Jan 192012

In recent years, a farming boom has completely changed the landscape in parts of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula. The new landscape is comprised of organic farms, specializing in growing fresh produce, especially out-of-season, certified organic, fruits and vegetables, which carry premium prices.

“Organic” has come to mean very different things in different countries, but the essential common element is that it uses no synthetic fertilizers, hormones or pesticides. In the USA, the term “organic produce” also requires that farmers protect water resources, though this is hard to define and at least as hard to enforce.

The Baja California Peninsula receives very little rainfall, so irrigation water for its organic farms comes from underground aquifers. The profitability of these new farms relies on the availability of irrigation water and on the proximity of the region to the lucrative US market for organic produce.

The new farms may be “organic”, but the bigger question, examined by Elisabeth Rosenthal in Organic Agriculture May Be Outgrowing Its Ideals, in the New York Times is, “Are these organic farms sustainable?” Rosenthal looks in some detail at whether or not organic farms protect the local environment and the livelihood of local farmers. The article discusses the extreme stress being placed on the area’s ground water reserves. Some farmers are already in trouble because their wells have dried up. More than one-third of aquifers in the southern part of the peninsula are officially classified as “over-exploited”.

Growers blame the area’s tourism industry for the water shortages, arguing that hotels and golf courses gobble up far more than their fair share of the precious resource. Despite the aridity of the southern section of Baja California Peninsula, the southern coast, centered on Los Cabos, has far more golf courses per unit area than anywhere else in the country.

The “organic” label also takes no account of the emissions involved in production and transport of fruits and vegetables to the marketplace; export-oriented horticulture in the Baja Peninsula is an energy-intensive enterprise. Adding to the unsustainable side of the argument, some of the organic farms practice “monoculture”, growing a single crop year after year on the same land, a system known to lead to soil depletion and increase the risk of pest-related problems.

On the other hand, the new farms also provide an alternative source of jobs to tourism. Del Cabo, which has a cooperative packing plant in San José del Cabo and trucks or flies more than 7 metric tons of produce to the USA every day, is able to help its members by supplying high-quality seed, and employing specialists in plant raising and plant diseases who act as consultants to individual farmers as required. Del Cabo criticized the New York Times story for its numerous inaccuracies regarding water usage and sustainability.

Conscious of the water issues, many of these modern organic farms employ sophisticated, water-conserving irrigation systems, such as computerized drip irrigation. They also grow many crops under shade. Such systems are expensive to install and maintain, so most of the bigger producers are US-owned companies.

In Organic Tomatoes in January: Sucking Mexico Dry, in Mother Jones, Tom Philpott compares the situation in Baja California with that in “another region famous for winter tomatoes and dirt-cheap labor costs: Immokalee, Florida, source of a huge percentage of non-organic winter tomatoes consumed in the United States.” Philpott concludes that “What’s going on in Baja seems more about generating a premium-priced product while systematically degrading a landscape. Want organic tomatoes in the cold months? Buy them in a can.”

Food for thought!

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