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The Hypothetical Nature of Natural

By: Steve Herman
Posted: June 5, 2009, from the June 2009 issue of GCI Magazine.

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Consider, too, if one can be befuddled by the organic label in the U.S. despite clear guidelines, how much more puzzling can organics be from China or India. The surge in organic materials from China is of particular interest.3 High profile contamination cases involving toys and pet food has damaged the Chinese reputation for product integrity, which clearly overflows into such a conformance-intensive process as organic farming.

To sample the positive side of organic farming in China, National Public Radio offers insight through a story about a farm named Fruit Garden, Fragrant Pig south of Chengdu.4 The farmer, Luo Yu, finds it difficult to make a profit. One third of his crop is eaten by bugs; another third by birds. “Those bugs have the right to stay here. They’re part of the food chain. If we kill them, then there will be no birds on the farm,” Luo says. Luo Yu surely would conform to any standard as an organic supplier, but what about the rest of China. Pesticide use, including DDT, is massive in China—as is pollution. If one small field is farmed organically but surrounded by pollution, contamination is inevitable. There are reports of rubber-stamping certification, certainly possible in a vast and rapidly developing nation. What does a seal mean to a bureaucrat if the fee is paid? Unless obvious contaminants such as pesticides or heavy metals are found, the only distinguishing feature of organic production may just be paperwork.

The amazing increase in organic farmland in China in a very short time is another issue. Traditionally, farmed land in the U.S. must lie fallow for three years before certifiable organic crops are grown. To grow at the pace that China reports, new land must be converted to agriculture. But converting so much land to crops has its own impact. The vast expanse of land bordering Russian Siberia, known as China’s Great Northern Wilderness, is the location of most of the new organic farming. What are the consequences of turning this land into organic farms?

With 1.2 billion mouths to feed, turning old land over to organic production reduces the food supply. Turning new land over to organic farming reduces the natural habitat, much like cutting down trees in the Amazon. Somehow, it is difficult to see how environmentally friendly the process really is.

After all this confusion, it would be nice to take a walk in the woods and clear one’s mind, smelling the fresh pine scent coming off the trees. But you’d be smelling pinene, a terpene that doesn’t readily biodegrade because it’s a hydrocarbon. So, by some standards, it is not “green.” Nor is the chemical on your hand after peeling an orange, the dreaded, but very natural, limonene. Natural or organic, it remains clear that it isn’t easy being green.