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Pollution vs. True Free Markets

written by

Sam Fisher

posted on

December 8, 2021

As you know, capitalism has taken a bad rap in recent years. Much of this is due to the examples we see all around of industrial rape of the earth and environment, highlighted by powerful environmentalist groups who point to capitalism as the culprit. That may be true, in part, at least. However, I say it’s not true capitalism when an industry is supported by anything other than by its own profits and doesn’t foot the bill for all of its costs of production. True capitalism, I believe, allows businesses to serve society a product that adds value to its existence while at the same time internalizing its costs the same way profits are internalized.

I became familiar with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. when I was assigned to vet him as a speaker for the local Family Days on the Farm event last summer. In the vetting process I came across a several speeches that resonated with my passion for making the world we live in a better and more beautiful place via responsible eating and farming. 

RFK Jr. (famed for his work in Children’s Health Defense), is less known for his work in environmentalism around the world, but he is a passionate advocate for holding corporate polluters accountable and for free market capitalism, and makes an interesting connection between environmental pollution and free markets.

Agriculture and food production has largely gone astray, in my view, since the advent of chemical herbicides, pesticides, and fossil-derived fertilizers. This straying has been vastly harmful to soil quality around the world, more, has resulted in food and feed that is sadly lacking in vital nutrients. Even the Amish farming community in rural Lancaster and Chester Counties has been drawn along on the conventional chemical hamster wheel called agricultural science. While our culture still primarily farms with horsepower, it hasn’t barred the broad-scale adoption of modern agri-scientific methods that turns out to be little more than lousy stewardship (if not outright rape) of the resources entrusted to us. Having been raised in this setting, I must say, environmental activism or concern, traditionally, was pooh-poohed, and still is for the most part.

So, when RFK Jr. said, “We don’t even consider ourselves as environmentalists anymore, we consider ourselves like free marketeers because we’re going out into the marketplace to catch the cheaters …”  I perked up not because I knew he would talk about pollution and corporate corner-cutting, but due to my wish to see small-scale responsible farming liberated from erroneous regulation that suppresses it. In other word, the "cheater" Big Food corporations who cozy up to regulators in order to amalgamate market access without jumping through the hurdles smaller producers face.

But he had more to say, such as; A true free market promotes efficiency. And efficiency means the elimination of waste, and pollution is waste. A true free market would require us to properly value our natural resources, and it’s the undervaluation of those resources that causes us to use them wastefully. As I continued to listen, I realized that this is exactly where we are in food and farming.

Food production, like many other business sectors overtaken by corporate interests, is atrociously wasteful of its resources—perhaps more wasteful than any other single industry. Here’s how;

1) In conventional agriculture, the soil is regarded as little more than an inert substance to support the plant, resulting in most of the soils of the world—and the foods they produce—being severely mineral deficient compared to a few decades ago.

2) Because of the undervaluation of the soil and the constant diminishing thereof, the plant is artificially “fed” with fossil derived fertilizers and “protected” via fossil derived herbicides and pesticides, all delivered via fossil dependent machines (conventional agriculture is the number one consumer of fossil fuels). This is simply not necessary to produce food, not to mention food produced outside the industrial model is bay and large more nutrient dense.

3) as the food industry amalgamates to fewer players, it becomes increasingly dependent on transportation (think cross-country and trans-continental transport using fossil fuels for conveyance as well as refrigeration, not to mention wear and tear on taxpayer funded infrastructure). Again, and abject waste of precious resources not used in more local food economies.

4) last but not least, as food companies get bigger and fewer, reliance on massive warehousing and longer-term storage results in an atrocious amount of perishable food wasted. Food that never even reached to retailer or consumer. Large purveyors are far less nimble and cannot respond to market demands quickly, resulting in massive lots of food passing the sell by date and ending up wasted in landfills.

In Kennedy’s speech at UC Berkeley in 2016, he made this profound statement; “You show me a polluter, I’ll show you a subsidy. I’ll show you a fat cat using political clout to escape the discipline of the free market and force the public to pay his production cost. That’s what all pollution is. In a true free market, actors of the marketplace ought to pay the cost—the full cost—of bringing their product to market. Which includes the cost of cleaning up after yourself, which is a lesson we were all supposed to have learned in kindergarten. What polluters do is manipulate the political system, so that they don’t have to obey the rules of the market, and they can pass those costs on to the rest of us through pollution—by privatizing the commons.”

