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Something to think about.

June 17, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of farming these days, and more specifically along the lines of what farmers need to be doing not only for their own farms to survive, but for the survival of the food system as a whole. Yeah, that’s an intense topic, but it is everpresent in my world right now, and I just came across an article that perfectly outlines where my thought process has been drifting.

These days we are surrounded by words and ideas like “organic”, “biodynamic”, “sustainable”, “local” and so on. Growers and consumers alike are putting these issues at the forefront of their priorities, and rightly so. We are standing on the edge of a food catastrophe – from supply, nutrition, human/animal rights, environmental and sustainable standpoints. Farmers and consumers have seen this coming for decades and have been taking steps to address these issues, and the mass population is finally taking notice.

But I worry that the steps we are taking are shallow and not wholly informed, at least for the most part. With the current path we are on, consumers are becoming far too wrapped up in terms like “organic”, and are relying too heavily on labels to make their purchasing decisions. That is obviously far from an informed “food awareness”, and some producers are taking advantage of this system and using these concepts strictly as marketing techniques, not fully incorporating these concepts into their operations, and finding loopholes to skirt around different aspects. Granted, this is a generalization and I’m not speaking about the industry and consumers as a whole, but this is definitely taking place on a large scale and needs to be considered.

In addition, the idea that large scale organic practices and local purchasing power is going to create a sustainable food economy and save our food system falls short of reality. And this is where my thoughts have been focused lately. I recently started working with a large family farm that is not certified organic, but operates as sustainably as possible, and in some cases, might as well be considered organic. They feel that going through the 3 year certification process, and taking on the financial expense of doing so, isn’t worth it. At least not right now. For the scale that this farm operates, organic methods are not economically ideal – they could not produce enough product to make the investment worthwhile.

Which leads me to the big picture. Can these methods alone, like organic or local, really address the food crisis? Can we really feed the world population if we convert everything to organic? As the author, Paul Roberts, states, “A $4 heirloom tomato is hardly going to save the world.” The issue is multi-dimensional, and needs to be addressed from multiple angles. The fine print written into “organic”, “local” and “food miles” needs to be explored (and is explored in the article).

But my job is to find new, direct marketing avenues for this farm, and when I talk to places like New Seasons and Whole Foods, where these “informed consumers” tend to shop, the store purchasers only want certified organic products, because that’s what their customers want. But what if my bell peppers are farmed sustainably, and more “organically” than some of these certified growers, by a family that has been in the business for generations? Personally, I want to buy that bell pepper.

So the general theme of this article is that there needs to be more acceptance for alternative methods and the reality of what it takes to produce our food sustainably.

I could go on, but it’s all in the article if you can spare 20 minutes to read it. It’s really very interesting, and brings a lot of very controversial topics to the surface (as demonstrated by the heated “comments section”). I don’t have any answers, and frankly, I’m hovering over the argument, debating where I think I fit in. I can’t quite figure it out… but I’d like to think that the Dirtbox, and all that we are trying to do here, is a positive effort in the long run, and that we can educate ourselves as we progress down this journey.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. nadine permalink
    June 18, 2009 10:45 pm

    I just read your blog post, and I totally agree with some of the points you brought up. With what I do here at work, I’m constantly bombarded with those types of comments like “a $4 heirloom tomato is not going to change the world”, or “go drive a prius and save the world” and I always bristle because they’re pithy and fun and people remember them… but it skirts over the bigger issue of how we’re treating our ag soils for long term sustainability, and is dismissive of the bigger issue. It’s true that the impact that organics has on the environment may be negated by the fact that that same organic produce has to get trucked all over the world to land on the plate of a Midwestern Whole Foods consumer. But every single thing we do to our soils affects something tremendously important that we’re just starting to understand… how our soils sequester Carbon, and what that does to our atmosphere, and how that affects global climate change.

    The trouble with conventional agriculture is that it deals with degraded soils by adding more products to compensate… where organics will ALWAYS trump over conventional is by not having the ability to use fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides with the same degree of efficacy as conventional products. So if you’re an organic grower, you have to find a way to build soil organic matter or… you can’t make your operation financially viable. It forces the issue. Cuba has somehow found a way of feeding their entire population without using synthetic ag products simply because they couldn’t get them because of trade embargos… it CAN be done. The trouble is, we always look for the ‘easy’ way out first. It’s easier to truck in organic produce from Chile than to grow it here, apparently.

    I need to find this statistic for my presentation next week, but there’s something out there that compares the amount of CO2 produced by over-cultivation and over-farming of soils when compared to vehicle emissions, and it turns out that Carbon released by the microbes in the soil as a result of loss of organic matter is higher than all the cars in the world combined.

    So, organics isn’t perfect, and our system of consumption of organics isn’t the answer either. But it shouldn’t be necessarily dismissed in favor of ‘local’ if local isn’t moving forward in the right direction either. I’d still rather buy organic bananas (vote to save tropical ecosystems) than eat local conventionally grown strawberries (allow for the use of fumigants and fungicides that degrade soil) for example.

  2. nadine permalink
    June 18, 2009 11:02 pm

    p.s. regarding the Mother Jones article, a great read is Fukuoka’s “One Straw Revolution” that talks about no-till agriculture and managing the whole farm ecosystem so that he DOESN’T need to use herbicides to make it productive. The grower mentioned in the article has it half-right, but stopped short of solving that problem for why he’s got those weeds cropping up in the first place. Fukuoka uses animals integrated into his system to eat weed seeds, etc… and has such a vast understanding of ecology, it’s awe inspiring.

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