Immediately after the New York Times published its expository article “Organic Agriculture May Be Outgrowing its Ideals” (Dec. 30, 2011), blogs, websites, online publications and comment feeds exploded with a flurry of writing denouncing its one-sided claim. The article, written by reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal, focuses on water shortages in the Baja Peninsula, specifically in the southern desert of Los Cabos where more than a third of aquifers in the region have been overwhelmed.
While regulations are in effect to prevent the depletion of water in the region, it is clear water supplies are taxed. “The explosive growth in the commercial cultivation of organic tomatoes here, for example, is putting stress on the water table. In some areas, wells have run dry this year, meaning that small subsistence farmers cannot grow crops,” reads the New York Times' article.
The premise of the piece questions the general value of organics: Does the USDA Organic label falsely connote sustainable values? Is eating local better than eating organic? Can the spirit of organic agriculture actually exist on a large commercial scale?
Del Cabo, one of the largest USDA Organic farms in the area, was targeted by the Times as a massive contributor to water depletion in the region. True, water conservation is a major issue in Baja, but many organic industry leaders insist it was unwarranted for the article to point fingers at Del Cabo.
Here, Del Cabo founder and CEO Larry Jacobs refutes the Times piece, illuminating why organic farms are not to blame for the ecological problems occurring in Baja. Rather, he argues they contribute to an increased awareness for the land. Nevertheless, the issue of organic versus sustainable is both intricate and convoluted.
Larry Jacobs: Quite simply, the population in the Baja Peninsula has been growing exponentially in the last two decades. A simple Google Map satellite search shows the region has exploded with urban development—especially in regard to tourism. Mega-hotels and golf courses not only encourage the influx of workers to manage these resorts (leading to more residential expansion) but they use massive amounts of water in the region.
While current legislation requires new hotels to obtain water from a desalinator, the influx of urban development is the true reason aquifers are threatened. The New York Times article should not have been about organic farming at all: According to the CNA [Comisión Nacional de Agua; the water management agency of Mexico] the urban/tourist sector accounts for 69 percent of the water used in Baja California Sur, as compared with agriculture at 28 percent.
LJ: Supporting local agriculture is wonderful. There is great merit in knowing exactly where you buy your food and contributing to a local economy. But this is an extremely complex issue that was oversimplified in Rosenthal’s article—is it better to eat organic than local?
Firstly, local doesn’t always mean organic. Pesticides, herbicides and irresponsible farming practices may be used in agriculture, despite its location. There are few certifications for local produce, so the term may mean it’s from the same state—potentially hundreds of miles from where it’s bought.
Furthermore, on a large scale local produce simply doesn’t exist in most parts of the world during winter. When a larger farm like Del Cabo has the resources to produce a consistent crop, such as tomatoes, we are able to pack our shipments to the fullest extent, thereby reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions. We always strive for efficiency when transporting products.
It’s a good point—perhaps we should give up tomatoes in the wintertime. But lets extend that argument: Shouldn’t bananas, coffee, chocolate, clothing and electronics be included in this conversation? It’s a multifaceted issue. Just how far away should we buy our products?
LJ: The Times article de-emphasized the benefits of organic agriculture. Not only are synthetic pesticides bypassed, but also organic farming builds and maintains soil fertility. Non-GMO seeds [genetically modified organisms] are prohibited in organic farming.
When Del Cabo first started, we converted traditional canal irrigation—a water wasting practice—to drip irrigation. Sometimes referred to as micro-irrigation, this streamlined system targets the application of water at the base of a plant through plastic tubes. In addition to cutting down the water requirements significantly, improved control of water to the plants makes a better tasting tomato.
LJ: The current label is certainly not perfect. It discourages small farms from obtaining certification because it costs money. We should go back to why USDA Organic was created in the first place. As chemical agriculture was increasing in popularity, organic farmers wanted to maintain the integrity of the word. 'Organic' needed to be defined. At the heart of the certification, the idea was to do something good for the planet, the environment and for us—the consumers.
Organic is good because it sets the bar for farmers, but we should constantly be pushing the boundaries of sustainability. How can we take it to the next level? We need to better understand the whole life system of an environment, and measure our energy, water and material usage. I would love to see a more comprehensive reward system for sustainable farming practices.
Whether these proposals should be worked into the current organic food act or layered over all of our farming practices I don’t know, but I do believe we can sustainably support the 7 billion people on this planet.