While I couldn’t say it any better, allow me to expand on this—especially concerning food and farming. I find it interesting how he connects pollution and subsidies, because conventional farming is heavily subsidized. From direct payments per acre for six leading crops (corn, soy, cotton, canola, rice, and wheat) to crop insurance to the Conservation Reserve Program to Dairy Price Supports, and on and on. Interestingly enough, in this scenario the fat cats and the polluters are not necessarily the same people. Industrial farming is a major polluter of our soil, water and air, due to erosion and the runoff of agricultural chemicals into aquifers and streams. The now New Jersey sized dead zone in the Gulf of Mississippi is directly connected to synthetic nitrogen runoff from farmland in the Mississippi River watershed—which is the second-largest drainage area in North America. Measurable glyphosate in rainwater around the world is undoubtedly linked to the leading agricultural herbicide Roundup getting into the water cycle. Yet, commodity farms are essentially serfs in the agricultural system, and are paid dismal prices for their crops. Which is hardly the image we concoct of fat cats.

However, the corporate buyers of these commodity crops reap the benefits of subsidies in the form of cheap commodities for processed foods and animal feeds, and lobby in Washington every five years to ensure that the maximum number of our tax dollars are allocated to the new Farm Bill. These are multi-national corporations like Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Tyson, and others, who cut corners via the political system in order to garner larger profits for themselves. How was it worded, again? “…manipulate the political system, so that they don’t have to obey the rules of the market, and they can pass those costs on to the rest of us through pollution…” This is not only true of publicly funded cleanup costs of waterways, etc., but also in the form of adulterated and less-than-nutritious food which is a direct contributor to what is now the sickest wealthy nation in the history of the world, the nation known as the United States of America.

He went on to say; “Wherever you see large scale environmental injury, you will see the subversion of democracy, you’ll see the corruption of public officials, you’ll see the capture of the agencies that are supposed to be protecting us from pollution—they become sock puppets for the industries they’re supposed to regulate. You’ll see the erosion of the press—the compromise of the press. The disappearance of local control—of zoning laws or planning laws—and these kinds of local sovereignty is eliminated. And you’ll see the end of transparency. Because pollution is always illegal, and it violates the rules of democracy. It allows these powerful entities to steal and capture our public resources, because they have to be sneaky when they do it.”

How very familiar we are with that! As I’ve said many times now, the county and state regulators who dog small businesses like us typically answer to the [publicly funded] federal agencies like USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) and the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), who, secretly, answer to Big Corporate Food. Big Corporate Food, by the way, is regulated—in theory—by the FDA and USDA. The same could be said about EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and the corporate chemical giants such as Monsanto, Bayer, and the like. 

What Kennedy so eloquently exposes is the fact that certain players in an industry are able to curry favor from politicians and bureaucrats via subsidies, which skews the marketplace unfairly in their favor. And, allows them an unfair advantage in the marketplace while society picks up the tab via tax dollars. Unfortunately, the curse of involuntary taxation is that we inadvertently support activities and industries we dislike but cannot keep our rightfully earned monies from being shifted to them via tax revenue.

Some tend to view clean food as too expensive to buy. But I say it’s actually the most affordable. How so? All the costs are factored in, with none being hidden. Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illness, of crop subsidies, of foreign oil, of all the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap. Small farms, by and large, are not eligible for government subsidy–nor do we want it. Therefore, we bear the true cost of bring our product to market. So, the choice is simple: You can buy honestly priced food that supports local, regenerative, sustainable farming. Or you can buy irresponsibly priced food wrecks the resources of the world and pads the pockets of multi-national giants.

The beauty of true free market capitalism is that we are not forced to buy the product of anyone (if we are it’s not a free market). Maybe the best way to cripple polluters is to boycott their products. Perhaps society shares the blame more than we’re willing to admit. After all, who made McDonalds the fast-food king of the planet if it wasn’t eaters of fast-food? And that’s the View from the Country.   

