Toward a better agriculture… for everyone

A recent paper in PLoS concluded:

we reject the organic-conventional dichotomy and emphasize that, in order to optimize environmental sustainability, individual tactics must be evaluated for their environmental impact in the context of an integrated approach, and that policy decisions must be based on empirical data and objective risk-benefit analysis, not arbitrary classifications.

The paper was Choosing Organic Pesticides over Synthetic Pesticides May Not Effectively Mitigate Environmental Risk in Soybeans (full text) by Christine Bahlai et al. Long story short, the research showed that some synthetic pesticides were more environmentally benign than some organic pesticides, showing that it’s inaccurate to say that organic pesticides are better for the environment. Sometimes they are, and sometimes they are not.

The paper itself is really great, deserving of its own post (see Organic pesticides aren’t necessarily more sustainable than synthetic by Colby Vorland), but I’d like to talk about the organic-conventional divide. Normally I don’t approve of thoughts in scientific journal articles that aren’t immediately related to the research, too often authors stray into questionable territory. But Christine’s thoughts here are immediately related to her findings, and her results may indicate that big changes are necessary in the way we think about farming.

Separating out “organic” as defined by the USDA may be beneficial in the short term for farmers that have transitioned to certified organic methods who can then charge a premium, but in the long term, the divide is a detriment to farmers, consumers, and the environment. If we really care about farming in a more environmentally friendly fashion, we need an entirely new system.

We all want the same things*:

  1. healthy food that is accessible to everyone regardless of location or income
  2. farmers that can afford to farm and to pay fair wages to their employees
  3. conservation of resources (especially soil!) and protection of ecosystems

We can get those things through three complimentary and often intertwined avenues:

  1. demand
  2. policy
  3. research

Demand driven change seems to be moving along. We see lots about healthy food in popular media, increasing popularity of farmers’ markets, talk of adding cooking classes to public schools, and a push to make school lunches healthier, just to name a few. More could be done, but it is happening. We might have different ideas of what exactly constitutes healthy food, but I don’t think anyone’s arguing that more fruits and veggies is a bad idea. Ok, probably someone is, but let’s just agree to ignore them.

Policy driven change seems to be moving along as well. Michelle Obama is leading the charge with her Let’s Move program that touches many government programs. Kathleen Merrigan is pushing for help for local food systems, even while Tom Vilsack works mostly within the status quo. As demand for healthier food increases, senators and congressmen will be more likely to support policy changes at the federal level, especially if we somehow start electing people with backgrounds other than business. Yes, it would be nice if everything changed faster, but it’s going to take a while to change a system that’s been in place for 40+ years.

With both demand and policy, the important thing is to keep pushing for changes, and over time things will change. Optimistic, simplistic, yes, but true. The alternative is revolution, which would probably suit some people, but is more than a little extreme.

That leaves us with research. Research is what informs both demand and policy – or at least it should be. Research can provide us with information about which methods are preferable to others, such as which pesticides would have the least impact on farm and off farm ecosystems. Research, if properly applied, can help guide demand and policy to improve human and environmental health, among other things.

Here’s the problem, to borrow from the pesticide comparison paper: not enough “empirical data and objective risk-benefit analysis” and too much “arbitrary classification”. When demand and policy are based on arbitrary classifications like “natural is better” without research to back it up, we end up with demand and policy that are ineffective at best. We also end up with unnecessary divisions that cause efforts to be split, even though we all really want the same thing.

Let’s look at organics as defined by the USDA:

…an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity… The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people. (USDA National Organic Standards Board definition, April 1995)

or agriculture that does

…respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. (CFR Regulatory Text, 7 CFR Part 205, Subpart A — Definitions. § 205.2)

Sounds great, right? Except that by separating organic out from the rest of agriculture, we’re implying two things:

  1. that non-organic-certified farmers don’t have these goals in mind
  2. that they don’t have to.

It probably is true that some conventional** farmers don’t care about their soil, don’t conserve resources, etc. But those aren’t going to be very sucessful farmers if their soil is poor and they have to buy way more fertilizer than their neighbors, for example. If you lined up all of the farmers in the US according to their soil quality, I bet you’d find a bell curve. In each category from bad to great soil, you’d find some conventional and some organic farmers. According to the research, organic methods can be better for soils than conventional methods***, but there is so much variation in how farmers actually apply the methods that a one farm to one farm comparison really doesn’t tell the whole story.

There are many conventional farmers that apply integrated pest management, that use rotations to reduce crop-specific pests, that use legume rotations to help reduce the amount of nitrogen that needs to be applied, that use planting methods that decrease soil compaction, and so on. And there are organic farmers that just do the minimum to keep certified. And a whole range between.

