Thursday, December 13, 2007

Conventional vs. Organic ... An Article and a Debate

Recently on the Homesteading Today message board there was a THREAD debating (or possibly arguing about) an article titled, "Africa: Organic Agriculture Can Contribute to Fighting Hunger, But Chemical Fertilizers Needed to Feed the World." It appears the article comes from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and discusses exactly what the title implies (pretty creative title huh?). I'm not sure how many of the posters over on the forum took time to read the article or if they just jumped into to the debate/arguing because it is such a hot button issue.

One quote that was mentioned in the original post is this one from Dr. Diouf, "We should use organic agriculture and promote it. It produces wholesome, nutritious food and represents a growing source of income for developed and developing countries. But you cannot feed six billion people today and nine billion in 2050 without judicious use of chemical fertilizers." It is an interesting paradox that he throws out there. Basically it seems that organic is good for those that can afford to do it because you can possibly make more money, but for feeding the world chemicals are the key. I'm sure scholars, farmers, and wanna-be scholar/farmers (like myself) will be going round and round on this issue for quite a while. But, after reading the article and the comments on the message board there are a few thoughts that I had that didn't really come up. I will readily admit that I don't have much of a dog in this fight right now ... I don't have much knowledge ... and to be perfectly honest I don't really care from a moral standpoint whether people choose to use chemicals or not.

#1. One thing that Joel Salatin has mentioned in his books is that part of the research used to justify comments such as those from Dr. Diouf is flawed. Mr. Salatin asserts that their organic research means planting one field conventionally and then one field near it organically and comparing the results. There are two main problems with this type of experiment. First of all, most organic farmers will admit that it takes time to condition the soil and bring it back from all the chemical inputs it has become dependent upon so my just taking a conventional field and planting it "organically" you won't have taken the time to rebuild the needed organic matter in the soil. And secondly, sometimes organic farming is seen as leave alone farming and that just won't work. You still need to work the crops and do creative farming in order to produce your crop. So, there is one thought I had.

#2. In the debate/argument nobody seems to be citing real world examples. If you are a regular reader of my blog you may remember a post titled, "A Quick Saturday Morning Post..." from December, 1st. In that post I linked to an article about and gave a quick summary of Goldmine Farm which is a 2,000 acre organic farm in Illinois. Maybe that is the guy that we should be talking to?

#3. Now, I don't want to get in over my head here because I eat grain fed beef almost every week, eat lots of corn products, and fill up my vehicles with ethanol (because the word contains my name) every time they need gas ... But, could the problem be that we are trying to use grains like corn and soybeans for to many things that they aren't needed for? Would we need to farm with chemicals in order to get higher yields if we weren't feeding our ruminants corn and we weren't feeding our cars corn? I don't really want to go too deep in this subject because I could easily be shouted down by my own family ... but what if the only grain we grew was for human use? Not cattle use, not car use... Maybe the guy from King Corn who commented earlier on my blog will find this post and chime in on the subject.

Let me point out again ... I'm not saying I'm right, I'm not saying I have answers, I'm not saying I have experience, I'm not saying much at all ... What I am doing is throwing out a few thoughts for myself and other readers...

What if?


Aaron said...

Ethan -- I would love to comment on the above - but maybe we could do it in person.. I'm in Iowa with king corn! Maybe you could send me an email with your contacts and we could see if there's a screening near you - ( ) Hope to hear from you!

Yeoman said...

"In the debate/argument nobody seems to be citing real world examples."

Boy, is this ever true. It'd be interesting to know what percentage of agricultural comment, on an academic or theoretical level, is wholly un-informed in a real world context. I suspect it would be disturbingly high.

This isn't to say that all academic commentary is baloney. Far from it. But a fair number of comments are made by people who expect their advice to be followed, but who have no more experience than their garden, if that much.

On corn and soybeans, interesting comments. I don't know anything about soybeans, so I'll avoid commentary there.

Corn certainly is a versatile crop. It's disturbing, however, to see it advanced as an energy solution. Whether ethanol is a energy solution or not, corn based ethanol certainly is not, as it takes so much energy to make it. Beyond that, however, there's something disturbing about using a food in a wholly no food, primary, way. At some point you're inevitably faced with the argument that you're farming to fill up car tanks, rather than to feed. There's counters to that too, but it is a bit disturbing.

Of course, some cow opponents used to like to point out something similar to that about cattle and corn. Having said that, however, corn is a better animal feed than a human food. Yes, it's a useful human food, but cattle process it better. Indeed, if you've ever tried to eat feed corn (and I have, as an experiment) you have to appreciate the cows ability to eat it.

Still, I haven't actually bought feed corn for several years. Too expensive up until recently.

Steven said...

Yeoman, don't you eat corn chips and corn flakes. Those are good foods that we eat from corn, then there are all the junk foods that are sweetened by it.
I feed corn to my horses because I get it free but they only get 1 scoop a day. This is nothing compared to what feeder steers get in their diets. It is nice that cattle, horses etc. can eat it.... but I don't think it's the best use of the vast areas of land that it covers here in southeast Missouri. (at least it wouldn't be if it weren't subsidized)

Ethan Book said...

Yeoman and Steven ... Thanks for the comments. This is an interesting subject that has MANY different sides and aspects. I'm not sure if I know completely where I stand on the topic because I don't know if I have (or can have) all the information needed to ever make a fully informed belief. That being said I am going to raise grass based animals (ruminants) without grain for a couple of reasons ... one I think it can be done with less expense, and two I think that is the way they were created to live.

I'm still hoping to make it to a King Corn screening, but my life never cooperates!

Yeoman said...

"Yeoman, don't you eat corn chips and corn flakes. Those are good foods that we eat from corn, then there are all the junk foods that are sweetened by it."

Oh yes. And I like to make corn bread too.

I'm not at all opposed to eating corn, although I'd really prefer it not to be used as a sweetener, in corn syrup, for everything under the sun. It's just interesting to note that it's not one of the easiest foods in the world for a human to process.

Corn has an interesting agricultural history, fwiw. It's always been a significant American crop. The spread of bourbon in the South actually came about as corn liquor was the only way to process corn into something that could be transported and sold in the 18th and early 19th Century. So it was an early crop with an excess (off the farm) use.

Steve Romero said...

"...But you cannot feed six billion people today and nine billion in 2050 without judicious use of chemical fertilizers."

You can if everyone grows a garden in their backyard.


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