Spring 2006

by Spencer Aitel

Copyright 2006 by the author

Following is, verbatim, the keynote speech delivered at MOFGA’s Common Ground Country Fair on Sept. 23, 2005. Aitel is a certified-organic dairy farmer in China, Maine. Opinions expressed in keynote addresses at MOFGA events are those of the speakers and do not necessarily represent the views or policies of the organization.

Spencer Aitel (right) was the farmer-speaker at the 2005 Common Ground Fair. He’s shown here with John Carroll of the University of New Hampshire. Photo: Jean English.

Let’s talk about food. We all think we know a bit about food. My kid sister perched above the floor in a high chair, taking a sizzling slap shot at a spoonful of steaming, strained carrots; she knew about food all right. And so do you: what tastes good and what doesn’t; what’s good for you and what isn’t good for you. For a few minutes, let’s talk about some assumptions we have about food.

Some folks eat a lot of organic food. It’s better for you, tastes better, and it’s probably fresher, especially that best option, local organic food. Keep it up, people; our farm income depends on you making that choice. The choice to spend the money–and it’s big money–on certified organic milk, yogurt, cheese and butter is our livelihood.

And organic food is now available at big and small stores. We’re seeing an amazing and rapid expansion of organic farming.

Chances are, though, you eat quite a lot of what passes for regular food. You know, that shocking pink Newburgh served to you at lunch, or a quick deli sandwich on the go. It’s billed as cheap food, the way America eats. Salty and sweet; plumped up with fat, water and preservatives; flavored with those anything-but-natural flavors. No wonder, then, that our population looks a bit more than chubby, sinks quickly into diabetes, and cancer runs its course in our toxin-laden bodies.

Wait, was that a wise “Not me” I heard? You eat well, do you? Consider what that means: means, the money, cash.

The assumption is that organic farming–arguably about the only farming in these parts that pays a living wage to farmers over the long haul–that farming produces food that is more expensive but that is well worth the extra money. Is organic farming worth it? You pay us to farm the way you think we should farm. Treading more lightly upon the land, treating our livestock with respect and maybe preserving some of the scenic beauty in the communities in which we prefer to live.

We, the affluent, eat very well, but the rest of society, indeed most of the world, eats poorly. Why is it ok for a segregated food system to doom our fellow citizens to hunger or just the malaise of poor nutrition? When those in need ask for bread, good bread, do we tell them, just eat cake?

How about biotechnology? That’s how we’ll feed the world, they say. Sorry guys, but more food is not the answer; either the large-scale industrial farming sector of the industrialized nations or the self-sustaining agricultural diversity of the so-called underdeveloped world can both produce food that is both cheap and plentiful. It’s not powerful biotech tricks that we need. What’s scarce is logical politics, not more food.

By the way, it’s high time we took back the buzzword “biotechnology.” Today’s big, patent-hungry money boys want that word all for themselves. They wrap themselves in the gloss of newness and hog the limelight, prancing in front of the politicos like Radio City Rockettes, high stepping their way to big profits, benefiting from favorable legislation and tax breaks. The real truth is that no farmer is anything but a biotechnician. The domestic plants and animals we use, and we do use them, bear little resemblance to their original genetic sources. Just imagine the skill and daring required to propose we eat that deadly nightshade plant we now call the tomato!

The most common use of the word biotechnology right now is as a sort of code word for that small segment of agriculture based on genetic engineering. In the early and mid-‘90s, when we first became concerned with the direction of GE research, it quickly became apparent that we were fighting a rear guard action. Losing ground in the political arena, facing the bureaucratic bungling of the USDA and FDA, working to influence the agricultural programs of the universities and Cooperative Extension Services, whose paychecks seemed to depend on corporate benefactors, organic activists have lost this battle. Americans are now the subjects of an immense experiment in food safety. We eat GE food, much of Europe does not. Let’s see what happens!

This year the GE establishment celebrated 1 billion—yup, that’s a ‘b’—1 billion acres of GE crops planted. Understand now that GE crops don’t grow better, they actually cost more to raise than regular conventional or even certified-organic crops. They do not help to feed the world any more than other crops. What they actually do is sell brand-name chemical herbicides, which the crop is programmed to resist. Other traits, like BT-toxin-producing corn, are usually bundled with herbicide resistance, each with their own technology fee. These crops repel certain insect invaders while defying the first rule of pest control, which requires changing your method of control, be it mechanical, chemical or cultural, to avoid building up resistance.

The agricultural chemical industry has often been its own worst enemy. The usual route is to rush chemicals and techniques into the market as quickly as regulators will allow, pushing sales heavily until problems surface, then replacing the deteriorating function by doubling up additional chemicals or simply moving on to new products as the next formulation comes out of the labs. It’s interesting to note that current protocols for Monsanto’s Roundup Ready 2 product call for spraying old standby atrazine herbicide before planting. So much for real herbicide reduction.

