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Sierra Harvest: ’Organic’ is just the beginning

Nevada County Food Policy Council
Photo by Lenkaland Photography

Due to its meteoric rise in popularity, organic food has become more accessible than ever with organic-certified products readily available at even huge retail outlets such as Target, Walmart and Costco. Yet still, less than 6% of the food eaten in the U.S. is organic. “Organic” has become a household word – and a benchmark for a healthy diet – but many people are legitimately concerned that the word will go the same way as “natural”, with many items carrying the label being anything but. While few would argue that any certified organic food (industrial or otherwise) is superior to its non-organic equivalent, to think that all organic food is created equal is objectively false.

The Nevada County Food Policy Council (NCFPC) recently launched its 20% Whole-sum Food by 2025 challenge, with its stated goal, according to council coordinator Miriam Limov, being that “by 2025, at least 20% of the food that Nevada County residents consume will be local, regional, fair trade, ecologically produced and/or humanely raised.” The more combinations of those metrics, the better, with organic and/or biodynamic certified local items being additional desirable metrics for the challenge. Ideally, in the pursuit of the goal, more conversations can be facilitated around the meanings of all these words… and their implications.

According to United Natural Foods (the largest natural foods distributor in the world), per capita consumption of natural and organic foods in Nevada County is one of the highest in the U.S.

Why are Nevada County residents going to the effort to find and sometimes pay more for organic food and why should you? The NCFPC’s has just two main reasons:

  • Our Health: According to Pesticide Action Network, one billion pounds of pesticides are applied in the U.S. each year, the residues of which now show up in 94% of our drinking water and in all of our bodies. By definition, organic farming doesn’t use these synthetic pesticides and herbicides which we are learning are now linked to a range of health impacts, including increased risk of cancer, Parkinson’s disease and neurodevelopmental effects like autism and ADHD.
  • Their Health: While all of us are impacted, the most at risk from harmful agricultural inputs are the farm workers who apply them and our ecological systems. By choosing organic products we are choosing to support the health, long lives and dignity of those who produce our food. We are also choosing to ensure that sensitive wild species of birds, bees, and ocean life continues to thrive. Without bees and other pollinators 90% of our agricultural products wouldn’t even reach our plates.

While modern farming technique centers around the use of synthetic pesticides (herbicides, insecticides and fungicides) on large, mono-cropped farms, modern organic growers of all sizes also use a variety of chemicals to control weeds, fungi and insects. Many organic farms (especially industrial ones) are also mono-cropped, which necessitates the use of many inputs, due to the fact that the natural balance has been disrupted. (To see a complete list of allowed and disallowed substances in organic agriculture, visit: https://www.ecfr.gov ) To be truly sustainable, systems that nurture living soil, utilize polyculture systems, highlight the symbiotic relationships in the ecosystem and mimic nature (biomimicry) are essential. Monoculture farms (organic or not), are by definition unnatural, and thus unsustainable.

Modern agriculture is only beginning to understand the importance of the interrelationships between flora and fauna, both in the macro and microbiomes, those relationships’ contributions to nutritional value, and by default, our health. The health of the land and the health of all of its inhabitants are intrinsically interconnected, and within those connections is where we must focus our attention if we are to have truly whole-sum food. Nowhere are those connections more well understood and nurtured than in Indigenous food systems.

Prior to the advent of industrial agriculture, all food was grown organically. Indigenous peoples have stewarded their symbiotic relationships with the land since time immemorial, and are leading multiple conversations about regenerative agriculture and traditional food ways (including hunting, fishing, foraging and agricultural techniques), where “organic” is only one of countless metrics that indicate whether an agriculture system is truly in balance. Few places have these relationships been more effectively presented than in the recently released film Gather, the 2020 documentary highlighting traditional food systems. Described as “an intimate portrait of a growing movement amongst Indigenous people to reclaim their spiritual and cultural identities through obtaining sovereignty over their ancestral food systems”, the lessons this documentary presents are invaluable in this conversation.

Food production (both through farming and foraging) is inextricably connected to fire, drought, water management, environmental resilience and much more. Living soil, for example, requires much less water to irrigate, contributes to cooler air temperatures, and minimizes the need for chemical inputs — all while controlling erosion, pest infestation and fire danger. Science is only beginning to make these relationships explicit, and the broad implementation of these systems still seems to be in a holding pattern… likely due to the immense power wielded by industrial agriculture lobbies. Thankfully, consumer demand dictates the supply, so education is key. With a populace that understands the interconnectedness of food systems, environmental health and personal health, “organic” will simply be implied.

The Nevada County Food Policy Council and Sierra Harvest are working to develop an Every Bite Counts brand so that residents can know and choose to shop in places with more organic products. To read the full Food Systems assessment, get involved or join the 20% Whole-sum food by 2025 challenge contact https://sierraharvest.org/connect/food-policy-council/ or contact fpc@sierraharvest.org.

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