For food or anything else to be organic is for it to exist and evolve in harmony with the rest of nature and human history. Our natural history, in its culinary aspect, can be called grass farming. We worked hard to maintain the savannah as the best habitat for our food and for our safety.
Over thousands of years we were forced by elites into the strait jacket of agriculture based on annual grasses with giant seed pods: wheat, corn, rice. Although agriculture had many potential forms, on account of the malevolence of the hierarchies in control it became politically and socially destructive and environmentally unsustainable.
The idea of organic food production was originally a call to restore agriculture to its rightful context amid the flows and relationships of nature. By the mid-20th century agriculture was already largely converted to monocultures fed by synthetic fertilizer. Mechanization took over. Traditional practices of crop rotation and cover cropping were being driven out. The results were apparent in soil destruction. Air and water pollution were already visible. Industrial agriculture looked unrivaled and unstoppable.
The organic idea was a resurgence of the beleaguered traditional practices. Bolstered by new agronomic knowledge, pioneers like Albert Howard and J.I. Rodale called for an agriculture which would work in synch and mutual reinforcement with nature rather than in belligerent defiance of it, and in the process produce more than the destructive industrial practice.
This was the classical organic idea. It’s necessarily one part of a natural whole, and is inextricable from relocalization. This is because natural, sustainable food distribution is limited by perishability and energy efficiency. That’s why, except for a few imperishable basics as well as a few luxuries, food markets have historically been local/regional. Food commodification has never been possible except through massive subsidized energy, robbery including externalized costs, and many other forms of corporate welfare. I emphasize energy here since I’m discussing the most basic inherent limits of organic food production and distribution. By organic I mean the true, holistic organic. (Just as for terms like natural or sustainable I use their common sense English language definitions.)
By definition (the real definition, not the official credential, which is a pale shadow of the substance) organic must use as little input substitution (for example, fossil-based synthetic fertilizer for natural nitrogen-fixation; oil-based pesticides and herbicides for natural pest-fighters and pest resistance) and industrially transported inputs and outputs as possible (an “organic” strawberry from Chile on a US supermarket shelf is a contradiction in terms). Organic and relocalization must go together, if we’re to meaningfully conceive and seek either.
This is why it’s incoherent to try to separate organic from localism and even try to play them off against one another. Organic as a set of practices can be meaningful and benevolent only within its rightful context, the sum of natural interrelations – including those of a non-corporatized, non-propertarian economy, the real “free market” – which it’s meant to epitomize.
Organic, just like any other commons, cannot meaningfully exist amid a hostile capitalist environment. You can’t plunk it down amid the corporate food system and expect it to “be”. It has to be actively moving on an anti-corporate, relocalist, democratic vector.
This is a key part of the food movement’s political character. Organic and relocalization are vectors toward true democracy. Any diversion of either, any wanting organic to sit passively and stagnate, letting itself be corporatized, industrialized, even forming alliances with CAFOs and the GMO rackets, is to seek destruction of it. This is one of the basic flaws of the official USDA organic credential. Even if this credential weren’t weak and continually subverted (but it is), in itself it would still relegate the organic practice to the same sterility as processed food in general. One rips whole food from its natural context, dismantles it to its bigger constituent parts (remember “parts is parts”?), then mixes and matches and reassembles them in synthetic combinations. It’s the “food” of no context, natural or human. “The NPK mentality”, as Howard called it (referring to the three main soil nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, each removed from its context and then synthetically glued into combinations with the others) envisions soil and agriculture, and human society itself, as machines. This is scientistic reductionism. Chemistry supplants biology, and the tail wags the dog.
The same goes for the political context. Organic originally had a broad and deep social connotation. The health of the soil is a barometer and direct determinant of the health of society and democracy. As Howard put it, “Artificial manures lead inevitably to artificial nutrition, artificial food, artificial animals and finally to artificial men and women.” To destroy the soil by subjecting it to the endless shock treatment of artificial fertilizer and pesticide to produce endless unevolving generations of zombie monocrops is to destroy the nation, polity, and spirit. Environmental domination always indicates and helps enforce social domination.
Corporatized “organic” agriculture, industrial organic as Pollan calls it, is just another form of this reductionist, synthetic, out of context mentality.
That’s why it’s both unhistorical and philosophically wrong to see organic in a hermetic, instrumental way, as a one-size-fits-all spare part one can plug in anywhere (for example within corporate capitalism), rather than as an implicitly vast, profoundly intertwined social concept, or to see organic food other than within this context.
Meanwhile “industrial organic”, organic production and distribution which is part of commodification and globalization, is a contradiction in terms because it flouts every principle of nature. It’s “holistic” only within the temporary aberration of corporate agriculture dependent on the corporate state and cheap, plentiful fossil fuel. It’s the instrumental holism of an insane and ephemeral context. This is why organic credentialism is insufficient at best, and often a sham. We see where it leads – globalized, corporatized “organic”; “co-existence” with GMOs; predation on workers.
Organic food won’t feed our bodies or our souls unless it expresses the entire organic holism, which means the restoration of food to its rightful, historical, natural and human context. In part two I’ll expand upon this and extend it to other examples.
Part 2 here.