Try this experiment, if you dare. Test the seed you now use. Take a sample of your corn or soybean seed and test it for herbicide resistant gene contamination. Grow a flat of seedlings from that seed. For less than $10, you can buy a squirt bottle of Roundup weed killer or some other glyphosate weed killer. Spray that flat. Clean seed not contaminated with extraneous pollen will likely all die. Some of us may be surprised with the results!

Perhaps this stuff is old news to most people. Ok then, let’s question our assumptions. Let’s talk about what’s good about genetic engineering. That’s right, what’s good about this technology we’ve been working so hard to block?

The obvious good news here is that our profit-driven seed companies have unintentionally helped to develop a set of techniques which will eventually prove a great help to medical and general scientific progress. The crude transplanting of genes is already being surpassed by superbreeder technology, which speeds the progress of plant breeders without popping in foreign gene sequences. Instead, the plant’s own genome is the source of improved characteristics. Think MS or kidney disease, and ponder the good side of genetic engineering.

Another, more immediate benefit of GE is a bit harder for me to swallow. Genetically engineered BT cotton is, for the time being, resistant to some major insect pests and has been widely adopted the last several years in places like India. The popular adoption of GE seed has reduced the use of some of the more toxic and environmentally persistent pesticides. Most of these are likely cancer-causing agents and are applied by workers unconfined by the more stringent regulations faced here in the United States. Some of these chemicals are available abroad long after our own farmers are forced to discontinue using these products. We did it with DDT and we’re doing it today with many very toxic chemicals. I’m afraid RR and BT seem pretty good by comparison.

In U.S. agriculture, GE is like the ugly big toe of a sleepy giant, sticking out from underneath the covers. Try cutting it off, and you’re likely to irritate that big boy. This great giant of U.S. agriculture is something we organic farmers need. These guys are amazing biotechnicians.

The GE crop revolution is just the latest step in a long path through a chemical and mechanical wonderland developed in the last 50 years. This path has led to a real change in farming sometimes called precision farming. It’s almost unbelievable. Computer-driven field mapping and auto steering have farmers driving spray rigs that shut off individual nozzles on 60-foot booms as they approach waterways, clicking back on after buffer zones end. Eliminating overlap alone cuts spray use dramatically. Combine harvesters map yields on a foot-by-foot basis. Information transferred to the farm database allows next year’s fertility to be properly provided.

The pressure of low commodity prices has driven innovation on a huge scale. No it’s not your granddad’s little farm any more, but granddad’s retired and most of us didn’t choose to shoulder his endless burdens seven days a week. We send the kids off to college, telling them that they shouldn’t have to work as hard as grandpa, so it seems a bit hasty to criticize farmers for adopting modern and cost effective techniques.

Most of what the Western world eats now is grown by these farmers; a very small proportion of our population feeds the masses, and the process seems controlled by a few large corporations. These farmers face the same pressures as I do: high fuel prices; political and social pressures, natural disasters and droughts; the neighbors and other self-appointed critics, often with little or no experience with agriculture or natural systems of any sort. I contend that we as organic farmers have a bit to learn from the conventional agricultural mainstream. We are growing custom food, great food, but most of us are almost hopelessly inefficient and high-cost farmers.

Similarly, the conventional agricultural mainstream needs our help. Chemical fertilizer, produced from natural gas, is a major cost of conventional production. Corn grown without any of that chemical fertilizer is just as profitable and may just be the wave of the future for hard pressed Midwestern farmers.

September’s issue of Farm Journal, a very conventional and well-respected farm trade magazine, is trumpeting a university study that not surprisingly recommends that farmers cut their use of nitrogen fertilizer dramatically. By understanding the soil and not running a strict nutrient-in/yield-out formula for inputs, these farmers are rediscovering the original, pre-chemical farming techniques organic farmers still use to successfully farm—with drastically reduced purchased inputs. Slowly, the trend is toward sustainable agriculture.

Lessons can be learned by both groups if we can rebuild the bridges blocked by stubborn conformists on both sides. Knowledge gained in the science used to explore the genome of plants and to develop engineered varieties helps conventional and organic plant breeders alike. Crops grown sustainably and animals grown without the use of continuous antibiotics or implants of hormones make sense when facing the current state of petroleum-induced political crises, and burgeoning health care costs.

For most of the organic movement, the official version of farm policy, and the politics that produce it, have been of little interest. Slowly, however, the old, guarded attitude of those marginalized farmers and consumers has been replaced by a growing involvement with the process. Maine state government has been dragged into action, both from within, as more state officials and employees have become more aware (interest runs all the way from the governor’s mansion to deep within the department of agriculture), and from outside. MOFGA and other sustainable agriculture activists have become familiar faces at the state house in recent years.

