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Editorial: Family feud

Everyone has that cousin, uncle or sibling.

You love them, they’re family after all, but sometimes you just don’t like them much.

Maybe it’s their insistence on talking about their controversial politics over Christmas dinner. Perhaps it’s the way they can’t just talk about how much they like their new tractor without running down yours. Or they could simply cheer for the wrong football or hockey team.

Truth is, we can all rub each other the wrong way at times, and a bit of friction is nothing unusual, especially within families.

After all, you don’t get to pick your family, but for most of us, there’s no choice but to love them, even when they’re getting on our nerves.

The agriculture family is no different, and nowhere is there an issue that sparks more debate than the organic/conventional production split.

Conventional farmers frequently feel the organic industry paints them in an unfavourable light, often for marketing purposes, and resent that.

Meantime organic growers are, within the sector, too often dismissed as unrealistic dreamers who, somehow, aren’t “real” farmers and shouldn’t be listened to under any circumstances.

But the truth is, both have a lot to offer, and if both sides of this debate could set the intrafamily animosity aside, they might benefit a lot from talking to each other.

In the past couple of weeks a pair of studies have highlighted this issue. The first is a University of British Columbia review that’s garnered a lot of headlines for its conclusions that organic products are no healthier, but may offer a better environmental outcome. The second comes from the United Nations, which calls for phasing out the use of “dangerous pesticides” in farming and moving toward “more sustainable” agriculture practices.

It might be tempting for both sides of this debate to simply use the studies as further ammunition to try to drive their points home. But a better approach is to look for areas of common interest within them. The most obvious is in the realm of sustainability. Both sectors have problems here, and both have something to offer the other.

Conventional crop farmers, for example, use crop protection products just a bit too freely, often without consideration for the long-term implications of the strategy.

It’s easy to understand why. After all, modern herbicides are a miracle in a jug, dispensing reliable and affordable control of yield-robbing weeds. Today’s large-scale commercial farmer has a lot of acres to cover in a season and simple solutions to this problem are very attractive as a result. But near-constant use of just a handful of products is setting the stage for real trouble, as any weed control expert can and will tell them — if only these farmers would listen.

The sector’s burgeoning challenge with herbicide resistance is an existential threat to these tools, and by extension the farms that rely heavily on them. One by one the dominoes are lining up and eventually, unless farmers react by changing the system, they’ll begin to topple in earnest.

Organic farmers have their own Achilles heel that’s often overlooked. One of the cornerstones of their production system is still tillage, and over time the effects of excess tillage are well understood.

It mines soil carbon, in the form of organic matter. It can encourage wind and water erosion through the breakdown of the soil structure. The act of tillage itself can also frequently move more soil than either of these more publicized sources.

Both have a problem with the sustainability of their use of phosphorus. Organic farmers, it’s often said, mine the phosphorus from their soils. Meanwhile conventional farmers use phosphate sources mined from far-flung regions like Africa.

In a story in our March 22 issue of the Manitoba Co-operator (“Organic agriculture no panacea: study,” by Ron Friesen), University of Manitoba professor, Martin Entz notes a distinct softening of the hard line both camps have been taking, something that should be viewed positively.

Conventional farmers may find, when talking with their organic neighbours, that there are tools they can borrow. The organic industry has, after all, been struggling with the challenge of how to grow crops without chemistry, and many of their strategies could have cross-application to extending the life of valuable crop protection products.

Meanwhile, organic researchers admit farmers who rely too much on tillage are courting trouble, and in recent years there’s been a lot of effort to try to figure out how to reduce tillage or manage around it and growing interest in organic no-till research.

It’s impossible to say what the final outcome of this trend will be, but these two types of farming seem to have some common ground.

We’re all part of the same large and occasionally fractious family, and should tolerate each other.

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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