Friday, November 4, 2011

since when does bigger mean better?

For the second part of my discussion on what "organic" means and why I support it, I'd like to address the myth that bigger is better. One of the most tired arguments against organic agriculture is that it might be a fine designer food for those wealthy enough to afford it, but it's just not big enough (efficient enough, cheap enough, productive enough, et cetera) to feed the whole world. Multinational agribusiness corporations like Monsanto claim that organic just can't keep up. Of course, they also claim that any method that increases the tons of crop yield per acre is sustainable because it will produce more food from less land, and therefore allow us to free up more land for forests. Or, you know, suburban housing developments and strip malls. Whoever has more money this week.

Monsanto may be the world-wide expert in getting the most corn, soy, and canola from an acre of land. (Although a Kutztown University study showed that yields of organic corn per acre were similar using organic methods, and that the organic yields were actually higher during years with poor rainfall.) But I don't think it's accurate to say that they are better at producing food.

In the United States, thanks to the last fifty or so years of Farm Bill legislation, we have a national system where low-quality corn is heavily subsidized by the federal government. This isn't the type of sweet corn you eat at your summer picnic. Most of this corn is destined to become another product -- ethanol, feed lot cattle, new forms of plastic, and of course, thousands of different types of food additives. Subsidizing corn production hasn't brought us cheaper food at the grocery store. What it has brought us is a new "food science" industry which is dedicated to increasing the proportion of grocery-store packages laden with high-fructose corn syrup and other junk devoid of actual nutrition. We are now seeing a resurgence of rickets, the 19th-century disease where children's bones fail to form properly due to Vitamin D or calcium deficiencies. Where in the past this disease was the scourge of the malnourished, it is now affecting children who are otherwise obese. Shouldn't it be a sign that something is seriously wrong with the way we produce and distribute food when children can be overweight from eating too much food, and still simultaneously suffer from malnutrition?

Globally, we humans are growing several times more grain than everyone on earth could possibly eat. In fact, one study concluded that if all the world's current conventional farmland were converted to organic, we would still produce more than enough tons of food to feed the global population, without bringing any additional land into cultivation. The problem is not, and has never been, that we don't produce enough food for everyone. The problem is that many people are too poor to buy it.

Do you remember the Green Revolution? It promised to bring new methods of cultivation, irrigation, pesticides, and fertilizer to poor regions of India and other "third-world" nations. But as India native Vandana Shiva writes eloquently in her book The Violence of the Green Revolution, that promise just didn't hold up to reality. Chemical inputs, like nitrogen artificially synthesized from the air, come in exchange for money. In her words, "It doesn't matter how much bread you can buy for a dollar, if you aren't making any dollars during the day." Thousands of farmers mortgaged their land in order to pay for their first season of input, lured by the promise of increased yield. But at the end of the growing season, the prices they earned for their crops were not enough to pay their loans. (Sound familiar? The U.S. Department of Agriculture identifies avoiding debt as one of the most important things a small farm can do to stay in business.) Many people suspect this vicious cycle of poverty and hunger is driving the startling increase in Indian farmer suicides.

By contrast, the aim of organic is to create a closed-loop system, where off-farm inputs are minimal. This means that the fertilizer you use on your crops comes from your own animal manure or vegetation compost. Ideally, it doesn't take money to buy those things -- and in fact, it reduces the money you have to pay to haul that "trash" away and store somewhere in a landfill. As a future farmer in the process of creating a business plan, this lack of initial capital is extremely attractive to me here in my wealthy nation. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development came to a similar conclusion in their 61-page report explaining why organic agriculture has a greater potential for feeding human beings in Africa than conventional methods.

Conventional farming hasn't convinced me it can grow more food. But it has shown that it's sinisterly effective at reducing the number of farmers.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Zev, So many great points! I think that last point you made is especially key--we've lost so many small farmers. Or they've been "bought" and are under the thumb of large companies, which is to say they are no lnger able to farm in a sustainable way. --Jaime