Organic Ag-tivists Gather at EcoFarm

The 32nd EcoFarm Conference at Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove was an international event.

1700 people attended the three-day conference, which featured 80 presentations and more than a hundred exhibitors.

As I sat at a table with people from Maine, New York and Japan, I realized how lucky I was to have this in my own back yard.

Organic Ag-tivists came from around the globe to swap tips and network with the 1% – of Americans who farm, that is. This was a tight-knit crew of food justice warriors committed to a common cause – bringing people nutritious and fairly produced food.

I realized this is a new breed of farmer, as I watched a man bike by as he talked business on his Bluetooth. Indeed, most EcoFarm Conference attendees looked more like designer hippies than the couple in the American Gothic painting.

Tom Philpott is the food and ag blogger for Mother Jones and contributes to the online environmental news site Grist.

Philpott criticized agriculture companies for false promises of the increased yields from biotechnology and genetic engineering.

“The same line is being used by the agrochemical companies and their legions of kept politicians…. and their drivel about feeding the world. There is no alternative to GMOs and synthetic fertilizers and petrochemical poisons and factory feedlots and monocrops as far as the eye can see – you guys are exposing that lie every day.”

Philpott didn’t spare America’s regulatory regimes either.

“I see lots and lots of obstacles in our path, and one of them that is incredibly dispiriting is the industry capture of our regulatory regimes – institutions like the USDA and FDA and also of Congress and even the Presidency. I spend way too much of my time documenting and studying and analyzing the latest USDA bowdown before the agrochemical chemical industry – the serial deregulation that we’ve seen under Obama in the past year and a half or so of all these GMO crops, really not about GMO crops, really about selling more agrichemicals as we all know.”

GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, use DNA splicing technology to insert desired traits in crops.

GM supporters say the technology promises increased yields and possible salvation for a growing global population with limited natural resources.

Critics say the human health and environmental impacts were never studied before this novel technology was released on the market, and that Americans are basically guinea pigs for this great experiment.

More than 50 countries, including the EU and Japan, have labeling laws or outright bans on GM foods, but the United States has neither. The only way American consumers can be sure they’re not eating GMOs is to buy organic.

Avoiding genetically engineered food is a major reason why organic is the fastest growing sector of American agriculture. However it’s still a niche market, comprising only 5% of US food sales.

The weekend focused on applied skills for low-impact, organic and biodynamic farming practices, with talks like “build your own small, farm based, cheese business” and “the magic of organic integrated pest management” right next to workshops on leveraging social media and guerilla marketing strategies.

The exhibitor’s tent was geared towards small businesses, with a focus on fertilizer amendments and certified organic animal feed -not the all-natural cleaning products and clothes featured at consumer eco conferences I usually attend.

There were also plenty of policy talks, including on the farm bill, and an upcoming initiative to get GMO labeling on the 2012 California ballot. For more information on that, visit labelgmos.org.

Saturday night attendees were treated to an evening of entertainment by Hot Buttered Rum, a five-man bluegrass band that had everyone in full swing.

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At the closing ceremony, Tom Philpott dismantled the popular trope that organic equals elitist.

“The idea is that organic food is really nice for some yuppies sitting in Chez Panisse enjoying a rustic meal of mash and hand picked edible flowers but for everyone else it’s going to mean starvation – Norman Borlaug kept it going in the 80s by saying if you wanna going to switch to organic have to decide which billion people are going to starve.”

Philpott ended by pointing to the evidence:

“One way to combat this – there’s an emerging scientific consensus in the sort of transnational aide and policy groups like the UN – that in fact organic and or low-impact organic-like ag widely distributed not concentrated in California and Nebraska and Brazil – but widely distributed low input organic agriculture is actually the only way to feed the world. There simply aren’t going to be the resources. And actually, the people denying that are just as foolish and absurd and ridiculous as those denying climate change, who say that climate change doesn’t matter, we can keep consuming as we do.”

Visit ecofarm.org for more information about their annual programming.

For MIIS Radio, I’m Jessy Bradish.

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