Monday, March 21, 2011
Organic Agriculture Debate
The debate goes on although I think it is high time we went in another direction.
First off, chemical farming shows us how an optimized farm growing protocol could actually look. Now we know. Sustainability was always a huge question and that drives the real debate.
Organic methods are slower to implement but can come close to meeting our demands for productivity on some soils.
The real revolution that is slowly getting of the ground is the biochar agricultural revolution.
This protocol consists of adding elemental carbon to the soil each year, preferably made directly from plant wastes locally available. The idea is to sustain this until the working soil retains a ten percent elemental carbon content.
As this is established, nutrients are accumulated and recaptured back into the soil as a natural sustainable process and the leaching of soils ends outright. In the end it is a perfect compliment to organic methods.
More dramatic, this protocol recovers waste land soils to full productivity and allows soils presently unusable to be used fully.
The Economist dismisses organic ag, while also making the case for it 102
BY Tom Philpott
1 MAR 2011 3:26 PM
This isn't the only way.I've been reading The Economist's "Special Report on Feeding the World" (intro here). So far, it's typical Economist: compellingly written and impressively broad in scope -- but largely uncritical of the status quo. The report doesn't bring much new to the table, especially to those of us who follow the gloomy macro-analyses of thinkers likeLester Brown.
Predictably enough, The Economist's perspective on the "feed the world" question is guided by the assumption, never much examined, that only high-tech, massive-scale farming can tackle the task of feeding the 9 billion people expected to be on Earth by 2050. The series' lead editorial frames the question like this:
[While] the concerns of the critics of modern agriculture may be understandable, the reaction against intensive farming is a luxury of the rich. Traditional and organic farming could feed Europeans and Americans well. It cannot feed the world.
From The Economist.Forget, for a minute, that this statement warms over a stale agribusiness talking point: there is no alternative to corporate-dominated agriculture. Instead, take a look at the chart, reproduced at the right, lifted from the top of this very same editorial. The chart describes average wheat yields under different forms of agricultural management at the Broadbalk field in
's famed Rothamsted Research
station. The Economist describes the Broadbalk field like this: England
Broadbalk is no ordinary field. The first experimental crop of winter wheat was sown there in the autumn of 1843, and for the past 166 years the field, part of the Rothamsted Research station, has been the site of the longest-running continuous agricultural experiment in the world. Now different parts of the field are sown using different practices, making Broadbalk a microcosm of the state of world farming.
You don't have to look very closely at the chart to see that fields treated with manure produce roughly identical yields to those treated with "inorganic fertilisers," i.e., synthetic nitrogen, mined phosphorous, etc. In other words, based on the Broadbalk experiments highlighted by The Economist itself, there's no reason to assume, a priori, that organic farming "cannot feed the world."
Next, dig into the Rothamsted center's own report [PDF] on its experiments. There, you'll find that the Broadbalk fields treated with manure not only deliver roughly equal yields, but also are better at building up both organic matter and microbial activity in the soil -- both critical measures of soil health.
It's puzzling that a special series premised on dismissing organic agriculture would lead with a chart that vindicates it. Organic agriculture probably can feed the world at least as well as the agribusiness-driven variety. It's just that it can't feed the minds of The Economist's editors, who are fixated on images of gigantic machines dispersing agrichemicals onto vast fields monocropped with GMO seeds. When it comes to envisioning the future of agriculture, the magazine's thinkers appear to suffer from what Vandana Shiva has called "monocultures of the mind."