"Today in Canada all our food, be it organic or conventionally grown, travels an average of 2500 km to reach our plates." - Derek Masselink
With the recent dramatic increases in fuel prices, this article is especially relevant. It adds to the purpose of this site in making local food more accessible to people of the South Cariboo and beyond. We appreciate Derek's willingness to allow us to use this article at no charge and encourage you to contact him via Masselink Environmental Design.
PROXIMITY & PETROLEUM
Beyond organics: even the most chemical-free strawberry doesn't do the environment any good if it is trucked 2500 km from farm to marketBY DEREK MASSELINK
Last year my family and I took the great leap, and left the concrete jungle of Vancouver for the rural paradise of BC's Gulf Islands. We settled on my parent's property, a portion of a run-down, stony farm better suited for recreation than food production. Our ambition is to establish a small ecologically managed farm.
Because we've been very up front about our intentions we've had a number inquiries "By ecological do you mean organic?" To this we respond, "Well kinda. . . " While we use many organic techniques our goal is to develop a farm and garden system that goes well beyond organic. Greeted by questioning looks we further explain that in our estimation, organic practices do not go far enough.
For starters, we are bothered by the lack of attention that the organic movement has given to issues such as the protection of crop biodiversity, the consideration of adjacent or on-farm natural environments, the support for local, rural economies and the use of non-renewable resources such as fossil fuel. In addition, the cost of becoming certified is prohibitively expensive for folks like us. Of these, our primary complaint with the organic movement is its failure to address the continued use and reliance on fossil fuels.
Most Western farm systems rely heavily on cheap fossil fuel to cultivate, processes, store, package and get crops to market. While organic producers use almost half the energy that conventional producers use for cultivation (through the elimination of artificial fertilizers and pesticides) most rely on fossil fuel powered mechanical cultivation and harvest methods. Canadian organic producers supply approximately 30 per cent of the domestic market so large quantities of organic food are imported from south of the border, eliminating any energy savings provided by organic cultivation and management.
Standardized certification and labelling strategies which provide accountability and boost consumer confidence only improve 'transportability' and consequently greatly elevate the potential energy cost associated with organic food.
Today in Canada all our food, be it organic or conventionally grown, travels an average of 2500 km to reach our plates. More energy is used getting it from the farm gate into our mouths than was invested during its cultivation. What's more, we expend at least ten times more energy cultivating, processing and moving food than it provides us. Agriculture today does not make any sense energetically and it only works because we are supplementing it with cheap fossil energy. This situation has prompted some critics to suggest that in effect we are eating oil.
Given the negative side affects associated with fossil fuel use - global warming and airborne pollution - the organic movement should offer real direction and incentives that help wean its membership off oil and on to more sustainable food practices.
One way that it could do this is by adopting a 'proximity principle' within their certification protocols. Such a principle would encourage producers to locate organic production as close as possible to the consumer thereby reducing transportation costs.
Unfortunately, this simple energy saving proposal has yet to be adopted.
One would think that there would be some interest in reducing or even eliminating the use of a known pollutant such as fossil fuel by those in the organic movement given the highly effective (some might say idealistic, rigid and over regulated) stance it has taken on soil, plant and animal health. This lack of leadership has prompted a number of long-term organic practitioners to call for a new movement that goes "beyond organic" - a movement that is local, sustainable and organic.
Over the past 30 years the organic movement has made impressive, laudable achievements in the area of sustainable agriculture. Many key ecological agricultural innovations have been pioneered by organic producers driven by health-focused organic protocols and by a fundamental commitment to improving the health of the planet. If the organic movement is truly interested in maintaining a leadership position in the area of sustainable agriculture and still believes that it can make the world a healthier place it needs to stop avoiding the issue of energy use. With predictions of an energy crisis looming large this would be better done sooner than later.
© Derek Masselink, P. Ag., former Coordinator of the University of British Columbia Farm and Principle of Masselink Environmental Design, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
REPRINTED FROM SMALL FARM CANADA - FALL 2004 VOL. I ISSUE 3
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