But there’s an awful lot to do, and we’re not getting enough accomplished. Farmland preservation, conveniently left out of the current state bonding package, has become a real problem threatening Maine’s farming future. With both the state Department of Agriculture and the Land for Maine’s Future fund floundering about in search of reasonable goals and direction, the state finds itself spending farmland preservation money on play ground, not real farming ground. Most Maine farmers have a development problem. Development makes poor farming. Suburban traffic and slow tractors pulling farm tools make for real conflict. Most of the organizations in the environmental community, focusing on big-town issues like industrial pollution and toxics, wilderness sprawl and recreational land, have abandoned Maine farmers. Too busy, they say. A rethink of that attitude is long overdue. Perhaps the coming energy crisis will help. Our local farmers can produce food in abundance. Maine has, among other advantages, some of the best grazing land in the country.

Given the chance to succeed, our farmland can support an industry rooted in our own natural resources. An industry that really deserves the type of assistance so joyfully provided to temporary commercial ventures we ply with T.I.F. money and Pine Tree Zone bribery. Those jobs seem to be here today and gone tomorrow, long before the bonds we float will be paid. The current bond issues find no favor with me.

Speaking of slaughtering sacred cows, let’s examine the latest attempt to further solidify the tight grip government maintains on agriculture. I’m talking about the program to institute national animal identification. Under the banner of disease control and public safety, a proposal to track every farm and every farm animal is being instituted through state governments. This is supposed to make easy the tracking and elimination of farm animal disease and public health problems related to farm animals. They want to know where every cow, sheep or goat came from, right down to their mother’s name and number. Sounds like a good idea, till you get to the fine print. It’s not just food animals, it’s all animals. That’s your riding horse, your pet llama, your three Bantam chickens and your pond patrol of three white ducks. Every animal. Don’t forget—they already know about your dog and cat.

Remember, now, that the USDA response to animal disease is still rooted in the test-and-kill-‘em-all model they used in Britain during the recent foot and mouth disease outbreak. Even though vaccines exist and work just fine, the current thinking is still to vaccinate to stop the disease from spreading, and then kill everything you vaccinated to remove all animals that could react to crude exposure tests, as vaccinated animals would. In Argentina they licked the problem without killing the entire population of animals, so why not here? It’s that 10% of beef that’s export-bound. We should not kill the industry to save it, but paranoia seems to still rule the roost at USDA.

The same strange overreaction characterizes the U.S. reaction to BSE or Mad Cow Disease. BSE is not a real major health threat. You are much more likely to be killed by a falling piano than Mad Cow. So why the big deal? It’s exports again. The small market in Western beef shipped abroad makes a good profit for some major packing houses, I suppose.

There might be some good to come out of animal I.D., but the loss of freedom and the real possibility that that knock on the door might be the veterinarian come to kill our herd, 25 years in the making, is not something I can easily tolerate.

How do we change agriculture’s direction? Obviously farmers will go where they find their best monetary reward. But our government twists and modifies farmers’ markets and incomes, distorting choices. Conventional farmers find themselves buying futures and options, playing strange financial games that have no real significant effect on their farming activities other than to increase their overhead and levels of distraction. Agricultural subsidies seem to bloom wildly during presidential election years. Odd, isn’t it?

The current USDA takeover of organic certification had mixed results, at best. Mirroring the larger USDA-instituted attitude of organic ag, the National Organic Program of the USDA is considered to be part of the Marketing Program.

Organic farmers and consumers should know that organic is a system change paid for by profitable marketing. But to make a national program stick, farmers have ended up patronized by a system focused only on marketing, not real change. Inspectors and a whole chain of bureaucrats and regulators fume over tiny details. Worries abound over the contents of our cows’ skin lotions, while little attention is focused on real improvement to whole farm systems. How are those cows doing on pasture, anyway?

There is a real issue facing organic agriculture here. It’s that under this regulatory regime, we may simply be trading in the synthetic chemical use and confinement of livestock farming of conventional agriculture for essentially the same thing but using organic chemicals instead. For example, using organic drugs, not synthetic drugs, is still using drugs on your animals. Is this real progress? It’s important to note that most so-called organic pharmaceuticals and health treatments, while approved for use by the NOP, are completely untested for real effectiveness or safety. Hearsay and anecdotal evidence doesn’t meet USDA or FDA drug testing rules and certainly doesn’t determine value for treatment or safety for the animal or the farmer. The industry needs to stop relying on worn out models and step away from the drug culture to produce healthy food.

I used to think about these issues in terms of winning and losing. The battle to convince farmers was a black and white battlefield. Now, as organic has the guts to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other players in the food fight of international scope, the scene has changed. We can’t be satisfied until we’re all winners.

We can change agricultural policy. But it’s not going to happen as a spectator sport. Put your money where your mouth is. That deli sandwich you grabbed contains lettuce that was sprayed probably 15 times since it was planted. It ought to be different, and a lot less toxic. That local state rep who voted the party line on those bond issues needs to hear from you.

Farmers in Maine are among the leaders in the organic movement, but we can’t succeed without all of us, farmers and consumers, working together to craft a better agriculture. We can do it. You can help.

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