Quality Food Quality Life

Spring 2003
Eliot Coleman. English photo.

By Jean English

Members of MOFGA were treated to talks by two thoughtful and entertaining organic “stars” at the Farmer to Farmer Conference in November 2002: grower Eliot Coleman from Harborside, Maine, and Hardy Vogtman, Deputy Minister for the Environment for Germany. Coleman began by defining organic agriculture as “a system of agriculture which pays maximum attention to the effects of agricultural practices on the nutritional quality of the crops produced and the well being of the environment in which it takes place.”

Challenging Industry-Sponsored Non-Science

He then related his experience on a National Public Radio show on the day that the federal organic certification standards took effect. One of the other guests was from the Council for Science and Health. “Whenever you see ‘Council’ in a name,” said Coleman at Farmer to Farmer, “you know it’s funded by industry.” This scientist began by telling how many scientists were on the Council, “then went into this rant which these people have learned to do: Use misinformation and use it over and over again.” The “scientist” said that no proof exists to show that organic foods are better than conventional or that the human body can differentiate nutrients derived from organic versus conventional foods. “Why are we certifying it?” he asked.

These people, said Coleman, have learned that “if you say it enough times, the average person who is not questioning is going to believe you.” Coleman told the radio host, “If you’re going to have people like that on your show, you can’t let them rant like that without saying, ‘Wait a minute. Study done by whom? Where? Paid for by whom?’ Because if he is purporting to be a scientist and is using nonscientific statements like that to supposedly make his point, he’s being the exact opposite of a scientist. This is non-science. If that has a similar ring to ‘nonsense,’ it is just as I intend.

“If I were to use his techniques,” Coleman continued, “I could say just as easily that there is no proof that organic is not more nutritious than conventional, because basically no one has ever investigated this.”

Coleman said that he once asked the dean of the department of nutrition at a major U.S. university if she could get her students to do a bibliography on why fresh food is more nutritious than week-old food, to help Coleman defend local agriculture against “California agriculture.” The dean said yes, but then no. “I think she realized she was dean of nutrition at a major American university. She said, ‘I don’t think it’s in the interest of the people who fund research to find that out.’

“So when science comes up,” Coleman concluded, “you have to be pretty careful about it,” even if you’re a scientist. He related the story of Dr. Arpad Pusztai, the British scientist who found that genetically engineered (GE) potatoes harmed lab animals – and then lost his job for saying so. (Coleman recommended an article about this on the website of the Institute of Science and Society, I-SIS.org.uk/ arpad.php.) Likewise, for the first time, the journal Nature retracted, after publication, part of a study about GE corn contaminating corn in its native site in Mexico, even though a later study corroborated the original, because “all the industry scientists jumped up and down … There is an unholy alliance out there between supposed scientists and the financial interests. They have become the spokespeople for the industries that are not our favorite industries.”

Coleman told a similar story about deans from MIT, Tufts and Michigan State telling him, in the ’70s, that produce from the same variety of seed planted in different soils will have the same nutrients in it upon harvest. When he challenged them, asking why some pastures in Australia produce grasses with insufficient molybdenum or excess selenium, they said, “That’s a totally different thing.” Coleman gave them studies refuting their point of view, and one of the scientists “never spoke to me again.

“There is a difference” in quality of organic versus conventional crops, Coleman told participants at Farmer to Farmer. Denying the difference “is a myth that was put out there, starting in the early days of organic, to prove that our food isn’t better.”

He cited “what scientists refer to as ‘anecdotal evidence’” and what Coleman gets from growers who are “out there doing it every day, paying attention to it, focused on it, knowing. In other words, every one of us, what we do, is totally discounted by scientists … because it is not done in a lab with statistics.”

