Toward a better agriculture… for everyone

A recent paper in PLoS concluded:

we reject the organic-conventional dichotomy and emphasize that, in order to optimize environmental sustainability, individual tactics must be evaluated for their environmental impact in the context of an integrated approach, and that policy decisions must be based on empirical data and objective risk-benefit analysis, not arbitrary classifications.

The paper was Choosing Organic Pesticides over Synthetic Pesticides May Not Effectively Mitigate Environmental Risk in Soybeans (full text) by Christine Bahlai et al. Long story short, the research showed that some synthetic pesticides were more environmentally benign than some organic pesticides, showing that it’s inaccurate to say that organic pesticides are better for the environment. Sometimes they are, and sometimes they are not.

The paper itself is really great, deserving of its own post (see Organic pesticides aren’t necessarily more sustainable than synthetic by Colby Vorland), but I’d like to talk about the organic-conventional divide. Normally I don’t approve of thoughts in scientific journal articles that aren’t immediately related to the research, too often authors stray into questionable territory. But Christine’s thoughts here are immediately related to her findings, and her results may indicate that big changes are necessary in the way we think about farming.

Separating out “organic” as defined by the USDA may be beneficial in the short term for farmers that have transitioned to certified organic methods who can then charge a premium, but in the long term, the divide is a detriment to farmers, consumers, and the environment. If we really care about farming in a more environmentally friendly fashion, we need an entirely new system.

We all want the same things*:

  1. healthy food that is accessible to everyone regardless of location or income
  2. farmers that can afford to farm and to pay fair wages to their employees
  3. conservation of resources (especially soil!) and protection of ecosystems

We can get those things through three complimentary and often intertwined avenues:

  1. demand
  2. policy
  3. research

Demand driven change seems to be moving along. We see lots about healthy food in popular media, increasing popularity of farmers’ markets, talk of adding cooking classes to public schools, and a push to make school lunches healthier, just to name a few. More could be done, but it is happening. We might have different ideas of what exactly constitutes healthy food, but I don’t think anyone’s arguing that more fruits and veggies is a bad idea. Ok, probably someone is, but let’s just agree to ignore them.

Policy driven change seems to be moving along as well. Michelle Obama is leading the charge with her Let’s Move program that touches many government programs. Kathleen Merrigan is pushing for help for local food systems, even while Tom Vilsack works mostly within the status quo. As demand for healthier food increases, senators and congressmen will be more likely to support policy changes at the federal level, especially if we somehow start electing people with backgrounds other than business. Yes, it would be nice if everything changed faster, but it’s going to take a while to change a system that’s been in place for 40+ years.

With both demand and policy, the important thing is to keep pushing for changes, and over time things will change. Optimistic, simplistic, yes, but true. The alternative is revolution, which would probably suit some people, but is more than a little extreme.

That leaves us with research. Research is what informs both demand and policy – or at least it should be. Research can provide us with information about which methods are preferable to others, such as which pesticides would have the least impact on farm and off farm ecosystems. Research, if properly applied, can help guide demand and policy to improve human and environmental health, among other things.

Here’s the problem, to borrow from the pesticide comparison paper: not enough “empirical data and objective risk-benefit analysis” and too much “arbitrary classification”. When demand and policy are based on arbitrary classifications like “natural is better” without research to back it up, we end up with demand and policy that are ineffective at best. We also end up with unnecessary divisions that cause efforts to be split, even though we all really want the same thing.

Let’s look at organics as defined by the USDA:

…an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity… The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people. (USDA National Organic Standards Board definition, April 1995)

or agriculture that does

…respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. (CFR Regulatory Text, 7 CFR Part 205, Subpart A — Definitions. § 205.2)

Sounds great, right? Except that by separating organic out from the rest of agriculture, we’re implying two things:

  1. that non-organic-certified farmers don’t have these goals in mind
  2. that they don’t have to.

It probably is true that some conventional** farmers don’t care about their soil, don’t conserve resources, etc. But those aren’t going to be very sucessful farmers if their soil is poor and they have to buy way more fertilizer than their neighbors, for example. If you lined up all of the farmers in the US according to their soil quality, I bet you’d find a bell curve. In each category from bad to great soil, you’d find some conventional and some organic farmers. According to the research, organic methods can be better for soils than conventional methods***, but there is so much variation in how farmers actually apply the methods that a one farm to one farm comparison really doesn’t tell the whole story.

