesswork. A more accurate method of testing humans to determine toxicity is widely opposed, since that would mean poisoning people. (The EPA has come under fire for suggesting such testing.)
In 1992, the DPR began reviewing toxicity studies in which animals were exposed to the gas at various levels. Once the lowest toxicity level was determined, it was cut a hundredfold to get the maximum level for humans—taking into account variations between animal subjects and humans and then the physical differences among humans as well. Based on these studies, the DPR set a limit on “acute” inhalation exposure at 210 parts per billion (ppb), meaning this was the maximum concentration anyone should encounter in a twenty-four-hour period.
More controversial and difficult to measure were “subchronic” exposures. No regulated limits were set for these seasonal levels, but the DPR relied on a “target level” of 1 ppb for children and 2 ppb for adults, extrapolated from a 1994 study of the gas’s effect on dogs. Any exposure above these levels in a six-week period would constitute a health risk, though the big unknown was how prevalent the gas actually was in the ambient air. The only way to find out was to sample farming towns during the fumigation season.
In 2000, the California Air Resources Board in conjunction with the DPR tested for pesticide drift and found methyl bromide concentrations above target levels at four sites in Salinas and Watsonville, three of them schools. One, the Pajaro Middle School in Watsonville, is a low-income, largely Latino school in which 60 percent of the students are children of farmworkers. With tractors rolling across fields near the school’s baseball field, the school had an average ambient air concentration of 7.73 ppb methyl bromide in 2000, far above the 1 ppb target for children.
When the test results were publicized in early 2001, they caused a stir in the local media. The DPR called the air levels “unacceptable.” The Pajaro Valley Unified School District, in Santa Cruz County, passed a resolution calling on the state to “commit all necessary resources” to analyze and resolve the health concern, but acknowledged that “the implementation of regulations on the application of methyl bromide could significantly affect the agricultural and farming community in the Pajaro Valley.” In the media, parents were reluctant to speak up. They didn’t demonstrate or call for a ban on the substance, perhaps because they knew that the result could well mean a loss of jobs. Dave Riggs, the president of the main growers’ lobby, the California Strawberry Commission, called the figures “preliminary” and said, “We need to think about a balanced approach that protects the public and allows farmers to stay in business.”
That spring, the DPR floated a number of proposals to reduce methyl bromide exposure, including enlarging the buffer zones around schools and capping the amount of gas that could be applied. “To achieve the 1 ppb target reference concentration,” one DPR memo said, “methyl bromide use should not exceed . . . approximately 18,000 pounds per township per month.” Since methyl bromide use in nearby townships (thirty-six square-mile blocks) was above that level, growers lobbied heavily, calling the proposals “draconian” with “devastating economic consequences.” By June, just before the start of the 2001 fumigation season, the DPR backed down. It announced there would be no new restrictions after all, since the 1 ppb “target” was not the equivalent of a regulated ceiling that must not be exceeded.
Working with a farmworker advocacy group, California Rural Legal Assistance, a retired farmworker whose child attended Pajaro Middle School sued the DPR. Under a settlement reached in 2002, the agency agreed to put in restrictions around schools and set a firm subchronic level for exposure—rather than a vague “target”—when it reissued its methyl bromide regulations.
A year later, the DPR proposed the regulations, but in the interim, the agency considered a new industry-sponsored study on methyl bromide exposure. This study, which had been recommended by an independent peer-review panel, was specifically designed to determine subchronic exposure levels in dogs over a period lasting six weeks. It proved crucial in the battle over methyl bromide, showing just how political the science of toxicology has become.
Although environmentalists criticized the study for being industry funded, this was not unusual. Companies seeking permits to sell toxic chemicals fund virtually all the studies regulators review before making their decisions. Setting aside this apparent conflict of interest, the issue then becomes how to interpret the findings. The industry-backed scientists predictably argued methyl bromide showed no toxicity even at the highest concentration tested, 20 parts per million (ppm). State health scientists and environmental advocates argued the gas was toxic at the lowest level, 5 ppm, based on twitching and tremors in one exposed dog. The DPR viewed this finding as inconclusive, because dogs exposed at higher levels did not exhibit these symptoms. Plus, the twitching might have resulted from an unrelated illness.