Evidence of Nutritional Differences

Some scientists are coming around. Coleman found an article on the USDA Agricultural Research Service website called “Toward a Greener Revolution: Creating More Healthful Food Systems,” which said that for centuries, the success of agriculture was measured by the number of bushels harvested per acre. However, countries are now producing “agronomically successful crops [high yields] that fail to provide adequate nutrients to meet essential health and nutritional needs.” Researchers use the phrases “hidden hunger” and “biomass dilution” to describe plants that have such low concentrations of certain nutrients that they do not adequately nourish the people who eat them.

Ask tobacco growers, Coleman continued, if they use potassium chloride fertilizer on their crop. “They absolutely do not, because it produces a change in the burn.” Likewise, if barley receives too much nitrogen fertilizer, it doesn’t malt well because of an imbalance in its carbohydrate ratio.

These examples establish “the fact that there can be a difference between the nutritional status of plants by adding fertilizer,” said Coleman. “Cotton growers know very well that you can change the crimp (quality and desirability) of cotton depending on how you fertilize it.

“If evidence exists that there are differences based on cultural practices, then [organic people] can say” that the difference is established. “Then we can move on from there … and feel fairly secure [about] our experiential evidence that we have seen with our own livestock or just with the people who buy our food.”

Chefs, added Coleman, are “the people who are most excited about organic food,” and this excitement benefits growers, because chefs “have the most connections with getting the ideas across.” He noted the U.S. group The Chefs’ Collaborative, consisting of the top chefs in the country who are pushing the idea of eating local, organic foods – because they taste so good. “They’re not environmentalists,” said Coleman. “They’re foodies, interested in taste. I’ve worked with these people. These people have magnificant taste buds; [they] can distinguish between basils that I can’t.” When these chefs want to buy organic, that’s another nonscientific anecdote that “yes, there’s something going on. These people specialize in taste and flavor, and their tastebuds are telling them that if they want to be serving the best tasting foods to their customers, they want to get it from an organic grower, because that’s where the best tasting food is being produced. The quality of the food that we are putting out when we do our job right is on a higher level, and I think it’s on a significantly higher level.”

Quality Soil Yields Quality Food Yields Well-Being

How is that quality achieved? Coleman related the story of his own soil. “When I arrived there in 1968, all the land I’m now farming was growing mainly spruce and fir. It was a soil that was ideally suited for spruce and fir, because they had won the battle for dominance on that land. There were no hickories or rock maples or trees that required different conditions.

“So my job as a farmer was to try to make that land as ideally suited for the vegetables I wanted to grow as it was for the spruce and fir trees when I took it over. First I had to raise the pH. Then I found that just raising the pH wasn’t adequate on a sandy, acid podzol like mine. I needed calcium in there in a different form. I’m probably one of the few sandy land farmers who uses gypsum. I found that there was actually a benefit in that in getting more effective calcium in there.”

He scavenged for organic matter everywhere – mowing hay, composting and tilling it in, collecting seaweed and clean shellfish waste, growing green manures and letting them get brown before turning them in so that they lasted longer. “I was focusing on all the minerals that the crops could want,” he said. “If you are eating most of your food from your own farm, it is the nutritional quality of the soil on that farm for that food that is determining your well-being.”

Some say that we should get food from all over the country, so that if we live where an element is missing from the soil, we won’t miss it in our diets. World War I draft rejections highlighted those missing elements. “All rejections in Maine had to do with calcium and phosphorus missing in soils,” said Coleman, “in other words, teeth and bones.”

Rather than relying on week-old or older food trucked into Maine, Coleman is trying to make sure that his farm and his customers get every nutrient they need. “If there is one secret to that,” he said, “it is to make good compost and make it from good ingredients.” Sandy, acid soils such as his may be low in phosphorus and selenium and other nutrients, he said, so “I would do everything in my power to find trace element sources that would make that up. That’s what I do, that’s what I believe, and I believe that there is a difference, and that the quality of food makes an enormous difference on the quality of the lives of the people who eat it.”

Hardy Vogtman. English photo.

