The debate over which management system (i.e. organic or conventional) is best geared towards feeding a growing population in the future has become a really popular topic on social media in the past few years; a debate that, had it taken place in a hypothetical bar, a hypothetical spectator would be guaranteed to witness a brawl.
Why are we fighting?
One of the most apparent culprits to me is the fact that we – as humans – seek simple answers. We want to know what to do – what to buy when we’re in the store, and what we should eat. Just sit down and listen to people who discuss these things and you’ll quickly notice a trend. Some people “know” that organic production methods can not produce enough food for our growing world, simplifying individual scientific reports on yields to make a point. Others will go on about how Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) will either save or doom the world, while a third group clings to the idea that population control will save us all.
Maybe there’s a grain of truth to all of these claims – but one thing’s for sure: there’s no silver bullet that’ll solve all of our food system issues in one swoop. We need to consider all of our options and think holistically – that’s what agroecology is all about.
There will be instances where organic yields less or more than conventional systems. GM technology is a tool, that – used responsibly, could lead to more sustainable food systems down the road. But in the hands of 3-4 giant agrochemical companies? Probably not a good idea. Population control? Sure, maybe something we need to consider, if it can be humanely implemented… But simply reducing the amount of people on earth, continuing to produce food the way we do today will not necessarily lead to the adoption of more sustainable production practices – and as such, would only prolong our inevitable doom.
We need to embrace complexity when we talk about food and when we grow our food. We need to reflect more – and openly discuss the hidden assumptions we carry with us, be it when we talk food, or when we stand there, utterly confused in the store. The following paragraph highlights some of this complexity, explaining the divide between organically certified and conventional agriculture as two simplified symbolic rule systems – systems under development, and thus, not flawless.
Organic vs conventional? What about organic farmers who certify against the lowest “organic standard” vs one striving for a standard that is more restrictive? Or one who doesn’t want to pay certification fees at all? What if the former does everything to just barely live up to the standard, while the latter goes above and beyond to implement practices that are deemed much more sustainable? Just because a farm isn’t officially organically certified, doesn’t mean said farm doesn’t practice intercropping, agroforestry, grow their own feed, keep animals outdoors most time of the year – or practice no-till without glyphosate.
Symbols help us understand what we’re buying, but there’s so much more to the story. Organic can be good as it offers better work conditions for farm workers who don’t get exposed to hazardous pesticides. But it may also lead to a lot of soil cultivation to keep weeds at bay – which in turn may speed up erosion processes – arguably one of our most dire problems today. Conventional farming allows farmers to practice no-till using glyphosate to spray off the crop in spring as well as killing weeds – which can reduce erosion processes. But what if you could practice no-till without weed killers? How many farmers do you recon experiment with no-till without glyphosate when glyphosate works so well? In such instances, it’s not unfathomable to consider these tools [pesticides] as roadblocks to progress – I mean, where’s the incentive to invent new methods and practices when you’ve already got a “functioning” system in place?
Regardless which “side” you take in each of these scenarios, I think we’re all in agreement that we want our agroecosystems to function as well as possible with minimal inputs, be safe for humans and the environment, while still producing ecosystem services. To get there, however, we need to acknowledge how complex these issues are, and set real goals to reduce and eliminate things like pesticides by incentivising innovation and cooperation.
What if we had a new narrative – one focused on redesigning agroecosystems to mimic natural ecosystems instead? Be it in annual or perennial polycultures, involving everything from grains to oilseeds, bushes and fruit trees in self regulating ecosystems with little use of inputs. What if that was our shared vision, guiding our on-farm experimentation and research – in our ultimate search for a more sustainable agricultural system?
Such a narrative has not yet taken hold – but hopefully, it will soon. Until then, why don’t you try to find a few local farmers to buy your bulk food from? Who knows, if you’re lucky, you might find yourself surrounded by farmers from whom you can buy your grains, beans, flour and meat. Such an act would at the very least give the farmer more of the “food dollar/krona” – and whether they’re organic or conventional can be up to you. Either way, you’re guaranteed to learn something from it.
Inspiration for this article came from the following article by professor David R. Montgomery, University of Washington:
Give it a read!