At the end of the review, the DPR determined that 5 ppm was the lowest level with no toxic effect—the so-called No Observed Effect Level (NOEL). Although on the low end of the toxicologists’ opinions, it was still ten times higher than the 1994 study upon which the previous subchronic exposure targets had been based. “This consensus was, however, not unanimous,” a DPR report stated. “In establishing the 5 ppm as the NOEL, the staff recognized that there were uncertainties to this determination.”
Extrapolating from the NOEL—by accounting for the differences in dog and human respiration rates and adding an uncertainty factor of one hundred times—the DPR raised the subchronic exposure level to 9 ppb from 1 ppb for children, and to 16 ppb from 2 ppb for adults. Watsonville’s Pajaro Middle School could now be declared “safe,” as could the fifty-one other townships in California with ambient levels of methyl bromide 1 ppb or higher in 2002. Forty-five of these townships applied more than 18,000 pounds of methyl bromide a month—the ceiling discussed by the DPR in 2001. One township in Ventura County applied 232,592 pounds in one month, for an estimated air concentration of 4.64 ppb, though “it is likely that air concentrations of certain sections within the township are higher than this estimated concentration,” a DPR memo stated.
The new subchronic exposure level essentially allowed growers to keep fumigating as before. The DPR decided that a safe township limit was actually 266,194 pounds of methyl bromide per month, since only that level would lead to an air concentration of 9 ppb. No township used that much methyl bromide. As the agency concluded: “DPR has not found any imminent health hazard to communities from seasonal exposures to methyl bromide in recent years, based on air monitoring of high-use areas.”
While the DPR argued it had erred on the side of caution, critics were not assuaged—even those in the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, which also evaluates pesticide risks. This is also unlikely to be the last word on methyl bromide. After the DPR had reconsidered exposure levels, the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and the EPA published an epidemiological study of fifty-five thousand farmers and their spouses in Iowa and North Carolina, which found a 14 percent higher risk of prostate cancer from several pesticides, the risk being most pronounced with methyl bromide. Men exposed to the pesticide had two to four times greater chance of developing prostate cancer than those who were not exposed; the greater their exposure levels, the greater their risk. Although the EPA is now reassessing regulations on methyl bromide in a much-delayed review, it has previously listed the fumigant as a “group D” carcinogen, which means its cancer-causing properties are uncertain because of a lack of studies.
Determining the “safety” of pesticides has always been a moving target, especially for neurotoxins, whose mode of operation is only partially understood. Historically, the amount of pesticides a farmer sprayed was based on efficacy in the field, not on health concerns. Only later have regulators gone back to review studies and reconsider the chemical’s safety. No studies have even considered the toxicity of methyl bromide in combination with chloropicrin, though the chemicals have been paired for nearly forty years. Are they more toxic in combination, or less? It is this type of uncertainty that gives pause when deciding whether the chemicals are “safe.” For students at Pajaro Middle School, “unacceptable” exposures one year were called “safe” the next. Yet this conclusion rested entirely on one new study, and even then, the conclusions were debated.
By the late 1990s, stiffer regulations and the looming phase-out under the Montreal Protocol caused methyl bromide use to fall, but not dramatically among strawberry growers who had not found suitable replacements. Researchers had studied herbicides, insecticides, soil solarization (in which plastic sheets placed over the ground heat up the soil and kill diseases), biological controls, crop rotations, even broccoli and new disease-resistant cultivars. The primary alternatives, though, were other fumigants, which, while not a harm to the ozone layer, are still highly toxic.
One substance, 1,3-dichloropropene (Telone), listed by the EPA as a probable carcinogen, was banned by California in 1990 after regulators detected high levels in the Central Valley air. Its maker, Dow AgroSciences, then came up with a less hazardous way to deliver the chemical, through drip irrigation lines, and the state ended the ban in 1995—only the second time it had ever done so. A mixture of Telone and chloropicrin has replaced about 20 percent of methyl bromide use, but regulatory limits prevent wider application. Other growers have switched to 100 percent chloropicrin, but Thomas Trout, a researcher with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, told me, “if there’s any off-gassing, the neighbors get on the phone, because it’s tear gas.” Europeans avoid chloropicrin because the stigma of tear gas from World War I remains so strong. With the chemical’s potential to damage the lungs, the DPR has launched a review similar to the one it carried out with methyl bromide. Metam sodium has grown in popularity, though it is also a probable carcinogen and responsible for drift poisonings in California, including an incident in 1999 that forced 150 people from their homes and sent 30 people to the hospital. Trout has studied about twenty other fumigants. Propargyl bromide was effective, but proved impractical because of its risk of exploding during transport—not a great attribute in a post-9/11 world. Methyl iodide, another carcinogen, has been struggling with regulatory approval.