A German Perspective

Hardy Vogtman said that the Farmer to Farmer Conference was an anniversary for him, since he first spoke at a MOFGA conference 25 years ago. Vogtman has been working in organic agriculture since 1967. He studied at the Swiss Institute of Technology, then worked at the University of Alberta in Canada for a number of years. When he returned to Europe, he started the Swiss National Institute of Organic Agriculture, a private institute, with a $30,000 grant. The institute employed 14 people by the time he left, and it now has 86 scientists and is funded by the Swiss government, which has “realized that independent research is better, if you want to do something for society [that does] … not lead to industrial production afterwards but enables farmers to produce more independently.” The government has one seat on the board of directors of the Institute, so it has input but is a minority voice. The Institute has spread into Germany recently, and “has done a marvelous job in the field of organic research,” said Vogtman.

In 1981, Vogtman became “the first professor of organic agriculture, certainly in Europe, probably in the world,” and later headed a large German state agency dealing with all aspects of rural development. His job was “to enable farmers to stay farmers, [on] family farms, not agribusiness” and to use organic farms to spearhead development of future organic farms. A change to a more conservative government closed this agency, and now Vogtman is president of The Federal Agency for Nature Conservation – as well as a member of the Green Party.

About his time in other countries, Vogtman said that “everybody should be a year abroad, be a stranger for one year in another country. It would make all the difference in the world. If people will talk and eat and drink [together], they won’t make war, [they] will have a good time. That’s what organic farming is all about: It’s about joy. For too long, organic farming has focused on one part: Society was so bad and they were the only ones doing good things … For too long, nature conservationists were looking down and feeling like the whole world was against them. But think – How are we going to do this together?”

Regarding food quality, he said that people usually think of health as the absence of disease. “That is the way organic farming is described very often: not doing certain things, instead of doing something very specific.” On the other hand, the World Health Organization defines health holistically as physical, physiological and psychological well being. This should be the approach to organic farming and to food quality in organic farming, too, said Vogtman. It is not just the absence of pesticides and the presence of certain nutrients, but much more. “This means a new research approach.”

He disagrees with the technological approach to producing “quality” food. “Processors even say farmers can produce deficient food and [the processors] will take care of it. Technologically they’ll do something with it. Farmers are producing protein, carbohydrate, fiber, and technologically [processors] do something with it. By the textbook it has all the nutrients in it – but there’s still something missing.”

When Vogtman meets conventional farmers, he tells them that it is dangerous for them to stay in business as farmers if, at the end of the day, they “might just have huge fermenters in which we produce, with modified organisms, enough carbohydrates, proteins, fat, fiber, and don’t do farming at all. This is what you as farmers are up against.”

He said that the leaders of the Farmers’ Union in Germany don’t want to see this danger because they profit from the present system. “They want to continue with the way farming is going, which is probably going to be disaster for society.

“The president of our farmers organization is a funny president,” he continued. “Usually I would expect a president of an organization to try to increase the membership, but the president of our Farmers’ Union, by being for the present farming system and even enforcing it further, reduces the number of members every year … He is going to reduce by 10% per year the number of farmers … This is what you have to make clear [about the current farming system]: That there is profit only for very few – and not for society and certainly not for nature.”

Regarding ecological quality, Vogtman said that organic usually is better than conventional farming, but with food production in heated greenhouses, “here are some problems with organic. Heated greenhouse production of tomatoes is ecologically not any better, or only very little better … [than] conventional.”

Promoting Quality, Authentic, Organic Food: Top-Down

Vogtman contrasted “authentic food” with fast food. The latter requires uniform production throughout the world. Authentic food, however, “has to do with a region … with the culture of a region and the people. This is what Slow Food does. It started when the first McDonald’s opened in Rome. I think it could not have started in the States, because you do not have the food culture Europe has.” Now the Slow Food Movement has created “the Ark of Good Taste to protect these local foods – and they really want organic ingredients.”

