This is my last food-related column, I promise. I just need to take the puzzle pieces I’ve talked about so far, push them together, and try to create the bigger picture. How do we want large-scale farming, GMO’s, organic, and small-scale farming to come together to create our food supply?
Let me start by saying that we’re going to be playing with all of the pieces; nothing is going straight to the trash. As much as I have derided large-scale farming and advocated organic and small-scale agriculture, I also need to provide a bit of perspective.
Small farms, defined as producing less than $100,000 of food per year, are a more sizeable minority and are responsible for about 27% of the food grown in America. But they face the same limitation as organic farming; both tend to produce only fruits and vegetables. Have fun trying to find a viable 10-acre soybean farm in the middle of 1000 acre giants in Iowa.
Small and organic farms can make a living when the food they grow is considered high-value (read: market prices are higher as a baseline compared to something like soybean) and when the quality tends to matter. So when it comes to staple crops, most of which are going straight to animal feed anyway, the big farmers are just going to be better than the small players at capturing the market, even without the federal subsidies that cater towards them.
While both organic and small-scale farming are seeing significant growth, and that growth should be highly encouraged, it isn’t reasonable to assume that these methods can completely replace conventional agricultural practices in the foreseeable future.
That leaves the question of what to do with the large-scale, industrial agriculture that remains. “Large-scale” and “industrial,” by the way, are two separate adjectives. Industrial implies all those nasty things I’ve been writing about: excessive use of herbicides and pesticides, wasteful use of water, too much fertilizer. Large-scale doesn't imply anything but big.
As much as hard-liners turn up their nose at anything that might dilute the purity of organic farming practices, there is a lot of good to be had from merging organic and industrial practices on large-scale farms. Incremental changes on a big scale can have even greater impacts than very large changes on a much smaller scale.
An organic sensibility and a holistic view of farming can lead to a more conscientious and responsible application of fertilizer and chemicals, reducing excess and thus reducing environmental contamination. However, many specific organic practices aren’t feasible on a large scale, mostly because organic and small-scale farming tends to be much more labor-intensive than industrial agriculture.
Here is where GMO’s come in. The goal is to decrease overall energy use, land use, and contamination of surrounding ecosystems. GM crops do this, often quite effectively and quite safely. They are still a second-best option because they are limited by the possible risks associated with them, but they are a sizable step above the concrete harms of current industrial agricultural practices.
Organic and local are clearly the best options. Some would argue “no,” because organic farming takes up more land (which could otherwise be left as wilderness) to produce the same amount of food as an industrial farm. I would argue that that is more than offset by the dramatic reduction in chemical and fertilizer use that also accompanies organic farming. That reduction decreases the amount of land affected downstream of production in comparison to industrial practices that contaminate neighboring ecosystems and watersheds. It also translates into less land and resource use further upstream because less energy is used in making these chemical inputs.
So, still, small-scale and organic food is the way to go. But when it comes to food, we need a three-pronged fork. There needs to be changes in scale when feasible, the adoption of organic practices as much as possible, and the use of GM crops when applicable. While we have a clear best option, it’s not one that we can count on to eclipse the others.