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The Paradigms and Paradoxes of Organic

Italy - 16 Dec 11 - Carlo Petrini

It’s called the “Puss in Boots” operation, but despite evoking the world of fairytales, unfortunately it is reality. The name refers to the seizure of 2.5 tons of grain, flour and fresh fruit and over 700,000 tons of other food products – all fraudulently marketed as organic. Ten percent of the national market of organic products: an impressive amount of goods.

It is important to highlight that all the involved products are imported, and therefore Italian organic producers have no responsibility whatsoever. In fact, they are direct or indirect victims: on the one hand because they wanted to use those products – in good faith – to feed their animals or to process them; on the other because the reputation of the entire sector is now tainted and compromised in the eyes of the average consumer, who is usually poorly informed and easily influenced by commonplace and urban myths.

What are these urban myths? “Organic products are too expensive and you can never be certain that they are truly organic, as certifications can be fake.” “Organic food is for snobs and for the radical chic.” And also, “How can people who are forced to shop at discount stores afford it?” If we add, “the crisis” and that - in Italy - “where bureaucracy is involved, it’s all a game of corruption,” it becomes clear that Puss in Boots is the last thing we needed.

But if we look carefully into this huge scandal, it may not just be a stroke of bad luck. For one thing, it helps us think more deeply about the meaning of the organic industry - a sector which is continuously and vigorously growing. It’s not really a matter of labels, but of paradigms and paradoxes.

Every time a problem related to organic farming arises, I wonder: when did this madness begin? We have now reached the point where it is necessary to certify as an exception what, really, should be the norm. Farming, rearing animals, transforming nature into food without adding external, chemical and petrol-based inputs should be perfectly normal. It’s those who add chemical fertilizers, pesticides, additives and preservatives who should declare that they are doing so, and who should certify and document their “abnormality”. This is a matter of principle – and not a minor one - but it exposes the sad truth: natural, wholesome food is no longer the norm. In the current global food system the norm is food that has somehow been altered. Food that is considered the result of “conventional” farming, and the use of this term is quite illuminating. Those who want to produce organic food are not “conventional”: they’re weird and belong to a minority, and therefore must be subject to certifications and controls.

AIAB – the Italian Association for Organic Farming – rightly points out a fact that clearly illustrates this reversal of reality, this first big paradox. In Italy there are 47,000 certified organic companies which every year receive 60,000 controls from inspectors, anti fraud squads and what have you. At the same time, there are over 700,000 “conventional” agricultural companies which receive less than 40,000 such controls in a year. Now, these data should reassure us when we buy organic products, as nothing is more strictly controlled. But I also wonder – without making the opposite mistake of demonizing “conventional” producers: doesn’t all this threaten to turn into a persecution against those who produce in harmony with nature, as man had always done before the agro-industrial madness prevailed?

This sort of “ghettoization” of organic products has caused quite a plethora of collateral effects, which may even undermine the very integrity of the concept of “organic”. The need for certification transforms this concept into a mere label deprived of its core values – soil fertility, environmental safeguard of natural systems, and therefore of biodiversity, landscapes and rural communities. Organic products join the consumerist system, where the only criterion is price, as if they were just any merchandise. Organic products cannot cost much less than they do: it takes money for certifications, to work soils with greater care and without chemical shortcuts, it takes more work and commitment, and yields are possibly lower than from doped and excessively exploited soils. But if the only thing that matters is price, all these factors are lost in the background noise, hidden behind a price tag shown at the market or supermarket, where inevitably, the lowest price wins.

Supermarkets. Here’s another interesting paradox. Not long ago, I was in Germany – the European country where the organic sector has the highest turnover. In the fields just outside Berlin, I helped an organic producer harvest. To my amazement, right in front of my eyes, he discarded about 50% of his products because they were not compliant with the aesthetical standards required by large-scale retail trade: a bent carrot, a cabbage with slightly bruised leaves, a turnip that is too small. Fifty percent of perfectly good organic products which usually end up in the composter were used –with the help of the young members of Slow Food Germany – to feed 2,000 people in Berlin for free.

If “organic” is nothing but a label, then the agro-industrial production and distribution system will crush it. That’s when business-driven monocultures begin - and even if organic, monocultures are not that sustainable in terms of biodiversity. Food is wasted just as in “conventional” farming and food becomes a commodity (and what were the products seized by the Puss in Boots operation? Commodities, mere goods, sold in industrial quantities). The noble goal of organic productions, as well as their social and environmental usefulness, is lost.

Members of the organic movement themselves have started making a distinction between those who really believe in it and the “converts”: those who have chosen the organic approach because of the economic benefits, without really sharing the philosophy of a farming method that can change the current “conventional” model. A new environmentally friendly and multifunctional farming system that safeguards our common goods, such as soils, biodiversity, the environment and landscapes is needed.

In other words, if organic farming does not go hand in hand with a short production and distribution chain, direct sales and local economies, its impact is largely reduced and the risk of frauds arises. Let’s remember that local economies allow to contain costs: it’s not by chance that alternative forms of distribution and direct sale in Europe have been strongly supported by the organic movement, achieving great results.

Unfortunately, as soon as the production and distribution scale begins to grow, the risk is to lose sight of the goal. The recent scandal demonstrates it very clearly: over 3,000 tons of food imported from one state to another is not local food; it is not environmentally friendly and multifunctional farming, nor a short distribution chain.

This is why the paradigm is more important than the label. Labels are useful when they don’t lie and explain the production method and its values. From this perspective, the organic sector probably still needs to make some progress, also in terms of certifications. Unfortunately, in a system like the current one, certifications are essential as soon as you move beyond direct sales – which are based on trust. But small-scale producers must be protected.

With the current rules – which are the same applied to medium and large companies – certification is a heavy extra cost for them, a bureaucratic burden that, after 12 hours in the fields, they cannot take care of on their own. It is essential to simplify and streamline procedures, to allow group certifications (for associations and cooperatives of small producers), to introduce Participatory Guarantee certification systems between producers and consumers, without third parties. These systems have already been developed and are producing good results in South America.

In the aftermath of the Puss in Boots scandal, the risk is that we only talk about labels. But we’d rather borrow the words of another character from the world of tales and cartoons. As Jessica Rabbit used to say: the organic sector is not bad, it is sometimes drawn that way by the agro-industrial system and its distribution methods. Maybe we need to change the cartoonist and – as in all things related to food – start over from two beautiful words: local food.

Taken from La Repubblica, December 14 2011


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