Quotes Worth Re-Quoting –

“Very simply, we subsidize high-fructose corn syrup in this country, but not carrots. While the surgeon general is raising alarms over the epidemic of obesity, the president is signing farm bills designed to keep the river of cheap corn flowing, guaranteeing that the cheapest calories in the supermarket will continue to be the unhealthiest.”― Michael Pollan

“We’re a nation with an eating disorder, and we know it. The multiple maladies caused by bad eating are taking a dire toll on our health–most tragically for our kids, who are predicted to be this country’s first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. That alone is a stunning enough fact to give us pause. So is a government policy that advises us to eat more fruits and vegetables, while doling out subsidies not to fruit and vegetable farmers, but to commodity crops destined to become soda pop and cheap burgers. The Farm Bill, as of this writing, could aptly be called the Farm Kill, both for its effects on small farmers and for what it does to us, the consumers who are financing it.” Barbara Kingsolver

“The ninety-nine cent price of a fast-food hamburger simply doesn’t take account of that meal’s true cost–to soil, oil, public health, the public purse, etc., costs which are never charged directly to the consumer but, indirectly and invisibly, to the taxpayer (in the form of subsidies), the health care system (in the form of food-borne illnesses and obesity), and the environment (in the form of pollution), not to mention the welfare of the workers in the feedlot and the slaughterhouse and the welfare of the animals themselves.”― Michael Pollan

More from the blog

No Antibiotics!

