There's good news and bad news about the future of edible food in the world and, specifically, in New Mexico.
One item of bad news is that the New Mexico Senate rejected the bill to require labeling of genetically modified food (SB18, sponsored by Sen. Peter Wirth of Santa Fe), deciding that you don't have the right to make informed choices about what you're eating. This was a disappointment but not a surprise; New Mexico rarely does well at resisting powerful lobbies.
The good news is that New Mexico is seeing growth in organic farming and local marketing of farmed products. According to state Secretary of Agriculture Jeff Witte, organic farming in New Mexico brought in about $53 million in 2011.
The organic food movement reflects several overlapping themes about healthful food and environmental sustainability. Public concern is growing over the long-term safety of genetically altered food, hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, the health of the soil, toxic chemicals in the water, humane treatment of farm animals, and even the health of those essential pollinators, bees. As the concern grows, so does support for local farmers who choose to grow organic.
This year's annual New Mexico Organic Farming Conference, believed to be the largest agriculture conference in New Mexico, packed a hotel conference center recently with roughly 800 attendees.
One sign of the trend was featured speaker Temple Grandin, a renowned expert in the humane treatment of cattle. Grandin, whose fascinating life story was told in an HBO movie, has developed methods of handling cattle so that they remain calm and tranquil even on their way to the slaughterhouse. Her approach, and that of organizations represented at the conference, reflects the growing interest of farmers and consumers for animals raised naturally on sustainable pasture with concern for the animal's welfare, the quality of the meat, and the impact on the land.
New Mexico will be host, in April, of the national conference of the group Beyond Pesticides (www.beyondpesticides.org). The conference will focus on building resilience in our food system and bringing ecosystems back to balance, incorporating regional issues such as water and food sovereignty in the Southwest.
Lots of organizations are supporting this conference. The list of New Mexico cosponsors includes Agricultura Network, Amigos Bravos, Cuatro Puerta, Farm to Table, Food and Water Watch NM, Holistic Management International, Mid-Region Council of Governments Agriculture Collaborative, New Mexico Department of Agriculture's HYPERLINK "http://www.nmda.nmsu.edu/marketing/organic-program/" Organic Program, Our Endangered Aquifer Working Group, Skarsgard Farms and South Valley Economic Development Center (SVEDC).
Another recent conference was sponsored by the Quivira Coalition, best known for creating a cooperative dialogue between ranchers and environmentalists in southwestern New Mexico. The conference was titled, "How to feed nine billion people from the ground up." Nine billion is the estimated population of the planet by year 2050. This conference focused on similar issues with more emphasis on land and water conservation, including such ground-breaking science developments as using soils to trap environmental carbon.
The website for the organic program at New Mexico State University has a data base listing all certified organic producers in New Mexico, covering everything from pecan trees to goat cheese and ayurvedic herbs.
Patronizing the farmers' markets last summer, I noticed more and more stalls that advertised their produce as organic; many others said they have not qualified for certification yet but they use organic methods. The gold standard is labels with the USDA "certified organic" logo.
Though a few markets operate year round, most will be starting up in the spring. You can find local markets at www.farmersmarketsnm.org.
Fortunately, this movement is buoyant, positive, excited and brimming with energy. Unfortunately, it all depends on water.
Merilee Dannemann is an independent public policy professional in Albuquerque. Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.