Thursday, January 31, 2002
At the 22nd Annual Ecological Farming Conference at Asilomar last week, the three indicators of white hippie culture--fleece, hiking boots and dreadlocks--were well in evidence. And so were cultures new to the organics industry. Several attendees barked into cell phones as they strode smartly between sessions. Three workshops were offered in Spanish. More telling still, the choice of sessions reflected a new reality--one in which marketing savvy is crucial and organics is a starting point, not an ending point, for ecologically friendly farming.
One such workshop came early in the conference, which drew participants from all around the country. On Thursday morning, Dan Kent, a boyish-looking Oregonian in a dapper denim shirt and tie, stood before a sleepy assembly of mostly middle-aged farmers talking about the difficulties of launching the Salmon-Safe eco label.
Unlike the organic standard, an "eco label" restricts not just what substances farmers may use on crops, but what techniques they may use. Salmon-Safe''s goal is to keep waterways healthy enough to sustain salmon, so Portland-area farmers who want to be Salmon-Safe certified must conserve water and control erosion, in addition to using few or no chemical fertilizers. In exchange, their produce gets the Salmon-Safe sticker and can command a higher price from an environmentally-conscious public.
"We could have called it River-Safe. We could have called it Fish-Friendly," Kent told his audience, "but salmon are such an icon. I would encourage you to think about a message that goes beyond sustainability and find something to capture the public''s emotion."
Something like an otter, which alertly regards the consumer from the "Fields to Ocean" logo. Though these stickers--awarded by the Farmers'' Clean Water Initative--aren''t yet found on produce in Central Coast supermarkets, they will be one day. The program, which is brand new and has 10 participating farmers (most of whom are in the Pajaro River watershed), aims to keep waterways leading into Monterey Bay clean of sediment and chemicals.
Fields to Ocean has the added benefit of "branding" a region, much like European wine appellations do.
Also new this year were sessions on how and why to create "wild farms" that are friendly to birds, insects and other wildlife. The concept is compatible with the philosophy that spawned organic farming, but organic regulations say nothing about maintaining ecological balance on a farm.
Attendees were invited to take a day-long tour of farms that maintain riparian habitat and hedgerows of native plants within and around the crop rows. Says Reggie Knox, program director of the Community Alliance with Family Farms: "We''re starting to document the benefits of flowering plants alongside crops that can bring in beneficial insects. And it''s good for water quality--it helps with erosion."
Finally, the conference addressed the threat posed by genetically modified organisms (GMO''s). Coming on the heels of news that much of Mexico''s native corn has been genetically contaminated by bioengineered genes, a speech delivered by Andrew Kimbrell was more sobering than it might otherwise have been.
Kimbrell, who directs the Center for Food Safety in Washington, DC, explained in excruciating detail exactly how a tomato is forced to accept a gene from a flounder (so chosen for its ability to withstand cold, GMO tomatoes will be able to withstand long cold-storage). The process involves the introduction of a bacterium into the tomato to carry the flounder gene; a virus to make sure the tomato cell accepts it; and antibiotics to serve as "markers."
The process is not just creepy. Kimbrell noted that it''s dangerous. The invading bacterium--the engineers always use the same one--is a human allergen. The "promoting" virus is typically one of the coliform complex, the use of which the British Physicians'' Association sought to ban worldwide because it''s so dangerous to humans. And the antibiotics breed resistance into the tomato, which could then be transfered to those who eat it.
Case in point: Kimbrell explained that genetically modified corn often does not kill the insects it was engineered to eradicate; its "pesticide gene" is not potent enough. "So you''re vaccinating the bug," he said. "You''re creating pesticide resistance in your pests."
And yet, Kimbrell maintained, it''s not too late to save most crops from genetic engineering: wheat, rice, most fruits and vegetables. "This is an opportunity," he said. "It''s time to act now."