He believes that changing to a culture of quality, authentic, organic food will be a “top-down development. Your president should go into an organic restaurant to set a good example. Going to a fast food restaurant is a bad example. We try to get our VIPs not to go into fast food restaurants, but into one where the chef says, ‘This is regional, this is local,’ and the VIP says, ‘Excellent,’ and that goes in the paper. People want to imitate that. Then you have top-down development. This shows that quality is more than just having certain nutrients in the food.”

While chemical methods can show that organic food does not have, for example, pesticide residues, or does have more vitamin C, more of one nutrient is not always better, “because a balance of many things is much better. Even with nutrients, increase diversity.” And in processing these foods, do so “not in the way I described before, but a process in which we change as little as possible. What you’re trying to do with organic farming is to support biological systems.”

Vogtman characterized organic farming as the most intensive system of farming because you need to optimize all of the internal cycles, such as using green manures and compost. “In conventional, they don’t use the cycles, they destroy the cycles. Their systems are not intensive, only the inputs are intensive.”

In order to process food as little as possible, you “can’t just use current processing practices and just make them smaller. You have to develop new methods, such as decentralized processing on farms,” which is better ecologically because you have short distances [to transport food]. In fact, a new professorship in Germany was created to develop decentralized processing methods, “because we found that some of the quality of the food produced on organic farms is terrible! The quality fluctuated too much, from excellent to very, very bad … Cheese was sometimes so bad, I didn’t know why they had customers. They didn’t have the technology to keep the temperature right for a given time. We are trying now to increase the quality with small machinery – for bread, cheese, sausage making, vegetable processing. A second lab of this professorship does all the tasting.”

In addition to the quality of fresh and processed foods, storage quality is important – ”not keeping it with chemicals, etc., so that it lasts for years, but with natural storage to make it last as long as possible.”

Vogtman said that when animals were used to test organic versus conventional foods, the first experiments showed that they preferred conventional foods, because those studies “used animals that had been used to conventional food.” He says that the same would happen if people made the choices; they would choose what they’re used to. “They had to take animals that had been on a mixed diet, or very young animals. When they gave them the choice, they would always go for the organic food.” Also, in one study, the third generation of rabbits raised on organic food had 60% larger litters than those raised on conventional food.

Studying the chemical analyses of conventional and organic foods may not reveal all of the differences in them. “There is something more than just the nutrients,” said Vogtman, something relating to biophotons, or biodynamics. “We need vegetable energy which we cannot get directly from the sun. Energy is emitted in the form of photons. We have an internal energy that needs that kind of energy, and we can only get it from plants. We need these biophotons for our health, our well being, our psychological and physiological well being. We can only get them through unprocessed food, preferably organic food.” His wife is studying nuns who eat organic foods all the time. “They will eat fast food for three or four weeks to see if there are any changes.”

Buying Conventional = Buying Water

Regarding hidden hunger, Vogtman said that this is very easy to demonstrate with vegetables, but less so with grains, because with conventional produce, “more water is what you’re buying. Is it really a lower price if you take the water away? If you [compare organic and conventional] on a dry matter basis, conventional is more expensive.” For example, cabbage yields were 60 tons per acre for conventional versus 40 tons per acre for organic in one study, but the dry matter harvest was the same. “Organic contains more nutrients, more biomass, etc., than conventional because they dilute it with water [in conventional]. This is what butchers do with sausage. Fifty percent ice goes into sausage. A study in Canada [was done to show] how much water … can be put in the breast of turkey with no one noticing. Water is the big seller in conventional production – meat, sausage, vegetables. This is something you should look into, because that water may also contain nitrates.”

Vogtman explained that when nitrogen fertilizer is applied to the soil, 10 to 40% of it goes into drinking water as nitrates; 40 to 70% goes into plants; and 10 to 50% goes into the atmosphere, especially as N2O, which is dangerous for the ozone layer. “Climate change can also be influenced by farming by fertilizers.”

