Agriculture is often portrayed in one of two ways: mega-farms that “feed the world” but drench their crops in pesticides (or, in the case of animal farms, produce lagoons of toxic, concentrated manure); and “locavore” organic farms that make pesticide-free fruits and vegetables but never enough to feed billions.
Last Friday’s op-ed by Mark Bittman in the New York Times proposes a third way. His very first paragraph sums it up:
It’s becoming clear that we can grow all the food we need, and profitably, with far fewer chemicals. And I’m not talking about imposing some utopian vision of small organic farms on the world. Conventional agriculture can shed much of its chemical use — if it wants to.
Bittman then discusses the results of a study done at Iowa State University that concludes that a mix of crop rotations and animal grazing can generate the same crop yields (and profits) with fewer pesticides.
It is just one study. And just scan the comments and you’ll see it’s not so clean and easy. Here’s a comment from Mark (a different Mark) in Indiana:
My family farms 6,000 acres of corn and soybeans in Central IN. Like most farms in the state, we have no livestock to feed alfalfa and have no market for oats, or similar crops. So, by using your “simple” solution we would be taking 3,000 acres, essentially, out of production every year.
The reality is American agriculture is amazingly diverse, despite our federal subsidy-driven reliance on a handful of commodities, like corn, soy, and wheat. Every farmer manages in her or his own way, and the decisions they make fall somewhere along the gradient between huge/pesticides and small/organic, not to mention many totally outside that paradigm. Some are already doing the kind of progressive farming Bittman praises.
But what I think is at the heart of what Bittman’s saying is, we have a vast range of farming experiences, some based in ancient traditions, others gleaned from the industrial farming revolution. We can and should draw from all of them, rather than labeling farms as “conventional” or “organic”. And that could benefit consumers, producers, the land and the water. Who wouldn’t be happy? The chemical companies.