Dear Monty Don:
After viewing the video clip of you on the web site of The Guardian and reading the article by Leo Hickman (Aug. 30, 2008), I commend you for your plan to encourage more people in the United Kingdom to garden, whether it be in small plots in their backyards or even in window boxes. However, on behalf of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), I have grave concerns about your message of moving away from the term "organic" to "sustainable," an ill-defined and confusing term. (If you ask 50 environmental leaders to define sustainable,you will likely get 50 different definitions).
Here in North America, there is a movement under way from interests of industrial agriculture and genetic engineering to co-opt the term "sustainable." OTA believes that the term "organic" is the gold standard for sustainable. However, with other interests trying to elbow their way in, it would be a great loss to our planet's environmental health to abandon the term "organic."
The Organic Trade Association is proud of "organic" and what it stands for. Rather than abandoning the term, efforts need to be boosted to explain to consumers throughout North America and Europe— and other parts of the globe— what organic truly stands for. OTA is undertaking such a program here in North America.
Yes, it is laudable to promote local production of organic products, whether by small farmers or by backyard gardeners. But don't sell organic short, particularly the third-party organic verification by credible and highly respected certifying agencies such as the Soil Association that gives consumers assurance on the traceability and production practices of the organic food they can buy and eat.
As far as the "food mile" question you raise, I am certain you understand the hope that organic farming offers to farmers and communities throughout the world.
A 2007 study conducted in New Zealand found that if emissions based on life cycle assessment of dairy products were taken into consideration, dairy products produced in the United Kingdom used twice as much energy per metric ton of milk solids compared to those produced in New Zealand even including the energy associated with transport from New Zealand to the UK.
In an opinion piece published in The New York Times in August 2007, author James E. McWilliams noted that there is more to be considered than food miles. "Not only do life cycle analyses offer genuine opportunities for environmentally efficient food product, but they also address several problems inherent in the eat-local philosophy," McWilliams wrote, noting, "It is impossible for most of the world to feed itself a diverse and healthy diet through exclusively local food production."
What is emerging is the importance of buying organic products, whether produced locally or in another part of the world. This can be linked to two factors: that the organic label stands for verifiable environmentally friendly practices, and that these practices are beneficial for the local communities in which they are used, wherever that may be.
Organic producers, wherever they live, must follow practices that are good for the environment, such as crop rotation, building healthy soils, and measures to encourage biodiversity. Regardless of where these farms are located on the planet, the practices used mean the farm workers have less exposure to toxic and persistent pesticides, and the water and air around these farms are less polluted. This is good for the families who are farming these properties. This also allows those families to earn a living. Think of organic coffee cooperatives in Mexico and other countries, which enable families to send their children to school because of the higher income generated.
We live on a small planet. Already, toxic and persistent pesticides used in other parts of the world have turned up in the Arctic Circle. More and more organic acreage throughout the world is good for all of us. Other organizations, such as IFOAM, work tirelessly to promote and support organic agriculture throughout the world, and I believe they would agree that changing the term "organic" to "sustainable" would lead to significant confusion, both at the farm level and in the many countries developing their own organic standards and trade agreements.
Yes, buy locally grown organic products whenever possible, and supplement those purchases with products grown by other organic farmers in local communities throughout this wonderful planet of ours.
Your neighbors across "The Pond" urge you not to sell organic short. The Soil Association is a highly respected organic certifying organization, seen by North Americans and others throughout the world as one of the flag bearers for the organic movement and for advancement in agricultural leadership by organic farmers and processors.
Interim Executive Director
The Organic Trade Association