The Organic Movement: Protecting Our Food

By James J. Gormley

Some “difficult situations have developed as a result of the recent outburst of enthusiasm for the subject of nutrition and food […] We regret the opportunity it has given faddists, zealots and other extremists to increase their customers, profits and power structure.”

Who would have bought into such paranoia and shortsightedness in November 1971? A massmarket food lobbyist? No. Try a Science Adviser for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) who was addressing the National Nutrition Education Conference.

The adviser went on:

“The indiscriminate distrust of scientific and technological progress that is displayed by such self-appointed guardians of our welfare–guardians who encourage others to be distrustful too–is another hazard in our nutrition and food environment. The surge of interest in buying ‘natural’ and organically grown foods is one manifestation of this distrust.”

These two observations take the cake:

“The commonly used pesticides about which the extreme environmentalists are so alarmed have undergone much more stringent and extensive testing than the products of the food extremists. […] And how do they [the ‘extremists’] justify a food production and diet scheme that, if adopted widely, would result in such a reduction in supplies that famine and death would be the fate of so many people?”

Since these ill-informed views are–incredibly–still held by one infamous massmarket-food industry funded organization and by a number of anti-organic bureaucrats, let’s clear them up on a few points.

As early as 8000 B.C., early farmers had already domesticated many wild food-plant species, with growers having cultivated thousands of different strains, each with its own hereditary genetic material, or “germ plasm.”

These traditional varieties are known as “land races,” and their vigor and diversity, alone, are the insurance for the future of our food supply.

Today, many growers and countries are abandoning these old land race crops in favor of genetically engineered, single-variety “monocultures,” making the entire world’s food supply ripe for complete, and utter, destruction.

Clear-cutting across virgin lands annihilates natural vegetation, bringing on what is called genetic erosion. By 2050, 25 percent of the world’s 250,000 plant species will disappear due to deforestation, the shift to genetically uniform crops, overgrazing, water-control projects and urbanization.

In Sri Lanka, for example, where farmers grew some 2,000 traditional varieties of rice as recently as 1959, only five main varities are sold today. In India, which once boasted 30,000 varieties of rice, today over 75 percent of its total production comes from less than 10 varieties.

In April 1991, plant geneticist Jack Harlan warned:

“The diversity of our genetic resources stands between us and starvation and us on a scale we cannot imagine.”

To prevent global disasters, groups are tracking down the wild relatives of modern crops in habitats believed to favor their survival–then preserving their germ plasm in a global network of gene banks and protected natural sites.

Organic growing is the key. Preserving plant diversity, the environment and our health–indeed, our future–will depend on whether we, as a planet, embrace organic methods … or not.

[Adapted from my article which appeared in the April 1999 ‘Earth Day’ issue of Better Nutrition magazine]

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