At Pasture to Fork, we like to point out that we don’t use antibiotics in the production of the foods we raise. Why is this important? Weren’t antibiotics deemed a miracle drug that proved to be a powerful life-saving tool when they first became available? Yes, that is true, and I’ll even go so far as to say they are still a major lifesaver in human medical care eighty years later. However, today we’ll talk about how they have been abused and why it’s crucial that we limit their use to human medicine. The first known antibiotic, dubbed penicillin, was discovered accidentally by a researcher named Alexander Fleming in 1928.  Though discovered in the twenties, it wasn’t widely propagated until the 1940’s when—after saving lives miraculously in instances like the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire—the US government invested in its production to be used on the war front in WWII. It’s hard for us to imagine a world before antibiotics. Everything from paper cuts to childbirth had the potential to kill via bacterial infection. Even minor wounds to soldiers in warfare—upon becoming bacterially infected—were cause for amputations, extreme illness, and death, which is why the government had interests in the mass production of penicillin. Penicillin was quickly followed by other antibiotics such as aureomycin, tetracycline, and the like—and it quickly became a race between pharmaceutical companies in the late 1940’s to develop the next family of antibiotics that could then be patented. The formula for penicillin was proprietary from the beginning—being seen as a product for the greater good of society—but pharmaceutical companies, of course, each wanted their own piece of the pie. In 1948, a researcher named Thomas Jukes, who specialized in animal nutrition working for Lederle Laboratories, discovered (again, by accident) a ground-breaking new twist to antibiotic use. In an effort to find new ways to cut costs for poultry farmers following the sharp decrease in demand post-WWII,  research entailed using laboratory waste used in making antibiotics as a supplement in chicken feed. Having had indications suggesting growth-promoter properties, Jukes performed one of the first controlled research projects on chickens and found the group fed antibiotic waste to be markedly bigger at the end of the 25-day feeding trial, discovering the growth-promoter properties of feeding antibiotics to animals. This discovery opened a whole new frontier for the pharmaceutical industry and a tremendous new market for growth promoters in animal agriculture. It also made for an unprecedented hubristic attitude in the world of animal agriculture, which in turn, led to the confinement animal feeding operation (CAFO’s) of today. But, the chicken had yet to come home to roost (pun intended). In the early years of antibiotics as a growth promoter the common mentality among both manufacturers and farmers was “if a little is good, more is better”, and growth promoter antibiotics were largely unregulated which resulted in heavy use, inexact dosages, and the like. Regulators, being enamored along with the industry, looked the other way and didn’t interfere. For context, let's remember this was the era when the chemical DDT was considered a marvelous and life-changing invention, only to be banned later. Even early on there was concern among a few (only a few) scientists about the prospect of antibiotic resistance. In his 1945 Nobel prize acceptance speech, Alexander Fleming warned that the development of resistance had the potential to ruin the miracle of antibiotics. Resistance is the term used to describe the ability of bacteria to mutate and overcome the proficiency of antibiotics. The thesis is that an application of antibiotics never kills all the bacteria, allowing the survivors to gain genetic resistance not only to that particular antibiotic, but other antibiotics as well. Throughout the sixties and into the early seventies, although there was little warning of antibiotic resistance, already cases of mass bacterial outbreaks occurred where antibiotics proved ineffective, including a 1967 stomach bug in Yorkshire, England where 15 babies and young children died for lack of effective and timely antibiotic treatment caused by resistance. Thus far, little to no effort was put into measuring how quickly resistance is built. Until 1974, when an independent study took place that even today is under published. Participating in the study was the Downing family from Boston, who had ten children and a small farmstead. The researcher in charge of the study, Dr. Stuart Levy, designed it to include six batches of young chickens, half being fed antibiotic-free and half fed growth-promoter antibiotics. The oldest Downing child, Mary—a sophomore in college—cared for the birds, which were housed in the Downing’s barn in separate pens 50 feet apart. A precise chore routine was adopted where the antibiotic-free birds were fed and cared for first, then the flocks fed growth-promoters, after a change of boots and washing of hands. Birds from each flock were swabbed once a week, as well as fecal swabs of each of the Downing family—and a number of neighbors as well—with the objective of learning how quickly antibiotic resistance spread through the flocks, as well as the people participating in the study. The results came quickly. Samples taken at the beginning of the experiment showed very few bacteria in the guts of the chickens, family, or neighbors containing defenses against tetracycline (the drug used in the chicken feed). That was to be expected, given the random roulette of mutation. But within 36 hours, those bacteria multiplied in the antibiotic flock, but the drug-free