I told a story a little while ago and received an interesting comment; here’s most of it:
Local food, organic food, “real” food produces less per unit of land farmed without a demonstrable improvement in nourishment. Do you really want to have to expand the amount of land in cultivation to feed the earth? Wholesale going “local” means having more limited diets. As long as this is limited to zealots and those who want to be accepted by their organic friends, and for whom the amount of their income spent on food is negligible, that’s great. It’s a lifestyle expense. But if you want to feed the prisons, the hospitals, the schools, and do it on a budget, this is an awful, awful approach.
He’s right, but just kinda.
Where he’s right: Organic farming, as it’s commonly imagined and implemented, does have higher costs, lower yields, and more resource requirements because of the lower yields. That’s because organic farming is little more than conventional farming with all the tools taken away. It’s a well-intended but insane way to farm, and it will kill us all if we decide this is the way to “fix” agriculture.
His response includes a number of assumptions, of which I will point out a few to discuss:
- He presumes the Organic Shahada: There is no Organic but Organic, and the USDA is his prophet. Or less controversially: Local = Real = Organic = Sustainable = Organic = Real = Local
- Methods for producing economically viable yields don’t exist outside of conventional, non-organic agriculture
- Going Local means more limited diets without improvements in quality
- “Budget” food produced by conventional agriculture reflect their real costs
Let’s address these in reverse order.
Food from Conventional Farms is Cheap
This won’t the be first time in the last five minutes you’ve heard this said: the price tag on food that makes its way to the grocery store, schools, etc. doesn’t reflect its real cost. Your taxes pay for commodity subsidies and crop insurance among several other programs that keep industrial farms on life support; you’re grocery shopping every time HR withholds Federal taxes from your paycheck. And though it’s several steps removed from our wallets, there is a real economic cost to conventional farming’s degradation of soil; namely that more soil isn’t being made, meaning that conventional farming should more accurately be described as surface mining. Those of us reading this will likely not be alive when the mine goes dry; but whoever’s stuck here when the population hits 10 billion almost certainly will. Assuming there’s any food left to be grown at all, it won’t be cheap no matter how it’s produced.
Limited Diets and No Health Improvements
Here’s a fun fact: my Algonquian speaking ancestors — who ate an exclusively local diet — regularly consumed over 100 different varieties of plants and fungi (most of which were actively cultivated), and at least three-dozen different types of animal protein. Now let’s compare that to our diets. It’s safe to say that the overwhelming majority of what you’ll eat this year will be composed of soy, corn, wheat, sugar beets, chicken, beef, pork, eggs, and maybe a dozen varieties of annual vegetables. And then compare that to the three-dozen varieties of grasses and forbs enjoyed by grass-fed cattle on good pasture, and you’ll encounter the depressing reality that rotationally-grazed livestock enjoys a better diet and lower taxes than most Americans.
But this probably isn’t what the commenter is referring to. Rather, he’s likely referring to the fact that you won’t be able to enjoy orange juice or coffee or bananas or coconut water if you don’t live in places where those things grow. He’s also likely referencing new(ish) research that proves organic food isn’t necessarily nutritionally superior to conventional. The first part makes the assumption that OJ and coffee wouldn’t be replaced by anything else, and the second part a.) supposes that conventional and organic foods must travel on the same supply chain, and b.) ignores the other finding of that same research — eating food close to the date and location of harvest carries stunning health benefits.
Only Conventional Agriculture Produces Viable Yields
This is the big one. A typical engineered corn field will produce somewhere on the order of 15 million calories per acre, which is an incredible amount of food. “There’s no way,” skeptics of organic cry, “an organic corn field will be able to match those yields without engineered seed, fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides!”
And they’re absolutely correct.
Because they’re assuming it’s a good idea to grow a corn field.
People like me who are driven to feed the world sustainably (and not just admonishing people to give up their iPhones so they can pay $4/lb for Cherokee purple tomatoes) are obsessed with a permaculture concept called multistory agriculture. In this system, large monocrop fields — which produce high yields of a single crop — are replaced in temperate regions with silvopasture — which produces a high yield across multiple crops, including animal protein, in the same space. There are a couple of standout examples of farms meeting or exceeding the yields of conventional field agriculture; the foundation on whose board I sit is reorienting its entire mission around creating the world’s largest food forest as a model for public land management and high-yielding sustainable foodscapes in non-traditional spaces. The foundation is also sponsoring technical innovations to disrupt overly-centralized, vertically-integrated food distribution systems that drive inequities in access to wholesome food.
I’m not claiming these techniques and technologies are mature and ready to compete with conventional agriculture today — and that’s the entire point of the original article: we need to pour our energy into developing these concepts instead of doubling down on a mining system posing as agriculture.
Local = Real = Organic = Sustainable = Organic = Real = Local
The following statement underlies the entirety of every argument that’s ever made against organic/local/sustainable.
Large fields of staple crops or CAFO operations filled with miserable overbred animals are the only way to realistically produce food, and there are only two ways to do it: with engineering, or without.
This argument denies the possibilities presented by permaculture*, and rejects the notion that innovation can occur outside the reductive factory model that feeds the world today, but will starve the world in a century.
It’s an argument that insists all solutions lie in engineered seeds, precision agriculture, drones, miracle crops (pulses, y’all!), simplification, and automation. But it doesn’t address the risks of global soil deterioration. Or dependence on dwindling supplies of petrochemicals. Or pest resistance and antibiotic resistance, and the risk they introduce to a food supply that relies on a small and shrinking number of staple crops. It pretends that vanishing institutional knowledge of growing food isn’t a problem; we should be TERRIFIED that fewer than 1 in 100 Americans actually knows how to grow enough food to feed a family or more. And it says nothing of the geopolitical upheaval that awaits when it’s not just the developing world dealing with systemic food insecurity.
There are a lot of problems to address when it comes to sustainability. But the difference between proposing solutions and implementing them is the difference between campaigning and governing. It’s easy to demand reductions in population growth, global adoption of vegetarian diets, or the proliferation of permaculture farms if, after so doing, you just drop the mic and excuse yourself from the hard part: designing a solution to make it happen and mitigate — or absorb — the consequences.
In designing and implementing our ideas, there’s a real chance that we’ll be wrong, or look foolish, or otherwise open ourselves up to ridicule, derision, or accusations of “selling out” if we have the unmitigated gall to alter course on the basis of evidence**. But, with the lives of every human being on Earth at stake, there’s little time for vanity; I’m looking forward to looking very, very stupid for at long as I’m lucky enough to be alive.
*A movement which often suffers from a frustrating lack of conscientious ambition and pragmatism.
* Also see: “Science.”
Chris Newman is a farmer in central Virginia, and can run real fast and jump real high. Visit our farm on Instagram and Twitter at @sylvanaquafarms. Please click the green heart button so my wife will think I’m cool. Like what I write? Your support here gives me more time to do it.