And, in the industrial corner …

Everyone’s jumping into the industrial versus organic fray (again) with most of the usual suspects making most of the expected noises. One contribution, though, did surprise me somewhat. I have a lot of time for Matt Ridley’s writing, and I’m looking forward to his new book The Rational Optimist. At his blog devoted to the book he has a post on “organic’s footprint” that is either deliberately misleading or else accidentally thoughtless.

One foolishness that a commenter there has already picked up on is this:

Given that … it takes just about the same calories of fossil fuels to get an organic lettuce from a Californian farm to a plate in New York — 4,600 versus 4,800 (numbers from Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma) — can we please have a little less preaching of organic’s holiness?

Talk about a straw man. Who, seriously, imagines that an organic lettuce from California is a good substitute for an industrial lettuce from California in New York? No-one I know, apart maybe from some organic marketeers, who are no better than marketeers anywhere.

Ridley’s main point seems to be that cereal yields per hectare have risen steadily since the 1960s.

That remarkable achievement is mostly down to the fact that most farmers now get extra nitrogen straight from the air, via ammonium factories, rather than from plants, dung and dead fish — the `organic’ way.

If the world was fed with organic food, it follows, we would need to cultivate or otherwise exploit far, far more land to get the plants, dung and dead fish to produce the same amount of food. As I submit to being preached at by organic farmers about their virtue, this fact keeps creeping into my head. Wholly organic farming means no rainforests or it means hunger and high food prices.

A phalanx of straw men. Never mind about the energy needed to get that nitrogen from the air. He could perhaps persuade me to be optimistic about that, even though things aren’t moving too fast on that front. Water? Other energy needs? Why not go the whole rational hog, and press for the Müller solution. Move all agriculture to where it does best, and give it what it needs to deliver. You could grow all the food that 12 billion people would need, with double today’s meat consumption, in a fraction of the area currently occupied by agriculture (see maps in this paper).

I’m not going to dissect Ridley’s post point by point. It isn’t worth it, and Gary has already provided the excellent synthesis that Luigi craved. To quote:

Good farmers are never “organic”. They also aren’t conventional as they are characterized by “organic” growers. The caricatures are devised by “organic” advocates to demonize other growers in the hope of somehow elevating themselves. Good farmers are concerned with producing good food and doing good land management so that they and their descendants can earn a living farming in future. The production methods they use are evaluated by that standard rather than a set of taboos or ungrounded regulations. They are realists who will use any available method that helps them achieve their objectives.

To which I would add that it isn’t only the organic farmers who demonize others. Bagmen for conventional agriculture are just as capable of demonization, as Ridley so eloquently demonstrates. But I’ll give Gary the last word, for now.

There’s a lot of room for improvement. We can get very much better at agriculture. The sterile conflict between “organic” and other growers does not help. We need to move beyond organic to a more reality based agriculture that is grounded in knowledge rather than superstition.

5 Replies to “And, in the industrial corner …”

  1. I totally agree that there are some ridiculous proponents of industrial ag that seem to have completely forgotten about science whatsoever. But at the same time, I wonder what are the ratios of crazy to non-crazy on each side of this manufactured pseudodebate.

  2. I think that it’s pundits rather than growers that get exercised about these things. It’s marketing and politics rather than farm gate concerns. I know a lot of growers and they do business rather than politics. They may think that organic methods are nonsensical, but they will happily use them if it gets them a premium price for their produce that increases revenue more than costs.

    I also know a lot of ranchers who wouldn’t eat a grass fed steak if I gave it to them – actually, I have given them to them and they feed them to their dogs – but they will happily raise grass fed beef for sale to others.

    What they all have in common is that they care for their land and communities, and are scathing about any rogue operators who do not uphold such community standards. I admire them for this even if they insult my steaks. They are good neighbors and that’s what truly matters.

  3. The referenced study is completely one sided. There is currently more than enough food to feed the world. The problem is waste and distribution problems….and greed stemming from agricultural policies. Cheap nitrate and phosphate fertilizers will come to an end soon. High amounts of fossil fuels cannot power agriculture forever. What about the impact on biodiversity of transporting and producing the pesticides? What about off farm biodiversity impact? Rivers, the Gulf and dead zones,.. Organic certainly does not mean more food or more biodiversity per se but it does contribute to a cleaner environment. I am from corn country in the midwest and know that the water is heavily polluted with nitrates and pesticides. Industrial agriculture and genetic engineering are band aids and contribute to the industrialist delusion that science can fix everything.

  4. I see no real impetus for progress beyond the “organic” vs “not-organic” debate as long as “organic” growers/marketers/companies can keep charging double-digit-percentage mark-ups on “organic” brands.

    1. Thanks Sam

      How about if I said that I see no real impetus for progress beyond the “conventional” versus “non-conventional” debate as long as “conventional” growers/marketers/companies can keep receiving subsidies and dump the cost of their externalities on the rest of us?

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