flocks remained clean for a few weeks longer. Then things changed. First the bacteria in the antibiotic-fed flock became resistant to multiple drugs, including other families of antibiotics like sulfas, streptomycin, etc. Then the multidrug-resistant bacteria appeared in the flocks that never received antibiotics and had no contact with the birds that did. And soon after, the same multidrug-resistance showed up in the Downing’s fecal samples. To the disappointment of his sponsors, Levy had demonstrated what they had hoped to disprove. Even though the feed contained just tiny doses of antibiotics, those doses selected resistant bacteria—which not only flourished in the animal’s systems, but left the animals, moved through the farm’s environment, and entered the systems of other animals and of humans in close proximity (but did not spread to any of the neighbors—which served as the control group). This served to reinforce some of the early scientists concerns that these altered bacteria were an untrackable, unpredictable form of pollution. In her comprehensive book, Big Chicken, Maryn Mckenna (where I learned much of what is written in this article) eloquently relates not only the facts given above, but also tells the story of years and decades of industry and regulator pushback against the idea of restricting farm-use antibiotics—even into the 2000’s. She shares stories of horrible illnesses and epidemic-proportion bacterial outbreaks costing the lives of people who were unknowingly harboring antibiotic resistance being quietly transmitted from farm to food to consumer. Stories even of outbreaks traced backward by epidemiologists from the victims to the farms on which the meat was produced. The resulting reports and database entries, by the way, were then ignored and buried by regulators and industry leaders. In the book, Mckenna does an outstanding job of presenting antibiotic resistance for what it is, a silent threatening contaminant that moves through a largely unaware society, looking for its next victim or victims. Even today, it’s not a subject well-covered by the media, largely due to the pharmaceutical interests in keeping it hush. And this is where we find ourselves today, fifty years later. Although farm and food related antibiotic use has garnered a far more attention in recent times than anytime in history, they are still being widely used in the poultry, pork, and beef industries, both as growth-promoters and as preventative doses to prevent illness on factory farms. Several years ago, some of the major poultry providers—including Perdue—made a PR effort in the direction of “antibiotic-free.” The reason I say a PR (public relations) effort, is because it was driven, at least in part, by an increasing concern among the people regarding human-medical-use antibiotics used in agriculture and the subsequent risk of antibiotic resistance. Borne out of that effort—which was also driven by recognition within the industry that growth-promoter antibiotics were losing their effect—came a family of drugs called “ionophores”, which were not quite the typical antibiotic, were not classified as an antibiotic (conveniently?), but were essentially an industry antidote to traditional antibiotics. However, it allowed the meat industry to advertise their product as “antibiotic-free” without taking the risk of losing production due to the loss of both growth-promoter and preventative antibiotics. Granted, ionophores were not used—at least not as heavily—on humans, but that doesn’t change the farce of “antibiotic-free” in the meat industry. Vaccines have also been adopted in the meat industries as a sort of replacement for sub-therapeutic antibiotics. Modern vaccines—including mRNA technology —has been used increasingly in recent years as a solution to the rising pushback—and loss of effectiveness—against antibiotics used in meat production.   To summarize, the discovery of antibiotics changed life as we know to a degree we cannot imagine, mitigating risk of bacterial infection astonishingly. However, the advent of antibiotics used in animal agriculture quickly threatened the efficacy of human-use antibiotics due to rapid rise of resistance to early antibiotics—and even faster, to other families of antibiotics. From the mid-1940’s into the 2000’s the meat industries, pharmaceutical companies, and even regulators ignored and repressed concerns involving the threat of antibiotic resistance. Despite attempts and posturing of certain players in the meat industries, even today it appears as if the mass-producing meat purveyors are unwilling and/or unable to completely absolve themselves from antibiotics in the production of human food, which only furthers the hazard of superbug infections that are resistant to nearly all common medical-use antibiotics. Until the industry becomes willing to abandon its intense confinement production model, I don’t see the antibiotic story changing. However, the upside to this is that farmers who are willing to adopt a more natural template like the outdoor pasture-based model can completely eschew antibiotics, which is the grassroots future to clean eating for those who know and care about the antibiotic issue. At Pasture to Fork, we are unwavering in our stance against using antibiotics to produce your food, even making "No Antibiotics" one of our stated protocols. While we believe the risk of regularly consuming antibiotics is great enough for adults, it’s even greater for children, and investing in future generations is paramount in our opinion. And that’s The View from the Country. P.S. I highly recommend reading Maryn Mckenna's book, Big Chicken. This article does not do her work justice but is a mere sneak peek.

