Big Quote of the Week: Industrial vs. Organic Farming

>> Thursday, October 23, 2008

From The End of Food by Paul Roberts:

In strictly monetary terms, industrial farming is more efficient. Farmers who focus on a single species (corn, say, or hogs) and who simply buy their inputs from other low-cost producers and sell their raw output to low-cost processors, can indeed generate more calories at lower cost than can farmers who try to manage the entire food-production cycle themselves (growing corn to feed their hogs and spreading the manure in their cornfields). But as critics argue, these larger industrial operations are more efficient and their costs lower in only the narrowest sense and only if one's calculations exclude external costs, such as contaminated water or, say, erosion. In reality, because these external costs erode the natural capital on which all food production depends, industrial agriculture is efficient only the very short term. Granted, this critique is hardly limited to agriculture. Alternative economists such as John Ikerd and Herman Daly have long chastised the entire industrial system as being unsustainable and "short run." But the critique has been especially resonant among opponents of agribusiness, because it suggests, among other things, that the large, hyperefficient factory farms are actually less efficient than the millions of small, diversified family farms they have replaced.
Although some critics of agribusiness see this as an argument for moving back to an older form of farming, the more pragmatic recognize that preindustrial agriculture is nothing to be yearned for, and that the greater inherent efficiencies of small farms were largely forced: lacking synthetic fertilizers, tractors, or chemical pesticides, farmers had no choice but to operate their farms as closed systems—keeping animals for traction and manure, spreading that "fertility" manually, and weeding and harvesting by hand—all of which were tremendously labor intensive and not terribly productive. What many alternative advocates do argue, however, is that some of the ideas implicit in these past practices are highly relevant today and, with the aid of research and prudent use of technology, can and should be brought back into usage.

The ancient practice of cover crops, for example, though partly sidelined by synthetic fertilizers, is by no means obsolete: alternating a cash crop with a crop such as alfalfa, whose roots work symbiotically with soil bacteria to pull nitrogen from the air and fix it in the dirt, can be just as replenishing as an application of synthetic urea. (Even ultraindustrial corn farmers use alternating crops of soybeans, a nitrogen-fixing legume.) As a side benefit, by rotating a field through three or four different crops over successive years, farmers actually slow weeds and insects from establishing themselves, as they invariably do when farmers grow teh same crop in the same field year after year, and rely instead on pesticides.
—Pages 247-8

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