“We’ve been working on this for nine years, looking at quite a lot of chemicals, but we keep coming back to the same standard fumigants,” Trout said.
With this paucity of alternatives, growers pursued a more effective strategy: They lobbied the Bush administration to save methyl bromide. In the spring of 2004, American strawberry and tomato growers (who also rely on the chemical) attended a meeting of the Montreal Protocol with U.S. negotiators to push for “critical use” exemptions to the looming phaseout under the UN treaty. Growers worried that developing countries would steal U.S. markets, since they could use the fumigant until 2015. Several growers told me, though, that Mexico has been unable to match American quality in the fresh market. China was viewed as a looming threat in the frozen market (as it is in much of the produce industry) though, as of 2002, it ranked twentieth in global strawberry exports. The United States ranked number two in exports, after Spain, with sales 135 times greater than China’s.
This made me wonder why American growers viewed the phaseout as such a threat. If California growers seriously applied alternatives now, they would have a competitive advantage once methyl bromide use ended in the developing world. Scrapping the pesticide could even be a selling point with consumers. This type of response was not unprecedented, since the Netherlands had banned the fumigant in the early 1990s and has since managed with alternatives. “Many farmers worldwide successfully grow crops without methyl bromide,” said Margot Wallstrom, the environment commissioner for the European Union.
The April meeting in Montreal was heated, with conventional growers arguing with organic farmers and environmentalists in the hallways. At the negotiating session, Washington fought hard and eventually won “critical use” exemptions for methyl bromide at a level roughly twice that of all other nations combined.
In this climate of tougher pesticide regulations, ever-encroaching suburbs, environmental concerns, and changing consumer tastes, organic strawberries began to look more attractive to a few conventional growers such as Tom Jones. Jones farmed twenty acres on a two-hundred-sixty-acre organically certified parcel near Salinas, rotating with farmers who grew artichokes, broccoli, and cauliflower. He had been hopscotching around these fields for nearly a decade, never growing on the same ground, nor encountering troubling soil diseases on the land. The day I visited, raised beds of rich black topsoil stretched into the distance, with strawberry plants evenly spaced at the center of each row; a small crew of Latino workers with long-handled hula hoes removed the few weeds growing the young cultivars.
Jones was a Driscoll grower, meaning his company, Windward Farms, based in Watsonville, licensed proprietary varieties from Driscoll. He grew them, then sold the berries back to the company for marketing. Driscoll depends on growers like Jones to provide the berries, while the growers rely on the company to provide a superior plant and ready market. Jones was the first Driscoll grower to try organic cultivation in the mid-1990s, prompted, he told me, by the declining effectiveness of pesticides. Although his conventional acreage still represents the majority of his crop, he prefers organic production. Jones’s motivation isn’t environmental, it’s economic. “My primary concern is sustaining our workforce with good wages health insurance and incentives and if we can’t grow a crop, or get a good price, we can’t sustain the workforce to the level we want,” he said. Four-fifths of U.S. farmworkers earn less than ten thousand dollars a year live in substandard housing (or squatters camps), and work long hours, often without health insurance. The majority of the estimated 150,000 farmworkers in California are undocumented immigrants In an industry that outsources picking work to crews of low-wage migrant workers Jones kept 250 farmworkers on staff.
The organic premium allowed Jones to pay a higher wage in his organic fields, and gave him a comfort zone when dealing with pests. “The first year we were here, we had a lygus infestation and I thought we were dead,” he said. “Every plant had two or three bugs. But it ended up being a ten percent cull for two weeks and then the bugs were gone.” He wouldn’t have been as patient in his conventional fields. “If you find two or three lygus bugs on a conventional plant, you can’t wait it out, because you can’t take that loss.” The smaller profit margin on the conventional crop meant he had to ensure as high a yield as possible with pesticides.
