Explaining Ag: The Organic Debate

There’s a debate afoot in the world of food. On one hand you have the organic activists, typified by the Rodale Institute, Food First and foodies like Michael Pollan. On the other hand there are the more hard-nosed technocrats, whose position can be more or less fairly represented by this article in Foreign Policy: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/04/26/attention_whole_foods_shoppers

In case you don’t want to read the whole thing, the article argues that organic agriculture is too labor intensive, inefficient and dependent on animal manure to actually supply the world’s food. Technocrats like this article’s author are convinced that organic farming is fine for the effete foodies of the upper class, but it can’t scale up enough to produce the staple grains that form the basis of our food system.

Are they right? Is organic agriculture a pipe-dream of the elite? First, let’s define organic.

On a basic level organic means “derived from living matter.” The term was first applied to agriculture by Sir Albert Howard in his landmark book The Soil and Health, published in 1945. Robert Rodale of the Rodale Institute was among the first to popularize the term in the United States and can probably be credited with giving it the connotations it currently has. According to the Rodale Institute’s website, organic food is “Food grown with tried-and-true, sustainable methods that are as close to nature as possible. Organic farmers use compost, crop rotations and cover crops instead of chemical additives.”

The current USDA organic standards are negative rules, not positive principles. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are forbidden. It is assumed that if these methods are not used then the farmer will naturally use sustainable practices that are better for the earth and for our health.

Skeptics, like the Foreign Policy writer above, say this is idealistic. Without chemical fertilizer, particularly the all-important macro-nutrient nitrogen, farmers would be limited to animal manure and compost, which would require more animals than our land can currently support.

This argument is a bit specious. The writer is assuming that animal manure is the only source of organic nitrogen. It is at least possible to imagine a future where food-processing wastes and even city effluent are composted into usable organic inputs. But the skeptics are right that this would be difficult. Food would be more expensive without synthetic nitrogen. That is a fact. Organic advocates have to be aware of this.

An even more difficult conundrum comes when you consider soil conservation. On the one hand, plentiful synthetic fertilizer removes some of the immediate incentive to conserve and manage the soil. Throughout the 70s and 80s, massive soil erosion drained away topsoil, particularly in the Pacific Northwest of America. But that trend has been halted, not by organic standards, but by erosion control methods and high technology. Farmers create erosion barriers and contours using GPS-guided tractors, sowing looping whorls into their fields precisely matched to the slope of the land.

More recently, no-till agriculture has become prominent in the Midwest. No-till, as it is practiced on capital-intensive American farms involves planting daikon radishes, which grow deep into the soil, breaking it up like a plow, then spraying herbicide before planting, thus killing the radishes and allowing them to decompose into the soil. This is practically heresy to organic advocates. But, for the most part, it works. Soil erosion has decreased precipitously in the last few decades due to techniques like this.

Meanwhile, organic farmers are a mixed bag. Organic farming on a large scale (which is where the stuff in the organic section of the grocery store comes from) requires large-scale capital-intensive methods. And when you can’t use herbicide, that means weed control by tillage. Which almost certainly means erosion.

Good land management under organic standards is labor-intensive. That is a fact. It requires more good farmers stewarding the land. This is my ideal, as well as the ideal of the organic idealogues. But it may not be the whole story of agriculture in the 21st century.

So is organic best? Maybe. It depends. Will the future bring us a food system based 100% on today’s organic standards? Probably not. But that doesn’t excuse us from looking the other way while our food is being made. Our food’s future will involve a plurality of practices, and the range and sustainability of those practices will be determined by our consumer choices now.

So the answer is, as always, that it’s complicated. I’ll write more on these issues later.

  1. blt said:

    Seth, This is good stuff, and important. I’m chewing on my response. I believe there is a deeper issue at work here and I want to be able to articulate my thoughts a little more clearly before i lay them out there for target practice.

    • Seth Morgan said:

      Yeah, I’m sure there are a number of levels of analysis I left out of this post. I’m interested to hear what you have to say.

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