Can the Food and Farming Crisis be Resolved?

Given the modern worldview that independence of the individual is everything, it’s probably a bit of a shocker when I say I view human independence as an illusion—a mirage in the distance that will always be that—in the distance. Yes, we have an aura of independence given that we have mechanized transportation that’s as easy as getting in and turning the key, we have devices in the palm of our hand that literally give us access to the knowledge of the world in milli-seconds. And that creates an impression of independence in the sense that we can go places, do things, and know things that were impossible for most of human history. But even with these modern technologies, we are dependent on other people. No man is an island. And I’m not even referring to the psychological aspect of human nature that wants to be connected to other people. It’s just an irrefutable fact that humans have always been dependent on each other—community and kin—as well as the surrounding eco-system for survival. But as life became easier due to industrial and technological advancements, many of us are at least a little obsessed with the idea of being our own person apart from others. That in itself may be ok, but I’ve come to agree with Stephen Covey in his The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People where he says: Independence is the paradigm of I—I can do it; I am responsible, I am self-reliant, I can choose. [on the other hand] Interdependence is the paradigm of we—we can do it; we can cooperate; we can combine talents and abilities and create something greater together…. A little later in the same chapter he writes: Life is, by nature, highly interdependent. To try to achieve maximum effectiveness through independence is like trying to play tennis with a golf club—the tool is not suited to the reality. Interdependence is a far more mature, more advanced concept.      Granted, the book Covey wrote is about effectiveness, and that may not be the goal of some people today—although I say it should be. What greater aspiration could we have than to be effective in our lives. Whether it be in our work, with our family, or even in our faith, we should aspire to be effective, which is defined as “adequate to accomplish a purpose, producing the intended or expected result.” Like always, I would like to turn this discussion to the food arena. How does it apply? Number one, due to the industrialization of human food within the last fifty to seventy-five years – not the least of which is the emergence of a food processing industry who brought a great many convenience foods into existence, distributing them to every local grocery and supermarket. Foods that traditionally were sourced directly from local farms and home gardens now come from nameless, faceless entities and conjure a fantasy of not only human independence from the natural elements man has always relied on for sustenance, but also the false resemblance of food security and independence. Modern society forgets that food and farming is inextricably linked, regardless of whether it comes from the supermarket in a plastic package, from the garden in the back yard, or from a local farm. That man would no longer be bound – yes, helplessly dependent – to the natural elements of soil, air, and water is one of the biggest myths of all time. In his writings, Joel Salatin often refers to our interaction with the earth and our dependence on its fruits as our ”ecological umbilical.” At first I thought it to be too strong a term, but I’ve changed my mind. Our dependence on the earth and its natural elements is not unlike the utter reliance of an unborn baby on the continuation of nutrients through the umbilical connection with its mother. In the foreword of Forest Pritchard’s excellent book, Gaining Ground, Joel penned these words; “We cannot escape our responsibilities to, nor our interactions with, soil, air, and water – the basic ingredients in the farmer’s alchemy….. Unlike other vocations that are arguably more or less necessary, farming is basic to human existence. Because it is at the root of civilization, it has the greatest capacity to either heal or hurt humankind’s planetary nest. As co-stewards of this great creation, we all owe future generations the benefit of knowing something about farming, food production, and land care. Few intellectual journeys could be this necessary and far-reaching.” Isn’t that an irrefutable truth? As the farmer population continues to decline – largely due to either age or bankruptcy – it will become more obvious than ever how dependent society is on farming and food production. Agricultural statistics are concerning in terms of farmer age, although it’s a little-known concern in society and is not touched by the mainstream news. One of the most abnormal aspects of modern America is the fact that many regions are literal food deserts, meaning there’s no food being raised in the vicinity. This is true not only in cities and urban areas, but in many rural areas as well. To be sure, rural areas may have farms – even active working farms, but they are usually in the commodity business and are not raising actual food for local sale to the local populace. Whether they have corn, soybeans, wheat, or hay in the fields, it’s a commodity that goes for animal feed. They may have hogs, dairy cows, beef steers, or a barn full of chickens, but there’s no food to be obtained from the farm. In this country by and large, food is acquired from grocery stores or supermarkets, not from farms.  Most farmers today contract with a grain, meat, or dairy processor, and are merely producers of commodities—feudal serfs who dance to a corporate whistle. Major multi-national corporations like Cargill, ADM (Archer Midland Daniels), Tyson, and Purdue purchase the majority of raw materials entering the food production stream. Rural farming communities throughout the United States have dwindled to near ghost towns, and most farm commodities are subsidized with tax revenue to support less-than-sustainable farm income streams, which in turn benefits the corporate buyers of raw farm commodities because they can purchase at cost of production or less.  New census data released by the USDA in February provides reason for concern, again. The number of farms operating in the US and the number of farm acres have both fallen significantly. There were 141,733 fewer farms in 2022 than in 2017. The number of farm acres was reduced by a whopping 20 million acres in the same five-year period. This is very disturbing! Yes, we can shrug our shoulders and say there’s still plenty of food in the supermarket, and that’s true. But that food is increasingly not produced domestically. As a nation we now import 20% of our food. That’s one out of every five bites. If that doesn’t pose a national security concern, I don’t know what does. What’s the solution to this? While it’s a complex problem—particularly on a national scale (I happen to think most large-scale problems are best solved on a local or regional level) I believe number one is to de-corporatize farming and food production. While there are a number of small farms that have effectively exited the corporate commodity system, they are few and far between, and we need many more to make this move. The problem with being in the commodity system is that the corporate aggregators who buy raw farm commodities hold farms and farmers hostage via price. Given that most farmers have little to no control over the price they’re paid for their goods, farming has become the hard-scrabble vocation it is, which then turns the next generation away. Thus we have an unprecedented aging farmer demographic, which means that in the next 15-20 years, over fifty percent of our privately held farmland will change hands not by choice, but by death. Who will take it over? Will they know how to manage it? If this land is not taken over by people who know how to produce food from it, we’ll undoubtedly import even more food from foreign interests. Throughout history, people—individuals—have always teamed up to instigate change. And they still do.  Such as small-scale food producers who take the path of lunatics and are driven to a different system by producing real food for real people within their region. That’s us. But more importantly, change is being instigated by people who are sick (literally) and tired of being victims of Big Food and their unpronounceable ingredients, empty claims, and tasteless pseudo-food, and opt out to find real-time food producing farms in their region. That’s you. This food partnership is the crux of interdependence. Small-scale farms like us cannot be independent, no more than today’s society is independent in food acquisition. To me, the folks who recognize the reality of this opportunity—and leverage it—portray quite well the irrefutable law of interdependent community and become the solution to one of the foremost threats facing us as an independent western nation. As always, the people hold the solution in the form of a food revolution. Let's hope it comes quickly. And that’s the View from the Country.