There are many conventional farmers that apply integrated pest management, that use rotations to reduce crop-specific pests, that use legume rotations to help reduce the amount of nitrogen that needs to be applied, that use planting methods that decrease soil compaction, and so on. And there are organic farmers that just do the minimum to keep certified. And a whole range between.

Even if we assume that, on average, organically farmed soils are superior in organic matter, microbial activity, etc, we’re still not saying much. “Certified organic cropland and pasture accounted for about 0.6 percent of U.S. total farmland in 2008”, according to the USDA. When we make regulations for such a very small portion of farms, we’re not actually doing anything at all. Consumers should demand environmentally friendly methods from the other 99.4% of farms and policy should be made that includes all of those farms – and all of it needs to be based on sound research.

Ideally, demand and policy would be based on those methods that have been shown to work. If additional research confirmed that using mineral oil was more harmful to farm ecosystems than one or more synthetic pesticides, then one would hope to see demand and policy encourage use of the insect control strategy that had the least impact instead of arbitrarily choosing the “natural” method over a synthetic. Right now, there’s little if any research driving demand or policy. Instead, we have ideology.

Infighting over whether organic or not-organic is better, can feed the world, blah blah blah, isn’t actually helping anyone. The reality is that some methods used by some organic farmers are superb and some might not be. Some should be widely adopted, and some might even be more harmful their conventional counterparts (see the study I started this post with). Complicate that with the fact that not all farmers use the same methods and trying to decide whether organic is better becomes completely futile.

The research looks at individual methods, not arbitrary classifications – which is  really the only effective way to look at things. What we really need is a system that rewards farmers for environmentally friendly farming practices****. A farmer that uses legume rotations for nitrogen but still needs to use some synthetic N, P, and K  to maintain good soil nutrients should be rewarded or recognized somehow if he uses application methods that have been shown to reduce runoff. A farmer that uses integrated pest management to reduce chemical pesticide application that farmer should be recognized.

Hypothetical label touting E-value of contents.

Perhaps there could be a scoring system where environmentally friendly methods are given a number value and farmers with higher values can seek a higher price from buyers that are interested in such things. I can easily imagine a box of corn flakes labeled “made from corn with E-values of 100 or higher!” Another option might be to revamp the whole subsidy system to focus on farming practices, where farmers could have a financial incentive to choose environmentally friendly practices, epecially in cases where a change from one method to another would have an initial capital cost (like new tilling equipment) or when the change might reduce yields or income.

Let’s put aside the petty squabbling and focus on the research that has the potential to guide 100% of farms toward more sustainable methods. Not enough research? Let’s demand better federal funding for relevant projects. Let’s demand policy that helps all farmers and all land, not just some.

So, farmers organic and conventional, advocates of various farming methods, consumers, economists, policy analysts, everyone… What sorts of incentive systems might work? Would you spend a little more for a product that you knew was made with ingredients that were sustainable grown? Would this whole crazy idea be just too expensive to implement? Would the cost be mitigated by the benefits?

ResearchBlogging.orgBahlai CA, Xue Y, McCreary CM, Schaafsma AW, & Hallett RH (2010). Choosing organic pesticides over synthetic pesticides may not effectively mitigate environmental risk in soybeans. PloS one, 5 (6) PMID: 20582315


* Yes, agribusiness wants something else – money. But I’m talking about people, not corporations here. And if you think organic agribusiness cares any less about money than other companies, you are simply naive.

** I really don’t like the word conventional, but it’s better than saying “non-organic-certified” every time I want to mention farmers that aren’t organic certified.

*** To name one recent study that shows healthier soil under organic methods:  Moeskops B, et al. 2010. Soil microbial communities and activities under intensive organic and conventional vegetable farming in West Java, Indonesia. Applied soil ecology 45(2)112-120. Within the confines of this particular study, organic soils are closer to local forest soils, but I bet there are farms which would show the opposite to be true. As with all studies, we have to be careful to remember that the findings apply within the conditions of the study and may or may not apply elsewhere.

****I’m not advocating a dissolution of the certified organic system. It’s not perfect, but it’s all we’ve got at the moment. I’m just saying we can have a system that actually works to improve all farms, and organic can keep doing whatever its adherents want.