Agribusiness. GMO’s. There must be a better answer than the marginally-better-of-two-evils. I came out last week cautiously in favor of the use of genetically modified crops over current industrial agricultural practices. But there is also an Option C, None of the Above.
Industrial agriculture, meanwhile, is not so much an application of knowledge to spur innovation as it is a dogged war of attrition with the environment. The whole enterprise is harmfully reductionist; inputs are quantifiable and outputs are simply bushels per acre. Nutrients are added artificially via manufactured nitrogen fertilizers, beneficial soil microbes are largely killed, as are insects and pretty much anything except the crop of choice. In suppressing all that life, providing all those chemical inputs, and protecting the genetically carbon-copied plants that are so vulnerable to infection by a single pathogen, the whole surrounding environment gets contaminated with harmful chemicals and too many nutrients, resulting in things like recurring algal blooms and marine dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay. Increasingly low profit margins coupled with a messed up federal subsidy system make things even worse and squeeze out small and medium-sized farmers.
That option C is starting to look better and better. What is it? I’m sure many of you see it coming. We now know an awful lot. Why not apply what we know in plant biology, soil ecology and other fields in a way that improves the ecology of the land instead of suppressing it? We can plant smaller plots, even more than one crop in the same field, so that they are less vulnerable to bugs and disease. We can build soil up so that it is high in humus, retains water, and is full of beneficial fungi and bacteria. We can be more careful with the amount of fertilizer we apply and avoid artificial fertilizer all together by using commercial-scale compost and planting cover-crops that add nutrients to the soil. We can, in short, farm sustainably.
Farming sustainably means farming on a smaller scale and farming organically. Right now, both the organic and the local movement are niche markets because the resulting produce is often expensive and dependent on people with the money and desire to pay a premium. But the environmental and social reasons for spending that money are very good. Many people would also argue that the food is much higher in quality and more nutritious.
The way I see it, the choice to spend money on local and organic food is, on a broad level, parallel to the choice to spend extra money on products like the iPhone because they’re new and innovative. One day, touch-screen phones are going to come free with your cell phone plan, but that won’t happen unless enough pioneers are willing to invest in the technology and fuel its refinement and development for broader distribution. In the same way, it is through increased consumer investment that community-supported agriculture (CSA) is becoming more common, regional distribution centers for small-scale farmers are being created, and pressure for federal policies that better support small and organic farming is growing.
The percent of annual income that Americans spend on food has dropped from 24.2% in the 1930’s to 9.5% by 2004, according to the USDA. It’s a sign of increased quality of life that we can afford to spend money on college tuition even after paying for Renato’s pizza. But what if those with expendable income put less of an emphasis on the Prada bag and more on the celery and Diet Coke? There is still a lot of room for growth when it comes to organic and small-scale farming. Why not invest in a good thing?