Notes from the Perimeter

Monday, April 20, 2009

War of the Weeds


Maybe you can please most of the people some of the time, and some of the people most of the time, but there will be some people who simply refuse to be pleased no matter what. When President Obama, at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, called daughter Malia his “technical advisor” after she got the sound system working, somebody no doubt somewhere could be heard to holler, “That’s taking jobs away from Americans!” Maybe Michelle Obama got toughened up on the campaign trail but I bet even she was surprised by the criticism that arose regarding what could be considered an innocuous, if not wholly worthwhile, endeavor.

On March 26, Executive Director Bonnie McCarvel and Program Coordinator Janet Braun of the Mid America CropLife Association sent the First Lady a letter objecting to the fact that the garden she has created on the White House grounds is organic.

Yes, the First Lady is guilty of not supporting pesticides.

Here are some excerpts from the letter:

Starting in the early 1900's, technology advances have allowed farmers to continually produce more food on less land while using less human labor. Over time, Americans were able to leave the time-consuming demands of farming to pursue new interests and develop new abilities. Today, an average farmer produces enough food to feed 144 Americans who are living longer lives than many of their ancestors. Technology in agriculture has allowed for the development of much of what we know and use in our lives today. If Americans were still required to farm to support their family's basic food and fiber needs, would the U.S. have been leaders in the advancement of science, communication, education, medicine, transportation and the arts?...

As you go about planning and planting the White House garden, we respectfully encourage you to recognize the role conventional agriculture plays in the U.S in feeding the ever-increasing population, contributing to the U.S. economy and providing a safe and economical food supply.


These conventional farming “ambassadors,” as they call themselves, make some valid points. Modern farmers employ many environmentally friendly methods such as reduced tillage practices, precision and contour farming, and grass waterways to prevent erosion. They use biogenetics to implant pest resistance directly into seeds and GPS technology to target specific areas for pesticide spraying. Huge combines and powerful tractors have increased the efficiency of harvesting, thus saving time and energy. Farmlands provide most of the nation’s wildlife habitat.

Nevertheless, conventional agriculture is synonymous with large-scale agribusiness which, in transforming the faming landscape, has resulted in the disappearance of the small family-owned farm, a decrease in the availability of fresh, flavorful vegetables (just compare a packaged “vine-ripened” tomato with one plucked warm from the garden), and a dangerous dependence on pesticides and biogenetics which have the potential to alter the balance of nature and cause unintended consequences.

I don’t think anyone is suggesting that we abandon large-scale agriculture in favor of tilling our own little acres. This more economical and plentiful food supply is a necessary part of our diets. However, the conventional and the organic are not mutually exclusive: there’s a place for the organic garden, too. The recent emphasis on supporting locally grown produce has raised awareness of the energy costs involved in long-distance transportation of food, the health benefits of eating produce in season, and simply the incomparable pleasure of food that is truly “garden fresh.”

Isn’t an essential aspect of being American the right to choose? Michelle Obama isn’t in the mass-food-production business – she simply has chosen to use an organic approach for the benefit of her own kids and those who come to learn the lessons of nature and nurture that gardens have to offer. So, I say to Ambassadors McCarvel and Braun: you do your thing and Michelle (and I) will do ours. After all, “organic” is just another word for freedom.

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