A Farming Fairy Tale

Imagine that you could wave a wand--and make all our food organic.

The life and career of Gene Kahn have tracked the growth and gawky adolescence of the organic food business perfectly. Kahn, now 59, dropped out of his graduate program in English at the University of Washington in 1972, leased some farmland near Rockport, Washington, and started figuring out how to raise food without pesticides, herbicides, or artificial fertilizers. He went on to create Cascadian Farm, one of the first organic food companies in the United States, which he and his business partners sold to General Mills in 2000. Kahn, the erstwhile hippie farmer and organic pioneer, has since become the big company's VP of sustainable development.

Today, it feels as though the organic food business has been around a long time and has had a huge impact. But the industry is actually so new that even a reliable measure of its size is elusive. The Organic Trade Association estimates that the industry sold $1 billion worth of products in 1990, and $15 billion worth last year--20% average annual growth over 15 years. But the whole business is still smaller than McDonald's, which sold $20 billion in burgers and fries in 2005.

Kahn, who splits his time between General Mills headquarters in Minnesota and a farm in Washington where he grows grain, was the perfect man to undertake an unusual thought experiment about the U.S. food supply.

Although the organic food movement is 30 years old, Americans still spend only 2% of their grocery money on organic products. At the same time, factory-style agriculture has helped make food much more affordable in the United States. In 1950, a typical family devoted 31% of household spending to food; that figure is just 13% now. So if we could wave a magic wand and make all American farming organic, what would that look like? Would we be able to feed the country? And could we afford to do it?

If you just extrapolate today's organic onto a gazillion acres, you do get an impossible dream.

No, that wouldn't work. Because that's simplistic thinking. But we're not going to be dumb about it. We're going to put the whole agricultural research infrastructure behind this thing, we're going to put public policy behind this thing. Organic has equal or increased potential to produce feed and fiber for the country, in theory. In practice today, that's laughable.

My assumption is that by waving the magic wand, we'd be doing it right. To create an organic agriculture that was the only form of agriculture in the United States--well [laughing], you'd need to deal with a number of broad areas. Where are you going to get all of the nutrients, the macro- and micronutrients to grow the food? Currently, we're using fossil fuel for most of that--to make fertilizer--but we'd need to find organic sources for a whole host of nutrients. The best, the most practical way would be to build a whole new composting infrastructure across the United States. That would require tremendous coordination across municipalities, and much more thorough composting of all human refuse. We'd have to find more practical ways of growing crops without the use of synthetic pesticides. You would need insect control, disease control, weed control--weed control is the single largest factor, the most influential, most costly.

Why is weed control so hard?

Weeds are very costly to control in agriculture in general. In organic, it's the single largest cost factor that differentiates organic from conventional farming. Instead of spraying or using Roundup-ready soybeans, you have to weed those fields. If you looked at the current process and extrapolated that to 100% of the agriculture in the United States, there would have to be an order-of-magnitude increase in the number of people who were essentially hand-weeding and doing the more labor-intensive forms of agricultural work. Are there people who want to do this work? What are the societal implications of having hundreds of thousands of people involved in stoop labor?

It's possible now to live an almost entirely "organic" life, even shopping at a grocery store--especially if you have access to a chain like Whole Foods. Organic products are everywhere--you can even buy organic frozen pizza. Consumers have the impression we know how to create food organically. What are we missing?

Organic is an infant industry. The commercialization of organic is a relatively recent phenomenon, so the support network--the distribution, the manufacturing, the research--is just gearing up right now. There's a lot of theoretical knowledge about organic, a lot of conceptual knowledge, but very little technical knowledge outside of the innovative farmers who really made this whole thing happen. If we're going to convert all the food to organic, we have a lot of people we need to teach. While there are certain universities--Cal Poly, UC Davis, Cornell, University of Wisconsin--that are involved in this, it's a very rudimentary effort compared with the money and effort that's spent in solving, for instance, the nematode issue in horticultural crops with methyl bromide. Then there's the institutional side--all of the support payments that go to certain types of farming, and crop insurance payments, a whole set of policies, governmental programs, institutional programs--that would need to change.

Fresh produce and milk are two of the organic categories that have become almost mainstream at this point. Is the wide availability of certain organic products like produce and milk a function of the skills of farmers now? Or has consumer demand driven the technical expertise?

Both. I don't think it's easy to raise organic dairy cows at all, but because of demand, more innovation, and more acres, more farmers have excelled in that. The cows are somewhat easier than certain other highly technical horticultural crops, I think, like growing potatoes. Although I don't have any real evidence of that. I think the dairy farmers would laugh at me for saying it.

