Farming’s third way

NY Times op-ed writer Mark Bittman says mixing crops and livestock and planting in rotation can reduce pesticide use without reducing yield. Photo: Steve Allen, CC some rights reserved

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.


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8 Comments on “Farming’s third way”

  1. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Do we really need a study to tell us that farms can feed everyone? People were being fed before WWII and the advent of massive use of pesticides and fertilizers and it was being done with animal power or fairly crude mechanical implements.

    The world population has doubled since that time? Sure, but half of all food goes to waste. The heydays of mega farms and ethanol subsidies and massive feed lots need to end.

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  2. Ellen Rocco says:

    Let’s not forget that the ratio of meat to vegetables/grains in our diets could dramatically change our impact on the environment and our capacity to feed the earth’s human population. Decades ago, a book called “Diet for a Small Planet” by Frances Moore Lappe helped us to think differently about what we grow and what we eat and how we distribute food across the planet. People like Bittman, Lappe and others–from the scientific and ag communities–have ideas worth trying…unless we think feedlot production and commodity futures are the only and best way to go.

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  3. Paul says:

    The “green revolution” did move many people out of starvation but at the same time it has caused malnutrition in another way. Many people are not getting the balanced diet that they need. You cannot live well on thinks like rice and other cereal crops alone. The answer to the problem is a balanced approach to farming as well. There is room for feed lots and more vegetable farms in the mix. These things are always a pitted fight of one kind of farming versus another. That is counterproductive.

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  4. Ellen Rocco says:

    Paul, Lest you misunderstand what I wrote: not suggesting any single approach is necessarily the “correct” one. However, a simple adjustment of meat to grain ratio in our diets could make a huge difference…and I’m talking about an adjustment in the diet of people living in the “developed” world, not poor countries where diets remain inadequate.

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  5. Walker says:

    Paul, I’m not sure what you mean by “balanced,” but if you mean that one needs meat and dairy, I would urge you (and anyone else reading this) to read Colin Campbell’s The China Study. He argues, convincingly, I think, that animal protein is largely responsible for heart disease, cancer and a host of other illnesses. So what’s good for the planet is also good for individual health (and, by the way, could bring down the staggering cost of our health care).

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  6. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    “…and I’m talking about an adjustment in the diet of people living in the “developed” world, not poor countries where diets remain inadequate.”

    And the diets in poor countries are inadequate in large measure because they are poor. I’ve been to one of the poorest countries and found that fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, nuts and dairy were plentiful, along with the grains that most subsisted on. The problem with malnutrition was one of poverty not of availability.

    Of course in war zones or drought affected areas that isn’t true.

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  7. Mervel says:

    We can’t ignore the basic economics in farm country. Even with the drought farm income this year is at record highs largely due to the explosion in commodity prices. This encourages large scale planting of traditional row crops. Regular farm land in productive farm states like Iowa are also at all time highs.

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  8. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Mervel brings up commodity prices which is a huge problem for people in poor countries. People in third world countries tend to buy their food in bulk quantities so a rise in commodity prices affects them directly whereas westerners tend to buy foods for which the bulk of the cost is in middlemen, and so commodity prices have less affect on them. Once again the poorest are most affected negatively.

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