In plants, that nitrate moves through membranes and is then reduced to nitrite, then to ammonium, which is incorporated into proteins. As fertilizer N is increased, more nitrate is stored in vacuoles in cells. “It’s very difficult to get that out,” said Vogtman. “Experiments have shown over the years that there is always a higher nitrate content in conventional produce, always. The maximum tolerated level [of nitrate] for lettuce [in Germany] is 3.5 thousand ppm in the winter and 2.5 thousand ppm in the summer,” because less light is available in the winter for the light-requiring process of incorporating N into proteins. The change in maximum tolerance clearly “is manipulated not for health but for production systems. This means to me we have to develop systems where all [produce] is at the lowest nitrate level.”

Combine high nitrate concentrations with pesticides, and you may create additional health problems, but such combinations are not measured, and no maximum allowable concentrations are set. One such pesticide used by greenhouse producers is dithiocarbamate, which metabolizes to ethylenediurea, which combines with nitrate to produce notrosoethylenediurea, which is mutagenic and carcinogenic.

Excess fertilization or excess compost applications can affect storage life, too. When plants contain large concentrations of nitrate and water, their membranes have low resistance to fungal degradation, so they rot quickly.

So, excess nitrogen fertilization is a complex situation that affects plant health, human health, drinking water and food storage. It is “ecologically not sound at all. Society pays for that way of farming.”

Vogtman then compared energy utilization (direct and indirect) in different crops grown ecologically and conventionally, and found that, overall, 60% more energy was used by conventional farmers than organic. (Indirect energy includes, for example, the energy used to produce and apply pesticides and chemical fertilizers.) “Certainly organic farming is better for the planet than conventional farming. The unfair comparisons are ones that use only direct energy.” In comparing the production of milk, beef and pork, organic products required from nearly 100% less energy to 20% less.

Even the Beer is Better

Vogtman turned to beer production to illustrate some of his points about quality. “Everybody claims beer is such a clean product,” but various chemicals are used to stabilize foam, filtration is used, et cetera. “For barley, you want no more than 9% protein. That’s the advantage for organic farmers. The second advantage is that conventionally produced barley is too low in zinc. Usually conventional brewers add zinc in processing, otherwise the yeast wouldn’t grow. With organic, yeast grows with no problem. Flavors are better with organic. The secondary components in organic barley and hops are much better, so there is a much fuller flavor. Conventional beer seems to be clean, elegant, brilliant looking, but it has no body to it. Organic is not as brilliant or clear, but has full body and full flavor and is actually more healthy.”

After these two talks, grower Jo Barrett said that she’s seen information saying that organic tastes better but doesn’t store as well as conventional produce. Coleman responded that that’s untrue. “We’re taking beets and celeriac out of storage in July.” Organic potato grower Jim Gerritsen cited anecdotes that in Aroostook County, conventional potatoes are not keeping as long as they did 20 years ago, while potato grower Donald Fitzpatrick pointed out that organic growers don’t use sprout inhibitors, so conventional potatoes should store longer than organic. Russ Libby added that most small-scale [organic] growers do not have Controlled Atmosphere (CA) storage, so their produce wouldn’t store as long as that of larger growers with CA storage. Dave Colson pointed out, on the other hand, that consumers who buy local produce are getting food that is much fresher than that trucked across the country, so local food should last longer.

When asked about the quality of food in school lunch programs in Germany, Vogtman said that “there is no school lunch program,” because school ends at 1 in the afternoon. He did say milk is available in schools, more or less organic, but that it competes with soft drinks, and the janitors get a cut of the soda money.

Promote Your Peugeots

Coleman said, “We all need to emphasize more the nutrient quality and taste of organic.” Years ago, when he ran a market garden and customers questioned his prices, he would ask the customers, “How come you’re driving a Peugeot and not a Corvair?” They would answer, “Corvair is made out of tin, it’s not safe, it’s junk … ” “I said, ‘Well, you’ve just answered your question: I’m selling Peugeots.’ If people realize quality in every aspect of their life but don’t pay attention to it with respect to food … it’s something we have to keep hammering away at.”

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