Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Organic Food Production

After reading Kyle's post on the topic, and the associated Economist article, I found myself with a lot of questions and thoughts that I felt the article skipped over. So, I decided to accumulate those here.

I do buy organic, not because the food is better, but because it promotes sustainable food production. Conventional farming taxes the land pretty extensively, requiring synthetic pesticides and fertilizers to produce crops. Those synthetic products, apart from any side effects to the planet, require non-renewable resources to be created. Oil specifically. As a result, a significant amount of energy goes into producing the food than is received back out in the crop. From the National Organics Standard Board, here is the definition of organic:

Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.

It would seem, that while organic farmers certainly do still use fertilizers and methods of controlling pests, they have to do it in ways that rely on the most renewable of energy resources, the sun. This only seems like it would benefit the world in the long term, and would further reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

I was also under the impression that there is a significant amount of food that is produced in the United States that is destroyed each year because the supply far outweighs the demand. It seems this is primarily in the rice and grain categories, but if there is motivation to use that farm land in a sustained way for other crops that fall under the organic label, then I want to continue to support that. And there is no better motivation than higher margins from consumers that are willing to spend more money for the same food.

So, even if The Economist tells me I'm wasting my money and harming the earth by purchasing organic foods, I'm going to keep doing it. I enjoyed having my choices challenged, though. It forced me to go look things up and make sure that I wasn't just making myself feel better by some rationalization.


mr. kyle said...

I respect your efforts and desires as well as the fact that you've put time and effort into studying your choices.

From the article regarding the sustainability vis a vi fertilizers:

Anthony Trewavas, a biochemist at the University of Edinburgh, counters that organic farming actually requires more energy per tonne of food produced, because yields are lower and weeds are kept at bay by ploughing. And Mr Pollan notes that only one-fifth of the energy associated with food production across the whole food chain is consumed on the farm: the rest goes on transport and processing.

The most environmentally benign form of agriculture appears to be “no till” farming, which involves little or no ploughing and relies on cover crops and carefully applied herbicides to control weeds. This makes it hard to combine with organic methods (though some researchers are trying). Too rigid an insistence on organic farming's somewhat arbitrary rules, then—copper, a heavy metal, can be used as an organic fungicide because it is traditional—can actually hinder the adoption of greener agricultural techniques.

Again, while energy is used in fertilizer production it is less that the total energy used in organic production, meaning that the total amount of petrochemical (oil) consumption per ton of food produced is higher, not to mention the amount of land required, when food is produced under organic guidelines.

It's similar to the electric car argument. The car itself uses no gasoline and produces no emissions, but oil is still being used and emissions created to provide the electricity to power the car. The question simply becomes, which way do you get more miles and less total pollution for every barrel of oil (a hotly debated topic itself, though electric appears to have the edge). The article makes a similar argument that the energy used in creating fertilizers and pesticides so greatly increases the density and yields of crops that it's a smaller net energy footprint than the energy used in plowing the larger and less dense organic fields.

Heather said...

That's interesting, and I'll need to read up further. But basically, in the energy camp, we are only looking at 20% of the whole of the energy used, since transportation and processing would seem to be the same regardless of how the crops are grown. I would love to see a way that I'd be able to support some of the techniques described in no-till farming, but I don't know how to get those things.

mr. kyle said...

As for no till, it does sound like it's not a label that's coming soon, but the article did make a pretty good case for supporting things with the Rainforest Alliance seal of approval as they aim at the same goals of sustainability but don't dispense any market distorting subsidies. It's clear how they're superior to Fairtrade, but unclear if they make any distinction between Organic and traditional forms of agriculture. All I can see is that the farms they certify have to meet their standards for sustainability.

Heather said...

Thanks for the pointer -- I'll see if I can't find that Rainforest Alliance seal on stuff somewhere. Sustainability is the goal I'm trying to support with my grocery spending.