But his experience in the organic fields influenced his growing practices on his conventional land, which may be the biggest indirect effect of organic food production. Though he still sprayed and fumigated his conventional fields, he thought he had reduced his pesticide use by nearly 50 percent since the early 1980s. “We used to spray every week,” he said, “but those days are gone.” Jones now relied much more on beneficial insects and other biological pest-control methods.
We drove to one of his conventional fields, which had not been fumigated with methyl bromide. When I asked why, he pointed to a house on a small ridge overlooking the field. “I would have to notify them if I fumigated,” he said. “Would you want to knock on their door and tell them?” This was emblematic of a larger conflict in California, as suburban home-buyers searching for affordable housing encroach on farm communities. Unlike disenfranchised farmworkers, these homeowners vote and have backed environmentalists seeking more stringent pesticide restrictions. Still, Jones supported an extension on methyl bromide, so that growers could gain time to develop alternatives and avoid losing their farms to competition. When I asked him whether he could forgo fumigation altogether, he said, “Sure. But not if every one else is fumigating. Then, I wouldn’t be competitive.”
Although he would have preferred to grow all his berries organically, land was scarce. A year after I met with him, Jones lost his lease to the organic parcel in Salinas. He remained out of organic production for a season, then found sixty acres of certified organic grazing land in the eastern part of the Salinas Valley, and negotiated a long-term lease. The improvements he made to the land would accrue to him, at least during the lease.
By 2003, 1,290 acres of California strawberry fields, 4.6 percent of the total, were organically certified. While growers like Jones made the switch, others held back, wary of the method and worried about losing money. Organic growing means applying compost and organic fertilizers that the plants absorb more slowly than chemical nutrients; fighting pests with beneficial insects and limited botanical insecticides rather than chemical pesticides; figuring out how to farm in the presence of diseases rather than in their absence; working out the economics of a lower yield and higher labor costs for jobs such as weeding; setting up crop rotations on expensive land or swapping fields to avoid growing the same crop every year on the same soil; and identifying cultivars suited for organic fields. For a conventional grower, organic farming can look a lot like the crap-shoot farming was before soil fumigation became widespread. “It’s incredibly difficult to accept the organic method because it’s an entirely different mind-set,” said Vanessa Bogenholm, a former conventional grower who now farms organically in Watsonville “There’s no chemical switch.”
For those who can work out the method, the results can be profitable—or, more to the point, sustainable. Cochran called me at 5:00 A.M. one day to discuss a business arrangement that would distribute shares in his farm company to his employees and give him a way to retire eventually. His ideal wasn’t a family farm, but an employee-owned company, where workers would build up equity they could sell back to the company when they left.
“The idea,” he said, “is to give them some incentive to stick around—something a yearly bonus doesn’t do.”
The key to the arrangement was the farm’s board of directors, which would ensure the integrity of Swanton Berry Farm’s organic and environmental mission and be the last word on any major change in the company. That way, the values on which his company had been built—and marketed—could be preserved. But the foundation for this was his spectacular fruit, which he delivered direct to the stores of his largest customer in the Bay Area, Whole Foods, the day they were picked. The high quality of the fruit justified the price, and the price supported the mission. In the past year, Swanton Berry Farm had doubled in size. “I’m having more fun that I’ve had in years,” he said, before rushing off to work at 6:00 A.M.
This farmer had found a way to avoid pesticides, increase yield and profitability, and give consumers a product they wanted. This didn’t happen immediately for trailblazing organic farmers, but the ones who made it in the long run invariably figured out how to deliver high-quality products consistently. They did so without teams of USDA researchers, or replacement chemicals, or company reps telling them what to do and when to do it—without this elaborate agricultural network that supports conventional growers but also locks them in to a singular approach.
The goal of this enterprise wasn’t to get rich—a fool’s dream in farming—but to make enough money to sustain the mission. It was never easy. To see how this worked, I turned to an organic farm in the mid-Atlantic. Jim and Moie Crawford had made a living for thirty years selling their organic produce literally on the streets of Washington, D.C., and they had influenced a generation of young farmers to follow their path. I wanted to know how they created a market for their goods as part of the growing local food movement. They let me see.