Does organic agriculture have a future?
For some, such as well-known plant scientist E. Ann Clark, organic is the future.
In a paper released earlier this year, the University of Guelph professor joined those who say that the end of cheap oil will mean the end of conventional agriculture as it’s currently practised.
“(T)he future is organic because the design drivers that have shaped and moulded the current agri-food system are changing, demanding a wholly new, and largely organic, approach to agriculture,” Clark wrote in a paper entitled “The future is organic (but it’s more than organic).”
Her vision of this new agriculture is one that mimics nature by growing fewer annual crops and more perennial ones, such as forages, and more livestock to convert those forages into human food.
MORE THAN ORGANIC
Clark isn’t advocating a return to the time prior to the Second World War when most farming was chemical free, but something that goes beyond that.
“The issue of resolving the problem of ecologically unsound farming is more than replacing these inputs with rotations and composting,” she wrote.
“Post-oil realities will advantage small-scale, organic, locally sourced, seasonal, and minimally processed food, just as cheap oil selected for bigness, resource-based production, globalization, and processing/packaging/ refrigeration.”
Clark is hardly alone in noticing agriculture’s reliance on cheap oil.
Subsistence farmers in Indonesia produce 40 times more energy than they use to grow crops, Thomas Homer-Dixon of the University of Waterloo’s Balsillie School of International Affairs, said in a recent interview.
“We (in the developed world) invest about 40 times more energy per square metre than we get out of it,” he said.
“We can’t run the system without huge amounts of cheap energy.”
BEG TO DIFFER
Not everyone sees organic production as the future. Some dismiss it as a marketing opportunity aimed at misguided yuppies who can afford to pay a premium for food.
Critic Dennis Avery argues organic is actually harmful to the planet.
Synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, along with genetically modified crops, have created a “high-yield agriculture” that produces more food on less land than organic, using soil-saving techniques such as zero till, says Avery, director of the Center for Global Food Issues and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
Switching to organic will cause starvation and destroy fragile lands like the Amazon rainforest, according to Avery, author of Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic: The Environmental Triumph of High-Yield Farming.
Organic promoters say that line of argument is just spin doctoring.
Conventional agriculture only appears to be more efficient because many of the costs, including those to the environment, are “externalized” paid for by society, rather than the farmer or food purchaser, responds Clark. She points to the hypoxic (low-oxygen) zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River which covers 20,000 square kilometres, and is growing. The zone is caused by excess nutrients, much of which comes from farmers’ fields, flowing out of the river.
“Global hunger is the best marketing hook any (agricultural chemical) company has ever been given,” said Martin Entz, a professor of cropping systems and agronomy at the University of Manitoba.
“And the GM producing businesses are using this in overdrive to try and convince people to soften regulations to get their products on the market.”
Entz said the real question isn’t whether organic agriculture can feed the world, it’s why are there a billion hungry people when there’s enough food to feed them?
Other advocates, such as Virginia farmer Joel Salatin, argue organic is up to the task.
Today’s organic farm is nothing like grandpa’s farm, according to Salatin. He cites widespread use of portable electric fencing to incorporate livestock into crop farms, and the gains made in employing compost. [email protected]