Organic growers get lesson in humility

GUELPH, Ont. — Criticizing farmers isn’t the best way to win friends at an agricultural conference.

However, Dan Kittredge managed to do it and still get a standing ovation at the Guelph Organic Conference Jan. 30.

Kittredge, an organic farmer from Massachusetts and expert on soil health, said organic producers should be more “humble.”

For starters, they may want to renounce the dogma that organic food is superior to other food.

“As somebody who grew up on an organic farm and whose parents run an organic farm organization, I’ve been very clear about saying that most organic food is relatively crap,” he said.

“If we actually want to be providing high quality food, if that’s our aspiration, we should be holding ourselves to a (higher) standard…. We have so much room for improvement.”

Kittredge, who spoke about soil health and its connection to food quality at the Guelph conference, is the founder and leader of the Bio-nutrient Food Association.

The three-year-old group is based in the U.S. Northeast and has chapters in eight states. Its members, including organic and conventional growers, agronomists and nutritionists, are dedicated to increasing the nutritional quality of the food supply.

Kittredge said the key to growing any kind of nutritious food is a healthy soil with a dynamic population of soil micro-organisms.

He said some conventional growers are more adept at managing the soil than organic farmers. As a result, they produce better food.

“In many cases, conventional crops are superior to organic crops, from a nutritional standpoint, because a lot of conventional farmers know their agronomy.”

Researchers at Stanford University released a widely publicized literature review in 2012 that found little nutritional difference between organic and conventionally produced food.

Many organic advocates condemned the Stanford study as flawed and biased, but Kittredge said the findings were reasonable because organic and conventional food likely have a “very similar nutritional profile.”

“(But) they (Stanford) buried the lead, which is that conventional crops have much higher levels of toxic compounds in them,” added Kittredge, who campaigned against genetically modified organisms in India and other countries before returning to America to farm.

Kittredge urged his audience to recognize the weaknesses of organic farming and “address them systematically and intelligently.”

“Let’s be humble and raise the bar for ourselves,” he said.

“And stop thinking we’re God’s greatest gift.”

The Bio-nutrient Food Association is developing a blueprint to help all farmers improve their soil and enhance the beneficial nutrients in grains, oilseeds and vegetables.

Eventually, Bio-nutrient hopes to develop a hand-held device so consumers could instantly assess the nutritional profile of food at the grocery store.

Kittredge said the technology already exists. It’s known as infrared spectroscopy.

“It would function like a smartphone camera, where you flash a light at a carrot and it spits out a reading,” he said.

“The technology is here… (but) it hasn’t been calibrated for this purpose…. The real potential of a hand-held gizmo … that you can take to the grocery store and choose quality is remarkably close.”

Stuart McMillan, an agricultural auditor, consultant and organic inspector in Manitoba, said measuring the quality of food is intriguing, but the practice could have dramatic consequences for farmers.

Certain regions of North America have richer soil that is inherently capable of producing more nutritious food.

“You in effect start penalizing producers, who through no fault of their own, are farming in a region that has a different soil structure,” he said.

McMillan said nutritionists and agricultural leaders should be encouraging people to eat more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, rather than focusing on the difference between red pepper A and red pepper B.

Contact robert.arnason@producer.com

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