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The War Over Michelle Obama's Sort-of Organic White House Garden

In a keynote speech at the annual Institute of Food Technologists conference on Sunday in New Orleans, New Yorker writer Michael Specter launched Michelle Obama's White House garden, yet again, into the acrimonious debate over two competing forms of agriculture.

"I was pleased to learn recently that Michelle Obama's garden is not organic," said Specter, who wrote the book Denialism and spoke on Monday about the indispensable role science plays in helping to solve the world's problems.

Ever since the garden was first planted in 2009, it's been widely billed in the press as organic. "New White Garden a Victory for Organic Food," proclaimed the Guardian. There's even an organization with a traveling garden located on a bus called the White House Organic Farm Project. So which is it -- organic or conventional?

Sam Kass, the White House chef and Michelle Obama's sidekick on food issues, showed up at IFT for a press conference on Monday, so I asked him about it. Here's what he said:

It's not certified organic, but we don't use chemical herbicides or pesticides or fertilizers. We have big piles of compost. I mean this is a garden for kids and they're running around and digging in the dirt so using things like chemicals doesn't make sense.
Looking somewhat exasperated, Kass went on to say that he and the First Lady try to stay above the fray when it comes to the garden: "Our goal has been to do this without getting into that debate over different farming methods. We try to avoid some of the labels that people want to superimpose on it."

So in other words, the White House Garden adheres to the principles of organic farming, they just haven't made it official with the USDA, which administers the organic program. And Kass and Obama prefer not to even use the dreaded O word, since in Washington everything -- even an innocent vegetable garden -- is political.

Although Obama's garden is merely supplying veggies to the White House kitchen and serving as an educational tool for school children, big ag groups have taken offense. The Mid America CropLife Association, a group that represents companies like Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences and DuPont Crop Protection, sent a protest letter to Obama in March 2009, shortly after the news about the garden came out:

Fresh foods grown conventionally are wholesome and flavorful yet more economical. Local and conventional farming is not mutually exclusive....Farmers and ranchers are the first environmentalists, maintaining and improving the soil and natural resources to pass onto future generations. Technology allows for farmers to meet the increasing demand for food and fiber in a sustainable manner.
Of course, organic advocates also haven't helped the situation, as some of them reacted to news of the garden with such victorious enthusiasm that you would have thought the White House had called for an instant revocation of all Monsanto's crop patents.

And as for Specter, he clarified his remarks in an email, saying that what he really wanted to convey was the idea that local food does not equal organic:

What I meant to say, or tried to convey, is that the point of the garden is that it is made of local food. Whether that food is organic or not is completely secondary. So I was just trying to explain that when people talk about organic food they often mean local food -- as is the case here because it may or may not be organic, but the reason it matters is that the food is fresh, and not shipped halfway across the country.
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