Even if we assume that, on average, organically farmed soils are superior in organic matter, microbial activity, etc, we’re still not saying much. “Certified organic cropland and pasture accounted for about 0.6 percent of U.S. total farmland in 2008″, according to the USDA. When we make regulations for such a very small portion of farms, we’re not actually doing anything at all. Consumers should demand environmentally friendly methods from the other 99.4% of farms and policy should be made that includes all of those farms – and all of it needs to be based on sound research.

Ideally, demand and policy would be based on those methods that have been shown to work. If additional research confirmed that using mineral oil was more harmful to farm ecosystems than one or more synthetic pesticides, then one would hope to see demand and policy encourage use of the insect control strategy that had the least impact instead of arbitrarily choosing the “natural” method over a synthetic. Right now, there’s little if any research driving demand or policy. Instead, we have ideology.

Infighting over whether organic or not-organic is better, can feed the world, blah blah blah, isn’t actually helping anyone. The reality is that some methods used by some organic farmers are superb and some might not be. Some should be widely adopted, and some might even be more harmful their conventional counterparts (see the study I started this post with). Complicate that with the fact that not all farmers use the same methods and trying to decide whether organic is better becomes completely futile.

The research looks at individual methods, not arbitrary classifications – which is  really the only effective way to look at things. What we really need is a system that rewards farmers for environmentally friendly farming practices****. A farmer that uses legume rotations for nitrogen but still needs to use some synthetic N, P, and K  to maintain good soil nutrients should be rewarded or recognized somehow if he uses application methods that have been shown to reduce runoff. A farmer that uses integrated pest management to reduce chemical pesticide application that farmer should be recognized.

Hypothetical label touting E-value of contents.

Perhaps there could be a scoring system where environmentally friendly methods are given a number value and farmers with higher values can seek a higher price from buyers that are interested in such things. I can easily imagine a box of corn flakes labeled “made from corn with E-values of 100 or higher!” Another option might be to revamp the whole subsidy system to focus on farming practices, where farmers could have a financial incentive to choose environmentally friendly practices, epecially in cases where a change from one method to another would have an initial capital cost (like new tilling equipment) or when the change might reduce yields or income.
.

Let’s put aside the petty squabbling and focus on the research that has the potential to guide 100% of farms toward more sustainable methods. Not enough research? Let’s demand better federal funding for relevant projects. Let’s demand policy that helps all farmers and all land, not just some.

So, farmers organic and conventional, advocates of various farming methods, consumers, economists, policy analysts, everyone… What sorts of incentive systems might work? Would you spend a little more for a product that you knew was made with ingredients that were sustainable grown? Would this whole crazy idea be just too expensive to implement? Would the cost be mitigated by the benefits?

ResearchBlogging.orgBahlai CA, Xue Y, McCreary CM, Schaafsma AW, & Hallett RH (2010). Choosing organic pesticides over synthetic pesticides may not effectively mitigate environmental risk in soybeans. PloS one, 5 (6) PMID: 20582315

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* Yes, agribusiness wants something else – money. But I’m talking about people, not corporations here. And if you think organic agribusiness cares any less about money than other companies, you are simply naive.

** I really don’t like the word conventional, but it’s better than saying “non-organic-certified” every time I want to mention farmers that aren’t organic certified.

*** To name one recent study that shows healthier soil under organic methods:  Moeskops B, et al. 2010. Soil microbial communities and activities under intensive organic and conventional vegetable farming in West Java, Indonesia. Applied soil ecology 45(2)112-120. Within the confines of this particular study, organic soils are closer to local forest soils, but I bet there are farms which would show the opposite to be true. As with all studies, we have to be careful to remember that the findings apply within the conditions of the study and may or may not apply elsewhere.

****I’m not advocating a dissolution of the certified organic system. It’s not perfect, but it’s all we’ve got at the moment. I’m just saying we can have a system that actually works to improve all farms, and organic can keep doing whatever its adherents want.

Anastasia is a Board Member of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes! Learn more about Anastasia at about.me. Disclaimer: Anastasia's words are her own and views expressed do not necessarily represent the views of her employer(s). She is not paid to blog or conduct any social media activities. Any mention of a specific company or product does not indicate endorsement of that company or product.


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20 comments to Toward a better agriculture… for everyone

  • Another way to encourage environmentally friendly farming practices is through grants as shown here: USDA awards $18 mil. in Conservation Innovation Grants for 43 states to generate environmental benefits. If nothing else, it’s a great way to pay for those capital intensive things that will provide environmental benefits for years.

