Friday, January 24, 2014

Thinking about organic wine, a little more

Chapter 2.

Thinking about organic wine (in chapters)

What DDT could do, safely, to mosquitoes in tropical Africa, other pesticides do to fungi and nematodes in California's wine country. Safely -- perfectly safely? I don't know. But notice this. No high Namibian or Gabonese official will ever be able to ban 1,3-Dichloropropene for our fields and vineyards as EPA director William Ruckleshaus was able to ban DDT on behalf of all Africa and indeed all the world. Go green as an individual if you like, but as a society we'll take our own risks.

The second plausibility problem with organic food, the whole "health of the planet" thing, is also a problem which fantasy solves. Organicism's Herculean style in the fields, necessary to give us the clean, unbuggy produce we think is normal, actually seems to be worse for our Fragile Home than what is grimly called "monoculture." Both people who admire the practice and those who don't agree: the organic farmer must actually stake out more land and use more fertilizers, water, and labor, exemplified in hand weeding and mulching, for example, than conventional farmers do. The organic farm, pre-industrial for a purpose, has got to spread itself out so that the carrot, D. carota var. sativa, has a chance for a remotely worthwhile yield in the face of all those rules governing "companion plantings" and not harming hungry pests. This is why organic produce is nobly expensive.

To be fair, there are a few scientific papers and research studies advising that organic farming is not that much more inefficient than conventional farming; but this seems to be the best that can be said of it, and the statement still leaves unanswered questions. A year and a half ago the website Hodgeslab, maintained by a biochemist and Ph.D candidate at Berkeley, cited two studies on the matter, a Science article from 2002 and a Cornell University study from 2005. The one averred that organic farming is "80% as efficient" in terms of yield per acre, the other that yields of the two types are "identical" and that energy and water use is actually reduced, and soil quality improved, under an organic regimen. ("This has implications for global warming" -- yes, perhaps, especially if we consider how much energy the organic farm's ballooned labor force will use to get to work, and how much water they'll drink at work, and shower with after work.) Interestingly, the most encouraging of the two reports nevertheless admits that a Gaia-friendly husbandry is useless for cash crops. "Cultural practices" and the need for intensive labor mean the willfully pre-industrial farm is never going to feed post-industrial demographics. It is also not a promising choice for crops plagued by more pests than the studied cereals are: among which, first on the list is grapes.  

Whom to believe? Perhaps looking at the organic farm from another angle would help give us useful information. An article about forestry at National Atlas tells us that, of the "nearly" one billion acres of forests covering America when Europeans arrived, we as a nation have cleared, mostly for agriculture, a whopping -- 300 million acres. That two-thirds of what was forest remains so, or has been returned to second growth, while our all too well-fed population has exploded like a 3 liter box of organic wine would seem to prove, absent scholarly studies, what efficiency really looks like. Something to think about, the next time you enjoy an afternoon in a suburban forest preserve. Why is the terrain so flat? Why are there bricks laid out seemingly to no purpose here and there in the dirt trails, and why are there weird, neglected cement structures half buried among the trees? Maybe it was an onion or spinach farm, as our own local woods were, and is no longer needed as such.

I don't doubt that an individual organic farm produces good food. I don't doubt your backyard garden does the same, without your spreading chemicals on it. "Organic farmers do what you would do," Hodgeslab tells us. They start vegetables from seed in greenhouses for example, and grow them until they are strong enough to be planted out, and to out-muscle weeds on their own. Yes, this is what we would do but are no longer obliged to do, because modern industrial farming has freed us all from the need literally to sustain ourselves. We are freed to do other things with life -- itself a type of efficiency -- and we accept what economists call the trade-off of having to wash fruits and vegetables which, granted, may carry a trace of an herbicide or pesticide whose terrors environmentalists have tended to lie about anyway.

The carrot remains the same, and the crux of the matter, the agenda, remains make-believe. Fantasy and, frankly, buzz words can quell doubts about health-of-the-planet issues just as they can about personal safety and pesticide issues. The words always sound so wholesome, so inarguable. The entire environmentalist project is proudly summed up in the simple, good word green. Or consider "sustainable farming" and "reducing carbon footprints." Think it over. The first is a tautology, surely. Mankind learned how to farm some ten thousand years ago. In what sense is it not sustainable? The only people for whom it might not be sustainable would be organic farmers, who hobble themselves with an acting-out of risky, pre-modern practices that American agriculture especially triumphed over, quite some time ago.

And as for the second, well. To take that seriously, you first must swallow hard, shut your eyes, and forget all you've learned lately -- since the publication of organic farming university studies in 2005, certainly -- about scientist-activists like Michael Mann and Phil Jones, ensconced in universities, throwing out inconvenient data negating that joy of their lives and that point of their careers and fame, "global warming." If it seems preposterous that good-souled greens would ever lie about matters so serious, allow me to remind you of the passions of Mr. Ruckleshaus.

Where does wine come into this? (You might think we had forgotten the exploding Brand X organic boxed wine with which we began our story. Not at all.) If organic wine makes the customer happy and gives an added fillip to sales for a while, fine. I simply think it's important to recognize make-believe where we see it, because make-believe is not in all ways harmless. We are dealing here not merely with food and drink and consumer buying patterns, but with a social movement that gives sheltered Westerners an intoxicating new sense of spiritual discipline -- beware, Africa -- but also doesn't take questions well and has long had cruel friends in awfully high places. And that has an unpleasing, and little noticed, attachment to violence.

Artwork by Clara Yos

Thinking about organic wine -- conclusion

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