What's hard about being an organic dairy farmer?

I can't tell you. I've never raised a cow. I can tell you what's hard about being an organic potato farmer. Ever hear of the Irish potato famine? A little creature, a little fungus called Phytopthera infestans--that fungus and that disease are with us today, and it is very difficult to control organically. There are hundreds of other potato diseases, and potato insects, that are very difficult to control without the toolbox of agro-chemicals that we rely on today. One myth we frequently hear is that farmers are big polluters, that they are hugely committed to these agro-chemicals. There's a reason why: Those chemicals work. They are cost-effective, based on today's internalized cost factors. Farmers aren't thinking about the externalized costs--to the environment and to future generations--of systemic potato insecticides. They don't have the freedom to think about that.

Wal-Mart announced this year that it would double the number of organic products in its grocery stores, to about 400. Should we be happy about that?

I think that's a huge win for the organic industry and the consumer. If what we're trying to do is create an organic world, we could never achieve the dream without Wal-Mart. The fact that they are doing it is going to be a signal to farmers all over the world that organic is coming of age.

What does it mean for someone who started out growing organic zucchini and carrots to become a vice president at General Mills? How does your evolution track back to the world of organic itself?

I've always been interested in creating the largest impact on food and agriculture that I was capable of. I found a very receptive company in General Mills--first as a home for my company, and second, for a broader effort at improving the environmental record of food and agriculture. That's what I do now. I work on developing strategies to improve the environmental performance of the food industry.

Is there any tension between the original organic values you grew up with and large multinational companies putting the word "organic" on their products?

Yes, there's a lot of tension, and there are a lot of critics of that. But I have no personal tension [laughing]. A lot of people wanted to maintain that original, small model. But to imagine that we were going to change U.S. agriculture and keep it all in the hands of market gardeners, instead of production scale farmers, is not only a fatuous dream, it's an undesirable perspective from my view. While success certainly makes it harder for smaller producers, there are plenty of opportunities for all.

What is the meaning of an organic frozen dinner? Is it a sign that organic is growing up, or that organic is being co-opted?

It's a sign that organic is a business like anything else. It's about what we eat. The world is not either/or. That's an artificial antithesis: an idealized view of consumption--where all we eat is fresh fruit right off the farm--versus a supermarket economy. Nobody would challenge that it's best to eat fruit right off the tree, or to drink milk right out of the udder of the cow…. But that's not paying attention to what people really do consume.

Let's put aside the fantasy for a minute. Do you think the changes you talked about will happen "organically"? Will we see the creation in the next decade of an infrastructure that can support an industry 10 times the size organic is now--say, 20% of the U.S. food supply?

"If integrated pest management were truly practiced in the U.S.--if it were widely practiced and widely adopted--there would be a 60% reduction in pesticide use. That's a big deal."

Yes. I think so. I think those things are happening. But it's going to happen incrementally, along with increased consumer awareness of the benefits of organic. But I'm glad we can't snap our fingers. We'll make sure this gets done right and done in a way that is really sustainable. That enables farmers to have a reasonable return on their investment. That maintains the kind of high level of standards and consumer and environmental benefit that goes along with organic farming. And I would say this: The conversation isn't really about "going organic"--it should be about how we change the world for the better, how we deal with the world as we currently see it. Not about creating some impossible dream. What we really have to fix is agro-chemical use and its impacts on soil, biodiversity, and human health. "Integrated pest management" is the appropriate use of agro-chemicals, to optimize their efficiency and minimize their use--IPM, it's called. Now, the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment claims that if integrated pest management were truly practiced in the United States--if it were widely practiced and widely adopted--there would be a 60% reduction in pesticide use in America. That's a big deal.

The point is not to overuse chemicals. That's a key problem with conventional agriculture. Nobody benefits from the overuse, except the chemical suppliers. Farmers in general use agro-chemicals because they don't have viable alternatives, or viable markets, that would allow them to avoid them. And farmers in general don't like to be polluters--they are people who live on the land, who care about their land. That's what we've got to be focused on--not whether we go organic or not. Organic is part of the solution, but it can't be the solution. I don't want to have a simplistic opposition--the good guys, the organic guys, versus the bad guys, the conventional guys. Everyone has a role in improving our environmental performance, and an obligation to improve it. And that's what's critical: the improvement. Whether we get to 100% organic is not the issue. It's whether we become a sustainable society.

Charles Fishman (cnfish@mindspring.com) is the author of the best-seller The Wal-Mart Effect, published by Penguin Press.

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