  • Agree. The organic vs. conventional debate draws energy away from the central issue of how we are going to develop an agriculture that is highly productive while also highly sustainable, healthy for consumers and healthy for the planet, superbly efficient with food accessible to rich and poor alike. It is not impossible — but will remain out of reach as long as we continue to waste energy debating categories instead of solutions. http://www.thomashager.net

    • Thanks for stopping by, Thomas!

      Hopefully there are enough reasonable people out there for a productive discussion about agriculture. I think the problem right now is that the only ones speaking up are people on the extremes, from National Corn Growers to Organic Center. We know those groups are biased, as I discuss in Does the Source Matter?, and their bias just muddies the water. The rest of us need to speak up and have some real, useful discussion.

      As an aside, how wonderful that you are a journalist with a scientist pedigree! Thank you for your work in educating people about the reality of science – moving beyond that Dr. Frankenstein myth. The Alchemy of Air has been on my to-read list for a while now (once I get though all those articles for my thesis lit review!) but Our Daily Bread sounds really interesting. I hope the project goes well.

  • Leia R.

    Good article. Not sure that I agree with more regulations and subsidies…but I don’t have a better option besides education of farmers and the consumers.

  • Andre

    Very long and detailed post, which made me somewhat uneasy, however.

    The weakness of the analysis lies perhaps in the absence of ideology among the drivers of change. Ideology permeates demand, policy and research and has the power to supplant rationalism. It even pollutes our discourse and limits our freedom of expression as shown by your references to “healthy food” and a “demand for healthier food”. Please understand me: you are not wrong, but you – and I or anyone else – are left with no choice but to use loaded terminology with its load. It is loaded, in this particular instance, because it wrongly assumes that food from conventional is less healthy than food from organic agriculture.

    One may wonder about ideology permeating research. Yet one just has to consider the amount of “research” that is churned out to suggest that conventional agriculture and modern techniques are evil. One of the latest examples is Sager’s story about GMO canola on North Dakota roadsides (see here and for instance here).

    The upshot is that we should not only accept but vigourously pursue the, not at all arbitrary, classification and the organic-conventional dichotomy, rejecting, however, the underlying assumptions from conventional wisdom. No, organic agriculture does not have the merits that are ascribed to it in terms of consumer health, environment, biodiversity, sustainability, etc. Or, to put it less bluntly, it does not have any comparative advantage over conventional agriculture. And no, organic agriculture is neither environment friendly, since its low yields must be compensated by higher acreage, nor sustainable, since it depends in many cases on external organic matter.

    In this respect and more generally, we must expose the misdeeds of flawed analyses and faulty comparisons between two extremes: an idealised organic agriculture and clearly irresponsible practices in conventional agriculture. We must also denounce the inaccuracies and even outright lies of the organic agriculture ideology(ies).

    Same for the posturing and hidden agendas. Organic agriculture has a hard time to thrive on its own merits, so the other side must be denigrated, and not allowed to show its improvements. In France, there is a new certification in the making for “high environmental value agriculture”. Among the opponents are the National Federation of Organic Agriculture (FNAB) and other proponents of organic agriculture. Behind their argument that certification would lead to confusion, they are in fact protecting their turf!

    So, even if the “organic vs. conventional debate draws energy away from the central issue of how we are going to develop an agriculture…”, to quote Thomas Hager, we must enter this debate simply because the organic side does not leave us much choice.

    It is one thing to have an organic agriculture “industry”, with its farmers, processors, sellers… and ideologues and parasites, on a fraction of a percent of total farmland. It is another to pursue a policy that seeks to increase its foothold to unsustainable levels (in France, for instance, consultations in the framework of the Grenelle de l’environnement led to a pledge, a political decision to increase organic agriculture to… 20 per cent of total farmland by 2020), and to clutter conventional agriculture with unreasonable demands (one example here are the rules on coexistence of GMOs and non-GMOs that are more stringent than those applied to the production of certified seed).

    The point is that if we do not make our point, agronomy – and science in general – will be driven out of demand, policy and research. Whereas I can agree with most of what you wrote, I think that there are instances where we must be straightforward and forceful; where we must uncompromisingly distinguish between the realm of ideology, faith, beliefs and superstition, and the realm of science and reason. If we do not, the organics Lyssenko’s will prevail over the Vavilov’s…

    • By “healthy food” I mean fruits, vegetables, and a variety of grains as opposed to processed food that consists mostly of corn and soy plus meat from animals that were fed corn and soy. Not that there’s anything wrong with corn and soy, or with feeding them to animals, but ag in the US at the moment is unbalanced in my opinion leading to meat and processed foods that are too cheap compared to fruits and veggies. There does seem to be a greater demand for fruits and vegetables, and efforts to bring these into areas where people don’t have many healthy food options. As you can see, my definition of healthy food has nothing to do with farming practices, although I think some farming practices are preferred with regards to the health of the farmers and the ecology of the farm, such as IPM.

