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I want to be like Malvina

As I was reading The New York Times discussions on whether organic food is worth the cost, I bumped into many “disbelievers” and skeptics.  Well, most of you probably already know where I stand on this issue; but mind you, that this confidence and certainty did not come out of nowhere.  The credence in me sprouted from years of analyzing the facts and learning about different cultures.  Different cultures, you ask?  Yes, not everyone in the world lives the way people in the U.S. do.  Farming practices differ from country to country based on the political climate, poverty levels, and education.  Let me bring you a few examples which I’m sure will sway you to reconsider and strengthen your view-point on organics to a favorable stance.

1.  Political climate

Have you heard about what happened in Cuba?  Well, after the Soviet Union collapsed, which was supplying Cuba with its fertilizers, pesticides, and agricultural machinery, Cuba was forced to become self-reliant in its agricultural production and she did this by creating “organoponicos” or urban organic farms.  When the collapse happened, 80% of Cuba’s sugarcane trade was lost.  Consequently, in the beginning of 1990’s the land that was used to grow industrial amounts of export crops was switched to domestic food production, and tractors were switched for oxen.  More people moved from the city to this land and began implementing organic farming methods.  They really went all the way:  incorporating crop rotation, implementing composting and soil conservation, and integrating pest management.  Almost overnight, people became experts in techniques like worm composting and biopesticides (which is now one of Cuba’s biggest exports).  Those that stayed in the city established an urban gardening culture.

The way an organoponico works is by allocating an amount of land in an urban area to local gardeners, who get to keep 50% of the profits.  The produce is sold by the people who work in the garden to the people who live nearby.

The system is not perfect – Cuba is still importing 80% of its food, which I think has a lot to do with its lack of machinery.  Cuba’s imports are largely composed of wheat, corn, powdered milk, flour, and soybean oil.  Wheat, for example, requires planting, watering, harvesting (grain separation and winnowing); now imagine doing all that without machinery…  And if you notice, most of Cuba’s food exports are those that provide a high yield and can be harvested at high densities with the right machinery.  My conclusion from this is that with a little imagination, proper machinery, and constrains, Cuba can become self sufficient in a matter of time.

2.  Poverty levels

Poverty is a tricky category.  If you would draw a graph with the levels of income on x-axis and the instances of organic farming on y-axis, the graph would be a total mess with the lines jumping up and down.  This is because poverty levels are at many times correlated with other issues.

For example, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, Luxembourg, has only 3% organic farms out of its total farms.  The demand, however, is rising.  Luxembourg ranks third in the European Union on the amount of euros spent on organic food per person.

Norway, similarly, owns 4.3% organic farms, but the rate has been declining throughout the last few years.  Reasons for the decline include unexpected, frequent, and stricter organic standards changes; requirements of high long-term investments; problems with weed control; difficulty obtaining 100% organic feed; low sale prices; and high employment rate and salaries in off-farm job market.

Rwanda, however, is a developing country where many people live from dollar to dollar each day.  To your surprise, there has been a steady movement towards organic farming recently.  Similarly, rural communities in Haiti are moving toward organic farming which provides prospects for young adults and creates a secure and sustainable source of food.  Humanitarian organizations come to these small villages and train families to farm organically to decrease food shortages and dependence on outside support.

There are many other reasons for the lack of or an abundance of organic farming as it relates to poverty.  For example, wealthy countries might want to import organics rather than give up land that they can better use for other more profitable production; poorer countries might be willing to farm organically if that means more exports to wealthier countries; there are also politics in effect.  Notice the situation that we have here in the U.S:  conventional farming is closely tied to the Republican political party because of its preference for less regulation and more subsidies.  It’s also the mindset of the people; I find that people who are less tied to material things and have a connection with their natural environment tend to be more open and eager to be eco-friendly.

Here are some statistics of the worldwide makeup of organic farming:

Shares of organic agricultural land in the regions 2010

Very disappointing to see that North America is way down on the list…

The countries with the highest shares of organic agricultural land 2010

Falkland Islands, hmm…  I should do a post specifically about this curious place.

The ten countries with the most organic agricultural land 2010

Now this chart is a little misleading since some countries are huge and the size of their organic agricultural land is just a small percentage of the total size of the country.

3.  Education

Education has a lot to do with organic farming.  People who buy organic tend to be more educated than people who choose conventional, causing countries with high average education index to have higher organic farming rate.  The biggest market in Europe can be found in Germany, Denmark and Switzerland which experience the highest per-capita organic food expenditure and are some of the countries with high education index levels.

Also, going back to the examples of organic farming in rural Haiti, many farmers damaged their environment by clearing trees and bushes to plant more produce due to the decreased harvest caused by worsened conditions.  They did this because they lacked the knowledge of the ecosystem and the importance of trees in keeping healthy soil and preventing unsteady ground.  After learning the methods of organic farming, they realized they can work with their environment to cultivate their farmland.  This example is not directly related to preference for organic food but it just shows how someone inexperienced and untrained can have a hard time making informative and beneficial decisions.

Finally, education drives the ability of a person to find out why organics are more beneficial and many schools are promoting organic food initiatives in their communities.

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So, where was I?  Oh yes, skepticism.  Skepticism is a wonderful thing until there are cold stone facts to wipe it away.  My advice (and this is addressed towards some of the debaters from The New York Times article) is before making a final decision on whether you are for or against organics, try to do some research, get the facts, see the root of the issue at hand, and only then when you are as informed as anyone can be, only then make your decision to rebuke or praise something.  Until that point, we are all only fanatics.

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