Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Questioning Organic?

A few weeks ago, I read an interesting blog post from Mark Bittman in the New York Times' Opinionator blog about agricultural sustainability and scalability and whether small-scale, organic and other non-conventional agricultural methods can feed the world in the long term. His review of reports and articles on both sides of the debate shows that there are some major organizations, such as the UN Human Rights Council, coming around to the organic side. However there are other respected sources, particularly The Economist in a special issue devoted to the topic, that still see this type of agriculture as a privilege of affluent westerners.

The arguments opposing organic are so common that they seem to be often taken as truth - that organic farming may be nice to the earth, but it isn't realistic because it neither scales nor is affordable to most. While I wouldn't normally quote blog responses, I think that one particular response to the post is a concise and articulate summary of this view. Quigly states, in a comment recommended by almost 200 readers:

"As a farmer, I find it unfortunate how inaccurate this article is. There are a number of organic farms in the area and they are consistently the least productive and most resource intensive production system… Until we have an honest scientific discussion on actual production costs and yields of various systems of production, people are going to continue to be misled into believing they are saving the world through organic agriculture. "

In following the many debates related to food and sustainability, I always find myself feeling the same way when I encounter these arguments…Angry and full of doubt. My instincts tell me to support CSAs, organic farming, to boycott GMOs and other forms of food produced or influenced by large corporations. But as an American that has access to incredible local, organic food, and the means to afford its higher cost, I grudgingly admit that I don't really believe that it is realistic for most people.

This is the core of my internal conflict - I can't accept a food system completely controlled by corporations and scientists, using massive quantities of chemicals and fossil fuels, with little regard for sustainability, in which we still have widespread world poverty. So while I firmly stand on the side of organic and local agriculture, I also can't ignore its shortcomings.

Then I had an epiphany - perhaps my anger arises because the question is really hard to answer and there is no right or wrong side, and that if I have doubts it is exactly because I have been trying to stay unequivocally on one side and blind myself to opposing points of view.

Wait, wait, wait, what question? I get so emotional that I often forget. The real question is whether our current food system satisfies the basic needs of the world, and if not, what improvements, such as organic farming, can we make? In trying to answer this question, the goal should not to be to win an emotional debate, but rather to open-mindedly seek the best answer to this complex problem. This can be done by first, deciding what those basic needs are - the values a good food system should support - and then critiquing each strategy (organic, conventional, GMO, CSA) for how well it supports and balances these values.

The basic values upon which we should build a food system (summarized from The Food System: A Guide) are:

sustainable, secure, safe, sufficient, nutritious, and equitable

I imagine that the pioneers of organic farming were trying to form a more sustainable, safe and nutritious system, but the weak points that are obviously still being debated by the critics are its security, sufficiency and equitability. And I now feel that debating these points honestly is exactly the right thing to do because getting the complete picture of the strengths and weakness of all possible agricultural models will help get us to the best possible system.

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