Ted: you raise some interesting and worthwhile points. I'll start by agreeing with your reference to the trade-off between lower yields and lower costs - producing a null sum for relative profitability of organic vs. conventional produce. I'll acknowledge also that the profit differential (and yield differential) between conventionally produced and organically produced commodities is commodity-specific. In other words, what we have found for dairy is irrelevant to a market gardener, particularly one who produces only 1 or a few specific commodities, in quantity, year after year, in the absence of livestock.
I will also throw in, just to stir the pot a bit, the findings of a USDA team which included Papendick, if I recall, who compared conventional and organic farmers and reported that the field-to-field and year-to-year differences in yield were greater in magnitude than the organic to conventional differences. This was published in a refereed journal about 6-8 years ago, if memory serves. So how different ARE the yields achieved by these two production systems?
Now, you ask:
Do you honestly propose that the *organic* system might be substituted across the board for the conventional systems?
Yes, I do. Scandalous, isn't it. Well, I'm on sabbatic so my thoughts are floating a bit freely these days. Let me explain. First, it is actually rather a good thing that organic yields *are* (at least for some commodities) lower than conventional yields. Otherwise, think how embarrassed all of us in institutional ag research would be. I mean, think of it. Conventional yields reflect billions of taxpayers dollars spent annually to research and refine technologies in support of high yield, capital-intensive, power-concentrating agriculture. Organic yields reflect the initiative and experience of what, a few scattered hippies and farmer wanna-bees? Like, come on man, - what if they *could* achieve as much per acre as a real farmer? What would that say about all the glorious yield
increases *we* have accomplished? Yeesh! Perhaps that is why researchers who publish evidence that organic yields (or milk) are comparable to conventional yields are subjected to such withering scorn, ridicule, and abuse - from their own colleagues.
Second, "high yields" are probably not achievable with truly sustainable practices, and further, are not remotely necessary to support first world nutrition. So why do we continue to go around the dance floor on this? As discussed in an earlier post, our problem is excess production - right? Yields in North America could decline in many commodities without compromising the nutrition of anyone, because:
1. Vast proportions of the rural landscape are currently occupied by grain (I just made a trip to Minnesota, across Illinois, nuf said). Some 70-90% of our grain goes to feed livestock, much of which (but not all, granted) could be replaced with the grass that ruminant livestock evolved to eat in the first place. Heavens, some misguided renegades are even pasturing pigs and chickens! So, we don't need nearly what we are producing - to feed ourselves.
2. The enormous capacity of North American agriculture to produce grain has worked us into a logistical corner, because of the flawed assumptions upon which our paradigm is based. The US and Canada (don't recall the order) are the #1 and #2 highest cost producers of both milk and meat in the world - because of grain, and the confinement-based grain feeding systems that we have evolved specifically to use up all that grain. That means it costs us more to produce a kg of meat or a liter of milk than anyone else in the world. So much for efficiency. The whole circular self-reinforcing abyss starts from the premise that we *can* produce it, so we *will* produce it, and once we have it, we must find ways to use it. The notion of just *not* producing so much grain in the first place doesn't seem
to be an option.
3. Our top ranking as high cost producers is quite specifically because we insist on confinement for most or all of ruminant nutrition (yes, apart from the beef cows on the range), and because we feed such a high fraction of annual crops to the livestock. Everyone else either grazes year-around, or confines for the least possible time, using predominantly conserved perennial forage for winter feeding. Annual feed is more expensive than perennial feed, because of the need to amortize all production costs over a single year's production. And the cost of the inputs to produce the feed, and especially the facilities for storing, feeding, and housing are increasing while the value of the commodities is declining. Everyone else seems to have figured out that a unit of nutrition costs 4-5X as
much when conserved and fed as when grazed - a reality which has somehow escaped us in North America. All that cheap, oh so cheap, grain has blinded us to the economic advantages of grass.
4. Excess grain (beyond what we need to feed ourselves) is only useful - nationally, as an item of trade, and personally, as individual farmers - if you can sell it. If you can't sell it, it is not just useless but counterproductive (to farmers, but not to buyers) because it drives down prices. We can't sell it - haven't been able to for years (decades, really), so not only do we personally not need our grain - but it is actually harmful to the livelihood of our own farmers to keep on striving for ever higher yields. After decades of reaping the benefits, even the ever-so-integrated marketing giants are going to lose on this one. I'm told that Ralston Purina is near to declaring bankruptcy.
So, I don't accept the premise that a) organic farming is somehow a threat to the life and limb of the consuming public because yields may be lower (in some commodities), or that b) high yields are desirable (for anyone) or even attainable, using truly sustainable practices. Without expanding further, I will just reiterate that the practices used to produce high yields today in conventional agriculture are not sustainable.
Third, high-yield agriculture is a production model that has the potential to do real damage to both human health and the environment, but is precisely the model that is being emulated by third world researchers and farmers. I do not accept the notion that it is either laudable or even appropriate for North American agriculture to "feed the world". A much wiser course of action would be to provide the model - and the tools - to help people to feed themselves. Naive? Probably. Foolish? Perhaps. Realistic? Definitely. All this Averyesque posturing may bring in a few more balance of trade dollars in the short term but cannot hope to really feed the world in the middle or long term. To the extent that we, in the privileged nations, accept the responsibility for the welfare of our fellow
humans elsewhere, the only truly effective and sustainable approach must be ecologically sustainable practices - including but not limited to organic.
It wouldn't take much in the way of institutional funding to provide research and extension support for the rapidly growing organic producer segment of society. I won't elaborate here, because this is already overlong, but would challenge my virtual SANET friends to contemplate just what institutional research can really do for organic farming - given their impressive (although not complete) success without us.
You then ask:
> If this be your thought let me point out two things: 1) rightly the systems being discussed include livestock, not many conventional systems include livestock these days.
I do not see how agriculture can be practiced sustainably, let alone organically, in the absence of livestock (explanation will have to wait for another post). This does not mean that every farmer must own livestock. Other approaches can be - and are being - envisioned and implemented. Farmers, with apologies to those of you who are farmers, generally do what they are told. In this case, farmers have been told - through a variety of policy, entitlement, incentive, and regulatory vehicles, let along agbiz and peer pressures - to specialize. And so they have. This doesn't mean they have to stay that way, and I would suggest, that many farmers would do things quite differently if freed from the constraints of ill-conceived government ag policies. See some of Repetto's work with the WRI for
support for my optimism.
And finally, you ask:
> 2) the hidden input, that is very expensive, is management ....This management input is knowledge/experience based and I do not see the talent being developed today to shoulder the management load .....
Agreed. I have spoken recently at several schools about the urgent need to facilitate the entry of new farmers (existing conventional farmers or non-farm background) into the organic mileau. I foresee a vast increase in demand for organic produce in the immediate future - and I mean within 1-5 yars - which we will be wholly unable to satisfy. You are quite right in pointing out that organic farming, or ecological farming in general, is not something one can pick up and run with. I am convinced it is a site-specific experiential type of process that does not lend itself to generalization - even if we in academia had the knowledge to teach it, which we don't.. Broad principles, yes, but down-in-the-dirt day-to-day practice, no. And time is needed to earn the insights needed to make organic
farming run, both agronomically and economically. I am convinced that failure to nurture this industry right now - and I mean now, 1999 - will mean a real missed opportunity for quantum leaps in - yes, dare I say it - the wholescale introduction of organic farming into the agricultural landscape of North America. Ann
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