I have followed with interest a debate which has been bouncing around between Facebook, Grist and the American regarding organic versus conventional agriculture.
At the risk of being attacked from both sides, I would posit that neither is quite right, and yet both are correct. Does that sound like a political BS non-answer? Let me dig my hole deeper…
“Conventional” farmers and those on that side of the debate often claim that “organic farming can’t feed the world.” To date that is correct. But that does not mean that it may not be true at some point in the future. But first organic/sustainable food systems will have to overcome some very serious obstacles about scale, efficiency and distribution models.
Organic advocates often point out that agriculture as practiced today will be untenable for the next 100 years. This is also correct. But they miss the point that farming is no more likely to remain static in the coming century than it was in the last. The usage of no-till practices, covercrops, and highly efficient means of irrigation are on the rise, and these innovations are coming from the ag community.
It is my belief that we are in a period of convergence between the two. In Omnivore’s Dilemma, the book at the center of this particular exchange, Michael Pollan examines one transitional model: the so called “Industrial Organic.” I think that this a good example of the blurring of the line between the two camps. I also believe that there is another possibility… Let’s call it “Artisanal Conventional.” What of a farm that sells produce both into mainstream channels as well as to local consumers and food artisans, yet will still use a little conventional fertilizer when called for? (Disclosure to those who may not know me: this is my model.)
There are an awful lot of farms that fall into a gray area between the two poles, and at the further risk of seeming self-serving, I do believe that it is in the middle, and not at the extremes, that we will see the future. And I do believe it is one we will be happy with.
A final anecdote: Yesterday I was at a meeting of sustainable food systems types in Los Angeles. It was mentioned in passing that another member of the circle who was not present at the time was going to be attending a $1000 a plate fundraiser. This was accepted as proof that his organic business model must be working. Indeed it seems to be. But from my small semi-conventional farmer perspective it seemed to me that his ability to do this had more to do with an operation that is roughly 50 times my size, than the fact that his produce is organic. I don’t bring this up to complain: I cite it as evidence that the usual big/small, conventional/organic dichotomies that we so quickly embrace in these debates are not always that well reflected in reality.