There was a time when suggesting that the term organic meant more than carbon-containing was to risk labeling yourself a food faddist. There was a time when newspaper gardening columns patronizingly informed new gardeners that compost was nice for texture but otherwise useless and that manure was a much less efficient source of nutrients than a bag of 5-10-5. From the beginning, Organic Gardening reassured us that those folks were wrong.
Sixty years have changed everything. Now organic is a glamour word. Now the outputs of organic production can be found in supermarkets around the world. Now there are national guidelines for what it means to be organic with every i dotted and t crossed, so industrial-scale farms can follow the letter of the law and be certified.
So have we won? Not really. The "O" word is now academically respectable, but state and federal funding for organic research remains minimal. More alarmingly, given the entry into the industry of some of the largest multinational food companies, organics seems to be becoming what some of us hoped it would be an alternative to—another industrial food system that ships raw materials from wherever on the planet they can be most cheaply grown to factories producing everything from "organic" TV dinners to "organic" soft drinks.
This isn't what we meant. When we said organic, we meant local. We meant healthful. We meant being true to the ecologies of our regions. We meant mutually respectful growers and eaters. We meant social justice and community. Some insist that the modern world has no place for such niceties. Small-scale organic operations, they declare, will inevitably lose out to what has been called the organic-industrial complex. Its output will be delivered to high-volume superstores, where locally grown carrots will be undersold by mass-produced "organic" carrots.
Some of us don't agree that the future of organics lies in economies of scale or long-distance transport of food. We believe it lies in local markets that help sustain vibrant local economies. "Oh, sure," sneer the critics, "but local organic can't feed the world."
Industrial agriculture is not now feeding the world, of course, and shows no promise of doing so. Instead, this high-input model keeps plunging into destitution the very farmers whose production might really help end hunger. Local organic agriculture, moreover, doesn't have to feed the world; it needs only to offer local communities techniques for feeding themselves, an offer it has widely delivered on from Mexico to Kenya. It has delivered, most notably, in Cuba, 90 miles off our southern coast, where small-scale local organic agriculture is feeding a nation.
Cut off from the inputs for "modern" agriculture by the 1989 disintegration of the Soviet Union, Cuba went organic of necessity. Now private and community urban gardens supply more than half of Cuba's vegetables. Could a similar revolution come to pass here, in a nation that "has everything"? Why not? By demonstrating the power of organic methods in our own backyards, by supporting local farmers, and by working steadily to shorten our food chains, we veterans of Organic Gardening's earlier battles can help save the kind of organic we always meant to have.
Educator Joan Dye Gussow, is the author of This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader (Chelsea Green, 2001).
This article was originally published in Organic Gardening, Sep/Oct2002, Vol. 49 Issue 5, p39