Tuesday, March 10, 2009

At last, the arithmetic sinks in...

What a relief!  My crude ciphering about the organic scalability problem wasn't all that far off.  Some people with initials after their names decided to check and see if the local/organic movement could get the job done.

Think about it. When most of us imagine what a sustainable food economy might look like, chances are we picture a variation on something that already exists—such as organic farming, or a network of local farms and farmers markets, or urban pea patches—only on a much larger scale. The future of food, in other words, will be built from ideas and models that are familiar, relatively simple, and easily distilled into a buying decision: Look for the right label, and you're done.
But that's not the reality. Many of the familiar models don't work well on the scale required to feed billions of people. Or they focus too narrowly on one issue (salad greens that are organic but picked by exploited workers). Or they work only in limited circumstances. (A $4 heirloom tomato is hardly going to save the world.)
Such problems aren't exactly news. Organizations such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (which despite its namesake is a real leader in food reform) have long insisted that truly sustainable food must be not just ecologically benign, but also nutritious, produced without injustice, and affordable. And yet, because concepts like local or organic dominate the alternative food sector, there is little room left for alternative models, such as Fred Fleming's, that might begin to bridge the gap between where our food system is today and where it needs to be.
And how big is that gap? Using the definition of sustainability above, about 2 percent of the food purchased in the United States qualifies. Put another way, we're going to need not only new methods for producing food, but a whole new set of assumptions about what sustainability really means.


In fact, most of the familiar candidates for alternative food would have trouble operating on the kind of scale necessary for a world of 6.7 billion people. Consider what it would take to make our farm system entirely organic. The only reason industrial organic agriculture can get away with replenishing its soils with manure or by planting nitrogen-fixing cover crops is that the industry is so tiny—making up less than 3 percent of the US food supply (and just 5.3 percent even in gung-ho green cultures like Austria's). If we wanted to rid the world of synthetic fertilizer use—and assuming dietary habits remain constant—the extra land we'd need for cover crops or forage (to feed the animals to make the manure) would more than double, possibly triple, the current area of farmland, according to Vaclav Smil, an environmental scientist at the University of Manitoba. Such an expansion, Smil notes, "would require complete elimination of all tropical rainforests, conversion of a large part of tropical and subtropical grasslands to cropland, and the return of a substantial share of the labor force to field farming—making this clearly only a theoretical notion."
[More of a must read for industrial producers in a surprising source]

Matt Yglesias adds his two cents as well.
Now a couple of things on the plus side. There’s pretty ample reason to believe that it would be desirable for dietary habits to not “remain constant.” Americans, and other big-time meat consumers, seem to eat substantially more meat than is healthy for us. A switch to a dynamic in which less meat is eaten, but meat-dollars are held constant so that you get less of a higher-quality product, would be tastier and healthier and move in the direction of sustainability. At the same time, most people aren’t Americans. If the billions of extremely poor people on the planet become less poor (which we should certainly hope for) they’ll want to eat somewhat more meat. So you’re still left with the same basic dilemma.
Roberts has some ideas for more realistic paths to sustainability. But it’s worth highlighting just one insight, namely that one problem with the current organic paradigm is that it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. No-till farming, which Roberts explores, has some substantial environmental benefits over conventional methods including a substantial reduction in the use of artificial herbicides. But because it doesn’t reduce herbicide use to zero it doesn’t qualify as “organic.” Consequently, the current market set-up doesn’t provide any real reward from switching from a less-sustainable to a more-sustainable model.
That kind of focus on all-or-nothing issues reflects organic farming’s origins in quasi-mystical movements and it suits the business model of the “Big Organic” enterprises that have sprung up in recent years. But sound public policy is usually all about impacts at the margin. Doubling the proportion of the U.S. food supply that comes from organic sources would still leave us with 94 percent coming from conventional farms. You would accomplish much more by policies that produce a mild reduction in the ecological footprint of the entire conventional center. [More]

This is not solely an I-told-you-so.  Really. I hope it's more of a plea for industrial producers to contemplate whether we really need to get into the faces of consumers over our issues with organic. Conflict is a luxury, I think right now, so why not let reality and hard numbers lead the food movement to a place where compromise is at least thinkable?

We could do much in our production methodology to address the concerns of more consumers, and simply listening without becoming biotech or herbicide marketers could create a less confrontational atmosphere. Some of the ideas may still strike us as far-fetched, but as this story indicates sooner or later the math forces reality into the mix.

Choice for food buyers is never a bad idea.  Real numbers for food producers isn't either.


Anonymous said...

A book by Dennis Avery - 'Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastics' is a great book on this particular subject. I have always found this subject interesting, how organis and 'gardners' look down on modern large scale production agriculture.

Anonymous said...


There are two mags which I can only stand to pick up occasionally, but, on that basis, never fail to intrigue - Wired, and Mother Jones. MJ is where I first heard of Michael Pollen, Joel Salatin, etc.

This past Sunday in the Washington Post, George Will regurgitated Pollen's anti-corn jeremiad in uncharacteristicly uncritical fashion. The column echoes an essential feature of your men Roberts, Yglesias, and especially their commentors (I hope you read some) - cluelessness about modern farming. My favorite example of same is their treatment of no-till as if it were some avant garde farming method.

Why is it that any reasonable critique (and yes, there are many things about modern ag of which one can be reasonably critical) turns into nonsense squared when the critic starts to gain notoriety?

By the way, do you remember that Roberts was at the Top Producer Seminar in Chicago a couple of years ago? Apparently the end of oil thing isn't working so well for him, so he's moved on to the end of food.

Anonymous said...

I usually try to stay out of these arguments. I have seen commercial organic corn and soybean with yields that are 80 - 90% of conventional or better (this year it was 140 bu on corn and 42 on beans).

Yes it takes more equipment, manpower, timing. There are organic fertilizers available from your nearest animal farm. Clover is a good nitrogen source. Rotation solves a lot of insect challenges. Maybe everyone can't do it, but you should be open to the possibility.

Everyone who enjoys spraying raise their hand!

John Phipps said...


I've tried to be clear about my position, but let me rephrase. The market can sort this out.

The points you make are valid, but IMHO non-scalable. For one, there are NO livestock farms anywhere near our 2100 acres.

Second, corn yields do not average 140 if you divide by the years of rotation to use clover for nitrogen.

Finally, here in first-year rootworm country we would need very long rotations to even touch the problem.

That said, what we have is a simple disagreement much like I have with ethanol supporters. It does not prompt me to scoff at your attempt to supply a market that values the process of production.

The crucial test for me is the premium needed to make organic farms profitable. I think it is an accurate measure of the difference in productivity.

We serve different customers, who want different products. And mine want huge quantities at low prices.


Roberts? You lost me.