Editorial: Ideology and modern farming

Whenever the subject of organic agriculture surfaces in a discussion about modern farming, the “yabuts” start flowing fast and sometimes, furiously.

Ya but organic farmers don’t produce as much as “conventional‚” farmers do, so if everyone went organic, there would be shortages, more pressure on land and higher food prices. And so it goes.

Those “yabuts‚”are rooted in a certain ideology about agriculture that is deeply entrenched in practice, policy and even our language — a view that organic agriculture is an outdated and inefficient farming system that romanticizes the good old days.

John P. Reganold and Jonathon M. Wachter, authors of a newly released report from the University of Washington, trace it back to former U.S. agriculture secretary Earl Butz — the same guy who encouraged farmers in the early 1970s to grow fencerow to fencerow.

“Before we go back to organic agriculture in this country, somebody must decide which 50 million Americans we are going to let starve or go hungry, “Butz reportedly said in 1971.

This latest study, “Organic Agriculture in the 21st Century,” appears in the February issue of the journal Nature Plants. Reganold, a University of Washington professor of soil science and agro-ecology, and doctoral candidate Jonathan Wachter, analyzed 40 years of science comparing organic and conventional agriculture against four metrics of sustainability as identified by the National Academy of Sciences: productivity, economics, environment, and community well-being.

Organic production systems compare favourably on three out of the four.

The analysis challenges conventional thinking in the ongoing debate over how agriculture can best meet the needs of the world’s growing population without destroying the planet.

It’s not ideological to say that organic farming systems yield fewer bushels per acre. That’s a fact. The Washington University report found organic farming systems yield on average eight to 25 per cent less than chemically based systems. But it is a fact of diminishing significance as that gap closes thanks to better seed, growing conditions and management.

The ideology lies in the assumptions that the pursuit of high-yield agriculture will “feed the world” and that it will reduce the pressure on the world’s remaining undeveloped lands. In reality, that pressure continues at a relentless pace through high prices and low.

There is also a certain ideology in the language describing conventional farming as “modern” and organic as about “going back.” While organic production systems don’t use the chemical production aids developed over the past 50 years or so, today’s organic farmers know far more about managing biological systems than their grandparents did.

There are environmental costs to crop inputs such as nitrogen that aren’t fully accounted for in the price of food. Cash-strapped governments looking for ways to mitigate and adapt to climate change are starting to notice.

The research into organic and perennial cropping systems could provide answers to conventional farmers too. The evidence shows the organic model delivers healthier soil with better water-holding capacity, uses less energy, and emits fewer greenhouse gases. The study cites “some evidence” it produces more nutritious food too, although that remains hotly debated.

As for the argument,“ya but organic foods cost more,” that’s absolutely true. Where it gets ideological is debating whether that’s a good or bad thing.

Consumers vote with their dollars. The WSU study noted sales of organic foods and beverages increased fivefold to US$72 billion between 1999 and 2013 and they are expected to double again by 2018. Demand continues to grow faster than the available supply.

The fact that there is a growing subset of the consuming public that is willing to pay more to eat should be celebrated in agriculture, not scorned.

That’s not to say organic is for everyone. Nor should this editorial be misconstrued as promoting this system over others.

There are barriers to entry into organic farming, beginning with the three years of transition before a person can collect those premiums. It requires a different mindset and is more labour intensive. Existing farm policy tends to support the status quo.

But as a business proposition, it’s a legitimate one, especially in an era when society is looking for agriculture to be part of a sustainable solution, instead of being part of the problem.

Farm organizations have been lobbying governments for more than a decade for policies that reward farmers for delivering environmental goods and services. Organic farmers are already being rewarded — through the marketplace.

About the author

Editor

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator and Editorial Director for Farm Business Communications. She is an award-winning journalist who has covered agriculture and rural issues for more than 30 years.

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