In a controversial article on the Eco-Centric TIME blog today, Bryan Walsh argues that organic farming is not efficient enough to be sustainable. Or his argument runs somewhere along those lines. Walsh seems to believe yield-per-acre is the same thing as "efficiency." For no clear reason, he keeps asserting that conventional agriculture is more efficient, presumably on ecological grounds, and then only explains himself by quoting statistics on how much more productive industrial agriculture can be per unit of land, while referring vaguely to the downsides of clear-cutting more forest. “Efficiency” can be such a slippery, dangerous goal, because it is value-neutral. I just took off my gardening gloves and put on my rebuttal gloves. Let’s get into it.
Productivity per acre and efficiency are different concepts. Efficiency in what context? Efficient use of land? Efficient use of time? Of money? Carbon, nitrogen, phosphate? Efficient use of humans? Efficient offloading of environmental externalities? Any given farm operation, let alone the totality of the food system, represents a complex and multivariate optimization function, there is no one simple standard for efficiency. But Walsh seems to be singling out an efficient use of land, measured by calories or pounds of yield, as the one penultimate metric for “sustainability.” If he were truly concerned about efficient use of land to produce calories, I would suggest that he look into the ratio of caloric output-per-acre for ranching and meat production. Or for biofuels. Or many other gratuitous wastes of land resources that eclipse the yield deficits he believes might damn organic cultivation methods in fruits and grains.
Moreover, if Walsh really wanted to earn the right to claim "Organic Ag May Not Be So Sustainable" he would need to explore more aspects of the multivariate equation. For instance, he ought to dig into an analysis of the sustainability of the INPUTS that justify the per acre yield figures. The question is: how sustainable is it to extract kilotons of natural gas, run them through the Haber-Bosch process, distribute them out to the fields and dump them all over, then use an arsenal of harmful pesticides and herbicides to offset the unnaturally abundant growth spurt brought on by the fertilizer. Oh, and then cope with the nitrate run-off Walsh acknowledges.
And as long as output efficiency per acre is his foremost concern, Walsh should also look into polyculture, a subset of the organics movement, which academic studies have found to be much more productive per acre than industrial agriculture. As I understand it, the battle is over which produces best per dollar, not per area. Organic methods, especially polyculture, use ecologically responsible inputs, they do not deplete the soil of the land, and are incredibly high-yielding per acre, while the downside is that they tend to take much more human labor and micro-management. As with renewable energy, the pertinent question is whether organic and/or polyculture produce might achieve something like dollar-parity at market with conventional ag, especially if conventional ag were required to price its environmental externalities.
In his closing, Walsh summarily reiterates the same tired "agriculture of fear" arguments: that only intensive industrial ag models and GMOs will help us feed the rising global population. He does so even while he also admits that we are currently growing more than enough food to feed every person, and still one seventh of us are starving. Somewhere out there, Raj Patel read Walsh’s article in his blogroll and punched his keyboard. Yes, we need to do "something" about distribution. But distribution is really the wrong phrasing, because it's not a problem of logistics. It's a problem of politics, economics, and ideologies.
Humanity is technically capable of delivering food to everyone who is hungry. But why would we? Where people are starving, they do not have a lot of political or economic leverage. What could they offer producers and distributors in return? Except perhaps a shred of their own self-respect back... in cases where it is the “developed” world’s own enrichment that has devastated a human community, where multinational farming corporations have annexed land and abolished a subsistence farming culture and left them for dead. Walsh quotes the statistic which might be the shining badge of the Green Revolution: we now need only one farmer per 155 people. The story of Walsh’s efficiency might run like this: when we install these great industrial farms where there were once 155 people working the land for themselves, we now only have one job where there were 155, after increasing the efficiency of the system. The remaining 154 people? Do we relocate or retrain them? Well...
This storyline is a cartoon, the truth unfolds with more nuance. But suffice it to say that Cargill and Kraft don’t teach the displaced, the disenfranchised, and destitute of the developing world about polyculture, nor do they train them with new skills for the globalized digital economy. The board members of Big Food are not studying up on the history of how rentiers and monoculture precipitated the Irish Potato famine, that sort of research does not make for light reading aboard the Gulfstream.
Food, farming, and economics are about values. The way we choose to fine-tune the settings for our multivariate optimization function are how we enact our values. Efficiency would be a measure of our success, given these goals. Do we value feeding everyone? Do we value a healthy, balanced diet? Do we value soil resources? Do we value climate stability? Do we value meat consumption? Do we value fresh vegetables? Do we value flavor? Color? Ripeness? Fair wages? A safe and respectful work environment? Quantity over quality? And so forth.
Don’t trust anyone who talks as if efficiency is a virtue in and of itself.