Do you trust "Certified Organic"?

The birth of organic food is one of humble beginnings and grassroot effort in an attempt to regenerate farmland and provide clean food for those who sought it over sixty years ago. In the mid-1960’s, the moment was ripe for turning back to nature; DDT was in the news, an oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara had blackened California’s coastline, and Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River had caught fire due to chemical pollution. “Ecology” was on everyone’s lips and was closely followed by “organic”. Early on, “organic” carried connotations far exceeding mere chemical-free food production. It implied a disdain and rejection of the war machine (also a hot button issue of the Vietnam era), since the same corporations—Dow, Monsanto—that manufactured pesticides also made napalm and Agent Orange, the herbicides with which the U.S. military was waging war against nature in southeast Asia. This correlation was very real in the minds of the early adopters, which was largely made up of young people who decried the war.  The early efforts at growing food organically was trial and error by scattered amateurs who were poorly connected and had almost no support network. In fact, the USDA was actively hostile to these efforts, viewing it as a critique—which it was—of the industrialized agriculture it promoted. Largely due to these factors, the organic food and farming model stayed relatively small and obscure--compared to the industrialized food sector--in the twenty-five span from the mid-1960's until about 1990. It did, however, grow in a sort of behind-the-scenes manner driven by increasing consumer demand. Because of this burgeoning consumer demand, by 1990 organic agriculture caught the eye of some of the largest food corporations in America—and subsequently—the eye of food governance. A bill, called the Organic Food and Production Act (OFPA), was passed in Congress. Ironically, it instructed the Dept of Agriculture—the same agency who had treated organic agriculture with undisguised contempt—to establish a set of national standards. Even today, many of us in the beyond-organic food world look back on that moment in time and see that move as a grave mistake. Since the early ‘90’s—and even more in the 2000’s, the organic food movement has seen consistent growth, and is lauded by many as the complete answer to corruption and fraught industrialization in the food industry. From a marketing standpoint—as well as from a consumer view, organic was the unalloyed good in a food world gone awry. But what many people don’t know is that the growth was fueled by corporate buy-in (from the largest food corporations in the world who wanted a piece of the pie), who viewed organics through a dollars-and-cents lens rather than the pure-food-and-farming vision the early adopters had. In my view, corporate buy-in is what gave rise to the organic food movement. However, it also caused it to become corrupted. Consequently, the organic food movement—like its cousin Industrialized Food—has become riddled with fraud and deceit. In an effort to maintain purity and consumer trust, the National Organic Program (NOP), which was the result of the USDA's "national standards", set up a third-party review board that allows or disallows materials (products used in both production and processing) into the NOP. This review board is called the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI). Over the course of the past 20-30 years, as more large-scale growers seek entrance into the organic marketplace, OMRI has been pressured—and I suspect bribed and bought—into allowing more and more questionable materials into the NOP. As a result, a number of “organic version” pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides (cides=“death“ in Latin) are now allowed in the organic program that would certainly have been shunned by the early pioneers. But they are a necessary ingredient to the industrialization of organics. Similarly, certifiers are localized third-party groups, with usually several in each state, although they are allowed to certify in other states as well. For example, here in PA one of the certifiers is PCO (Pennsylvania Certified Organic), who is known to adhere to stricter rules and regulations than some certifiers. For this reason, some organic farmers choose to certify with the less rigid certifiers (which is always the result of a pass/fail system). You see where this is going, as organic became mainstream and therefore, mass-produced, it becomes increasingly similar to its conventional counterpart in that it's a race to the bottom in terms of quality. The only difference being that little green “USDA Organic” logo to buoy consumer confidence. Perhaps one of the most glaring cases of fraud in the organic sector involves imported grain. In most areas the world over where organic agriculture is practiced, there’s a deficit of organic grains. For