Is ‘Large-Scale Organic’ An Oxymoron?

The Sacramento Bee
reported news last week that caught my attention (and raised my ire): f
up to seven years, many large-scale organic farming operations used an approved
fertilizer on their organic crop land that was effective and inexpensive. A
state investigation caught the product’s manufacturer spiking it with ammonium
sulfate, however, a synthetic fertilizer banned by organic regulations. As a
result, some of
2006 harvest of organic fruits, nuts and vegetables wasn't really organic, and
that may just be the tip of the iceberg.

Synthetic fertilizers are disallowed by regulators because they
decrease natural soil fertility and can significantly pollute waterways. They
are produced using an enormous amount of fossil-fuel energy – not a ‘natural’
source like fish by-products. No farms lost their organic certification since
they didn’t know they were using the chemical. Consumers, however, were duped. And
a new concern was raised about large-scale organic farms.

Is this case simply an example of a dishonest business practice or the
result of other forces as well? Farmers favor liquid fertilizers for cool
weather crops like strawberries, salad greens and cabbages, but usage is
widespread because the demand for unblemished fresh produce continues apace. Mid-sized
and large-scale farmers face a lot of pressure to deliver robust harvests at
competitive costs for a growing market of organic label-conscious consumers.
Once a luxury for two months a year, plump red strawberries now appear on
catering plates and breakfast bars every day, courtesy of big farms.

Modern agriculture's huge, chemical-dependent fields have largely replaced
the small diversified farms fertilized with biological additives such as compost,
manure and cover crops. As a result, the term “large-scale organic farming
operations” may actually be nonsensical. Can a large-scale farming be truly
organic? Can a non-diversified farm actually practice good land and water
stewardship? While this report is disturbing, I’m reminded why Bon Appétit’s
Farm to Fork program emphasizes “small-scale,” “owner-operated” and
“diversified” farms and generally ignores labels in favor of relationships with
food producers.

– Helene S. York, Director, Bon
Appétit Management Company Foundation