There are hot-topic policy issues regarding food production with which most of us are somewhat familiar: pesticide use, fertilizer use, organic versus conventional food, genetically modified seeds and plant patents are among them.

Book examines backyard issues that affect produce

Chuck Robinson
Assistant Copy Chief

A new book from Timber Press (available in April) offers a helpful and concise briefing on these and related issues. It is “How the Government Got in Your Backyard” by Jeff Gillman and Eric Heberlig.

The title seems to promise vitriol against government interference, and on that point there are plenty of websites around to feed anyone’s angry anti-government demons better than this book.

The approach here is more balanced. On each topic, the authors lay out the issue, offer a short essay on the science affecting the issue and then addresses the political side of the issue. After that exposition, the authors lay out options that they then rate on right-wing and left-wing scales, and sum up the chapter with a section titled “The Bottom Line.”

It’s kind of fun look at the ratings and judge what sort of a wing nut you are on each of the issues. Beyond that, though, the chapters remind us of how we got where we are on these issues, in my case bringing up things I sort of recall but only fuzzily.

For instance, the chapter on organics reiterates a stance often repeated in The Packer: “It is absolutely imposible to tell whether any given piece of organic meat, fruit or bread is more nutrient-rich than one produced by more conventional methods,” they write at the end of the discussion of the science of organics.

Beyond that, though, they acknowledge the confused objectives among people in the organics industry.

They rate three policy options. The first, leaving things as they are, gets a right-wing rating of three out of five stars and a left-wing rating of two. Cutting out federal promotion of organic food rates four right-wing stars but only one left-wing star. Tightening organic rates five stars for lefties but only two on the right-wing scale.

In the bottom-line section, they suggest a new government system for classifying how food is grown that would supersede the National Organics Program. It would be similar to the Certified Naturally Grown program, which was created in response to the 2002 implementation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic labeling program.

Certified Naturally Grown is intended for small farmers distributing through farmers markets, roadside stands, local restaurants, community supported agriculture programs and small local grocery stores.

A federal program classifying how food is grown could require less use of mechanized equipment, ban all pesicides and make certified producers use only locally produced fertilizers and feed.

While it would raise the consumer’s cost of buying certified food, it “would also mean coming closer to reaching the ideals upon which organic farming was originally built.”

Underlying issues

Author Gillman is a horticultural science associate professor at the University of Minnesota and has written “The Truth About Organic Gardening.” His co-author on the new book is a political science associate professor at the University of North Carolina.

Their aim was to not take sides, they say, but to lay out the issues’ bare bones.

Forgive me, my friends to the north, but it wasn’t until reading the chapter on pesticides in this book that I learned about Quebec’s 2006 ban of most commonly used household pesticides and Ontario’s 2009 ban of most pesticides used for cosmetic purposes.

The chapter updates my high school reading of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” the 1962 book that founded a movement based on ridding DDT from our lives, to the situation today where so many agencies and rules apply that there is no straightforward answer to the question of whether a certain chemical is dangerous.

The trend, however, is for more weight given to environmental concerns over crop production issues and that the burden of proof about a pesticide’s safety is shifting toward chemical companies.

That, even though “the stress caused by an overzealous media that loves to instigate pesticide paranoia at the drop of a dime is probably worse for your health than the pesticides most of us encounter in our everyday lives,” the authors wrote.

We have a lot to wade through to get up to speed on issues important to the produce industry.

It is easy to get hung up on isolated details of a single part of an issue and not take a step back and get a grasp of the whole thing.

This book reminds us to do that and offers a series of executive summaries to help. The options it lays out and the right-wing/left-wing ratings focus the issues for us and maybe helps us see it from another’s viewpoint.

If government issues relating to produce draw your attention, this book may help broaden your thinking.

E-mail crobinson@thepacker.com

What's your take on the government's involvement in our food supply? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.