example, here in the US we only grow 20% of the organic grains we use, and import 80%. To make up this deficit, the “Stan” countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, etc.) of central Asia have stepped in to fill the void. The grain from this region is largely exported through the port in Istanbul, Turkey. In March 2018, a shipment of “organic” grain from these countries was found to be fraudulent and 25,000 metric tons of corn was refused entry into the U.S. Although the NOP issued a memo four months later (in July 2018) to organic certifiers to be wary of these high-risk countries for grain fraud, no more action was taken to limit imports from the "Stan" region. There’s evidence of domestic fraud as well, as one can well expect given the significant price hike from conventional to organic. In 2019, an Iowa commodities broker, Randy Constant, admitted to more than $142 million in “organic” grain sales, the vast majority of which were fraudulent. During the years of 2010 to 2017, he sold over 11 million bushels of grain with more than 90% of it falsely marketed as organic, some of which included grain grown from genetically modified (GMO) seed, which is banned by the NOP. While there has been some action taken to bring the perpetrators of these fraud schemes to justice—especially here in the states, much of it has been slow and complicated, with almost a sense a reluctance from the NOP. Which begs the question; “How much “organic” grain has been both imported and sold domestically since the above cases have been uncovered?” And that of; “How many crops are entering the organic food and feed sector daily that are not truly organic?” Given the fraud that’s has taken place, not to mention the host of questionable material “cides” allowed in the organic sector, the “certified organic” food movement is something of a house of cards in terms of consumer confidence. I purposely say the “certified organic” movement because I believe the original vision for food and farming that’s natural and chemical-free is still alive among many farmers and eaters alike. Truly organic food (even more if it's beyond organic) in the marketplace is still the most viable alternative to mainstream food, which is to say the alternative to GMO’s, glyphosate (a known carcinogen), synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics, growth hormones, and the like. But “certified organic” has become a mere shadow of what it was meant to be and may be the most misleading label out there today, given the fraudulent activity found in many corners of the program. Some of the early pioneers in the organic movement suggested that the organic food chain couldn’t expand into America’s supermarket and fast-food outlets without sacrificing its ideals, and it appears they were right. The industrialization of organics has sparked a dramatic shift away from the founder's vision for small locally oriented farms producing high-quality food to what is now a subset of Big Industrialized Food procuring pseudo-organic food on a large-scale globally oriented business model. When organic food appeared in big-box stores, it became just another label designed to bolster the confidence of eaters who were distanced from the producers of their food. As always, distance obscures transparency and accountability. With transparency and accountability missing, deception is easy—because regulators are easily bought and sold on the corporate level. And then, it’s only a matter of time before consumers see through the illusion and trust is lost. The good news is there’s a rising revolution of farms and food producers who are serving the “brightest and best” in the consuming populace with “beyond organic” vegetables, meat, and dairy products. It’s a revolution of sorts that includes small-scale direct-to-eater farms and clusters of concerned, educated consumers. Bypassing the need for organic certification with direct consumer relationships, this growing know-your-farmer know-your-food movement is the future to trust and transparency in the food supply. At Pasture to Fork, we place little to no emphasis on organic certification, mostly because all our production models far exceed of the requirements of the NOP. We do, however, emphasize producer/consumer relationship, localized foodscapes, full transparency, and optimal food quality and nutrition. What’s more, we believe truly organic food production is more about the producer’s beliefs, thoughts, and worldview than it is about a pass/fail certification process that can be fudged on or a set of rules that can be bent. Which is to say you can learn more about me by seeing my reading material (which indicates my interests and worldview) than having me fill out a bunch of certification forms. And that’s the View from the Country. This image depicts the books that have had the most impact on my views in farming and food production, health, and business, but not only that, on my life and worldview overall.