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‘In Organic We Trust:’ Film review

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Kip Pastor’s 2012 film “In Organic We Trust” is a documentary of what organic farming means and whether it is valuable, carried out mostly in the form of interviews with Pastor’s voice-overs throughout. He presents himself as a naïve seeker of truth much as Michael Moore does in his muckraking films or Jeremy Seifert does in his execrable GMO OMG.

And he starts out with man-in-the-street interviews asking people exactly what “organic” means: of course none of them really know. This is not as silly as it sounds. Not only do most people not know what it means, what they do know is usually quite wrong. You have to listen carefully, as his interviews with enthusiastic organic farmers interspersed with comments by Professor Marion Nestle give you the feeling that organic farming must be “good.”

But as Nestle points out, organic crops are nutritionally identical. He also interviews Hudson Institute critic Alex Avery, who is most critical of the organic food business, but his views are well known from his 2006 book The Truth About Organic Foods, published with support from Monsanto.

In this section of the film, we learn much the same things Mischa Popoff criticized in Is It Organic? Organic is a set of paper standards and organic farmers achieve their status by passing annual inspections by profit-making private inspectors and filling out reams of forms. They also are restricted in the fertilizers and pesticides they may use to a list (he shows it briefly) which contains a lot more synthetic chemicals than you might think. And as Avery points out practically no one fails these inspections, because then the certifiers don’t get paid. In 2010, only 10 farms out of 13,000 failed, he says.

It would have been helpful if Avery’s strident views were balanced with some from those setting organic standards, such as the USDA, but Pastor claims his interviews with USDA officials were all cancelled. Could he think of anyone else? Maybe some actual scientists? There are no interviews with experts in agriculture or botany or soil science to present critical discussions of the precepts of organic farming.

While one of his farmers does admit that all organic farmers spray, just different things, he does manage to perpetuate the myth supported by Nestle that organic crops have fewer pesticides. In fact, the pesticides organic farmers may use include several (rotenone, pyrethrum) that are much nastier than those used by conventional farmers.

Pastor also uncritically brings up the dodgy “Dirty Dozen” crops reports issued by the Environmental Working Group. However, what he does not mention is the paper by Winter and Katz that found that the total pesticide residue on conventional crops was several orders of magnitude lower than the chronic reference dose, the amount you could eat every day and still be safe. It is also worth noting that the board of directors of the EWG has no actual scientists on it, unless you count woo-peddler Mark Hyman, MD.

All of this happens in the first 30 minutes of the film. The remaining 50 or so minutes shifts gears to being an uncritical paean to Certified Organic farming, making little distinction between organic practices and organic certification. The two people most interviewed in this segment are organic walnut farmer Craig McNamara of Sierra Orchards and Tim LaSalle who is credited as being part of the Earth Protection Alliance. What the film does not reveal is that LaSalle was the CEO of the organic advocate Rodale Institute from 2007-2010. He’s also written a lot of pseudo-science for TreeHugger.

Much of the rest of the film is about school gardens, community gardens and school food, and while all of these are laudable, the reporting is pretty uncritical. They spend a lot of time with “Chef Bobo” at the Calhoun School, where he has developed school lunches using fresh, local ingredients. But they neglect to mention that the Calhoun School is an expensive private school where the budget and kitchen facilities are far above that available to public schools. Their tuition ranges from $27,000 to $40,000 per year.

This section is really appealing, though, showing young people and people of limited means gardening in the community and eating and sharing produce. But while locally grown food is flavorful and nutritious, this really has nothing to do with organic food at all. The same things would apply no matter what techniques they used.

Several times they also interview a Slow Food (and FoodCorps) advocate Jerusha Klemperer (the on screen title misspells her name) and while she exudes enthusiasm, she spreads a lot of misinformation, suggesting that regarding pesticides, “the studies are not totally done,” but in fact the studies are extremely detailed. It would be better that she cited some studies than assume that they do not exist without checking.

The same criticism goes for the interview with Jennifer Sass from the NRDC who, judging by her writing, seems to be the NRDC’s chief alarmist, exaggerating the danger of every agricultural chemical.

Left out completely from this film is any criticism of the productivity of organic farming: it tends to yield 50%-80% of what conventional farming does according to USDA data, and its reliance on manure for fertilizer has led to a number of instances of E coli contamination. Further, as Savage has pointed out, composting all that manure is very bad for the farm’s carbon footprint.

There is a lot in the movie that is worth seeing: the first part is excellent, and the scenes of the kids and the local gardens are delightful, but the conclusion seem confused since it starts out criticized organic farming and ends up with uncritical praise where a more nuanced criticism might have been more persuasive.

Screenings are still being arranged, but you can actually by the DVD from their web site fairly inexpensively.

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