Getting There… The Road to an Organic Future

July 13th, 2011 | Simcha Weinstein | Comments Off on Getting There… The Road to an Organic Future

Paul Roberts, a contributing writer with Mother Jones writes, “Organizations such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (which despite its namesake is a real leader in food reform) have long insisted that truly sustainable food must be not just ecologically benign, but also nutritious, produced without injustice, and affordable. And yet, because concepts like local or organic dominate the alternative food sector, there is little room left for alternative models that might begin to bridge the gap between where our food system is today and where it needs to be. And how big is that gap? Using the definition of sustainability above, about 2 percent of the food purchased in the United States qualifies. Put another way, we’re going to need not only new methods for producing food, but a whole new set of assumptions about what sustainability really means.”

Exactly. I have long been concerned that with the organic movement we have set the bar so incredibly high, that trying to migrate our food system to this point in one leap may be beyond the possible. If you look back at history, it’s really difficult to find an example where culture evolved into its final destination point in a single bound. There were many gradual steps along the way, and those gradual steps were vital in the success of reaching the final destination. I think it’s imperative that we are mindful of this more evolutionary process as we work to grow our industrial food system into a more sustainable community-friendly system.

In his article (which is a must read) Mr. Roberts describes a farmer in transition:

In a wheat field outside the town of Reardan, Washington, Fred Fleming spent an afternoon showing me just how hard it’s gotten to save the world. After decades as an unrepentant industrial farmer, the tall 59-year-old realized that his standard practices were promoting erosion so severe that it was robbing him of several tons of soil per acre per year—his most important asset. So in 2000, he began to experiment with a gentler planting method known as no-till. While traditional farmers plow their fields after each harvest, exposing the soil for easy replanting, Fleming leaves his soil and crop residue intact and uses a special machine to poke the seeds through the residue and into the soil.

The results aren’t pretty: In winter, when his neighbors’ fields are neat brown squares, Fleming’s looks like a bedraggled lawn. But by leaving the stalks and chaff on the field, Fleming has dramatically reduced erosion without hurting his wheat yields. He has, in other words, figured out how to cut one of the more egregious external costs of farming while maintaining the high output necessary to feed a growing world—thus providing a glimpse of what a new, more sustainable food system might look like.

But there’s a catch. Because Fleming doesn’t till his soil, his fields are gradually invaded by weeds, which he controls with “judicious” amounts of Roundup, the Monsanto herbicide that has become an icon of unsustainable agribusiness. Fleming defends his approach: Because his herbicide dosages are small, and because he controls erosion, the total volume of “farm chemistry,” as he calls it, that leaches from his fields each year is far less than that from a conventional wheat operation. None theless, even judicious chemical use means Fleming can’t charge the organic price premium or appeal to many of the conscientious shoppers who are supposed to be leading the food revolution. At a recent conference on alternative farming, Fleming says, the organic farmers he met were “polite—but they definitely gave me the cold shoulder.”

That a recovering industrial farmer can’t get respect from the alternative food crowd may seem trivial, but Fleming’s experience cuts to the very heart of the debate over how to fix our food system. Nearly everyone agrees that we need new methods that produce more higher-quality calories using fewer resources, such as water or energy, and accruing fewer “externals,” such as pollution or unfair labor practices. Where the consensus fails is over what should replace the bad old industrial system.

This is a critical point. We push for organic, but if we’re too attached, if we’re too rigid, we miss the importance of the necessary transitions along the way. As Michael Pollan says,” Getting your chickens out in the open and out of those cages is important, even if you’re not getting them organic feed. Those will not be organic eggs, but they will be so far superior. There are many varieties of sustainable agriculture we should support; it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Let 1,000 flowers bloom and let’s see what works. The whole problem of industrial agriculture is putting all of your eggs in one basket. We need to diversify our food chains as well as our fields so that when some of them fail, we can still eat.”

If we are going to capture that remaining 98% of our food system that does not fit the definition of sustainable, then we not only need to acknowledge the varieties of sustainable systems, but we need to encourage and embrace them. Who knows if organic is ultimately the end game? Right now it certainly seems right and it’s well worth the reach; but let’s be open, and let’s honor and embrace the steps along the way that will ultimately take us there. For without these steps, and without these innovative agricultural pioneers (who are creating a workable and pragmatic bridge across our very divergent food systems), we will not see the promise land of true sustainable agriculture.