Editor’s note: This op-ed is by James H. Maroney Jr., who has a master’s degree in Environmental Law & Policy from Vermont Law School and is a former farmer.
The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, a truly progressive state with failing farms and persistent water pollution, has announced that it will convert all its farmers — all of them — to organic, making Bhutan the first nation in the world to defend its environment against the scourge that is conventional agriculture.
“Bhutan has decided to go for a green economy in light of the tremendous pressure we are exerting on the planet,” Agriculture Minister Pema Gyamtsho told Adam Plowright of L’Agence France-Presse in an interview by telephone from the capital Thimphu. “Intensive agriculture requires the use of so many chemicals, which is not in keeping with our belief in Buddhism. We must live in harmony with nature.”
“We have developed a strategy that is step by step. We cannot go organic overnight,” Gyamtsho said, describing the new policy that was formally adopted by the government last year. “We have identified crops for which we can go organic immediately and certain crops for which we will have to phase out the use of chemicals, for rice in certain valleys for example.”
Bhutan has a population of just over 700,000, about the same size as Vermont. Both Bhutan and Vermont are in the position of being too small to compete with mainstream agribusiness and both have had a similar experience with conventional, chemical intensive agriculture, which has polluted the water and further impoverished farmers instead of helping them.
The reader is invited to wonder why Vermont, a state producing just 1.2 percent of the U.S. milk supply, not remotely competitive on price or quantity with the “factory farms” out west, shedding farmers steadily since World War II, the majority losing $100 million in bad years while the minority just break even in good, should not convert to 100 percent organic and attempt, like Bhutan to become competitive on quality.
Bhutan appears to understand that farming and water quality are intricately linked: When you fix the first, you fix the second. The short-term benefit of becoming 100 percent organic is that the label is sufficiently assuring to consumers that they are willing to pay double. The long-term benefit is a prosperous farm sector and a clean environment. If, by putting the full faith and credit of Bhutan behind their conversion to organic, the government can provide this assurance to consumers, then health-conscious consumers will spend their food dollars to provide farmers in Bhutan a standard of living unattainable to their underpaid, perennially suffering conventional cousins.
The reader is invited to wonder why Vermont, a state producing just 1.2 percent of the U.S. milk supply, not remotely competitive on price or quantity with the “factory farms” out west, shedding farmers steadily since World War II, the majority losing $100 million in bad years while the minority just break even in good, should not convert to 100 percent organic and attempt, like Bhutan to become competitive on quality. The reader might also ponder why Vermont should venture to mandate that GMO food be labeled when organic food does not permit GMOs and is clearly labeled. Moreover, Monsanto cannot file a lawsuit against Vermont for converting to organic as the National Organic Program has behind it the full faith and credit of the United States government.
Vermont’s 700 or so remaining conventional dairy farmers are receiving $17 per hundredweight (cwt) for milk that costs them $18-22/cwt to make. This spring, in full compliance with the state’s Accepted Agricultural Practices rules, they will apply 80 million pounds of synthetic fertilizer to corn ground in the floodplain, half of which will flow reliably into the lake, in order to make more milk that they will sell below cost to bottlers out of state.
Some will say Vermont leads the nation in the local food movement and that we have programs like Farm to Plate (F2P) and Save the Working Landscape Enterprise Fund (SWLWF) driving a Renaissance in Vermont agriculture. These programs are, at best, 2 percent solutions and, at worst, canards: F2P, SWLEF, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, Vermont Land Trust and Current Use dispense $5 million to $75 million a year to landowners the majority of whom farm conventionally. If that is not enough, Vermont has spent $140 million of the taxpayers’ money over the last 10 years to clean up the lake and yet the problem persists. This means the government of Vermont with taxpayers’ money is supporting low prices, farm attrition, rural economic decay and lake pollution.
These are not just side effects of the paradigm to be managed and ignored; they are the its fundamental precepts. The paradigm cannot be practiced without inviting them; I have yet to hear anyone articulate a plan that will make conventional Vermont farming profitable that does not also pollute the lake. So, if “local” farming is conventional farming, it too invites low prices, farm attrition, rural economic decay and lake pollution. What about scraping this ruinous paradigm and following Bhutan to salvation?