      Ideology does come into play, but I don’t think it should play a role in research. We agree that there is research that is ideologically driven and that the resulting papers (or press releases) display too much bias to be useful. I think this type of research is in the minority, though, even though it’s participants are louder than the scientists that work without an agenda.

  • Charles M. Rader

    to clutter conventional agriculture with unreasonable demands (one example here are the rules on coexistence of GMOs and non-GMOs that are more stringent than those applied to the production of certified seed).

    A very timely comment. Yesterday a federal judge banned all planting of glyphosate tolerant sugar beets, solely in response to the fears of the organic community that there would be cross pollination and the glyphosate tolerance gene would end up in their seed crops. Even if one accepts the doubtful premise that this gene does any harm — it’s guilty only of having been arbitrarily declared unacceptable in organic agriculture — it would be fairly easy to adopt management practices that protect seed producers. Sugar beets are normally harvested after one growing season but they don’t flower until the second season.

    • I completely agree that the demands of organic producers are unreasonable in cases such as this. The ban of Roundup Ready sugar beets is not based on science, but on ideology. Frankly, I don’t know why science is being decided by a judge. The whole thing frustrates me very much.

  • Ideo Logue

    Charles M. Rader wrote: “Even if one accepts the doubtful premise that this gene does any harm …..it would be fairly easy to adopt management practices that protect seed producers. Sugar beets are normally harvested after one growing season but they don’t flower until the second season.”

    First, The case was not about human or environmental health harm (not as far as the judge saw it anyway) but about freedom to operate, and the economic implications on a minority group of producers needing to be taken into account prior to deregulation.

    Second, yes on the flowering issue with regular sb crops, but this case hinged on the fact that the sugarbeet SEED crops are grown in the same valley as beet/chard seed crops (conventional and organic) in what is historically the most valuable specialty seed region in America. The conventional and organic seed companies/producers in this region recently got the Oregon govt to ban biofuel canola production for the same reason – that outcrossing of canola (even non-GMO) would hurt their industries reputation in brassica seed production – irreparable damage does not come from the contamination of one season’s crop, but from the loss an industries reputation. Biofuel folks were pissed, but the conventional sector (including a company that does a huge chunk of the sugarbeet seed production in the region, as well as Brassica crops) were elated. And the management practices in place have not been proven effective. Just last year a producer of roundup ready sugarbeet stecklings for seed crop sold topsoil to a garden store that was filled with his culls – GMO roots – and these were mixed into more soil and sold to gardeners all around the region before an Oregon State University scientist spotted them and tested them.

    Anastasia wrote: “The ban of Roundup Ready sugar beets is not based on science, but on ideology”

    No, your comment is based on the pro-“genetics as top science” ideology, and lacks an understanding of sciences outside of your specialty (sorry to be harsh) and a total lack of empathy for people’s right to maintain their food culture values. I hesitate to use the word “sacred” on a science blog, but even removing religious beliefs, there are cultural beliefs that you seem to want to eradicate with a “science above all else” attitude. Humanity doesn’t work that way.

    People have a right to eat the food they want – even it it is “antiscience” – Jews and Muslims preference (that at one time was grounded in “food safety” issues) to not eat pork is surely antiscience (pork is no less safe than chicken, or spinach for that matter), but you as a scientist don’t get to make the call when it comes to this issue (or do you want to express a public opinion that these groups are antiscience?).

    Interestingly, this judge was a Bush appointee, and a staunch Republican. He stated in his opinion on the case last year that people have a choice in food (food sovereignty) and that contamination on any level interferes with that choice, as well as impinges on producers freedom to operate and produce products for this specific consumer market – potentially causing irreparable harm to that market and so needs to at least be considered in the EIS. It was about economics and sovereignty and following government regulations. That is only antiscience if your ideological blinders cause you to ignore sociology, political science, and economics. I’m not against biotechnology, am a big fan of MSS, and open to what the future might hold as we learn more about genetics – but I am even a bigger fan of freedom of choice. Until biotech companies can produce their products without contaminating others, it’s a non-issue for me even if I am supportive of the traits benefits for “some” producers (if your benefit interferes with my basic livelihood, we have a problem). In any case, the EIS will be completed, perhaps the biotech seed companies will be told to put the trait into the female line (no big deal) to reduce potential contamination, and in the meantime the USDA has a new ‘coexistence’ specialist who will likely get the organic purists to agree to a compromise with adventitious presence and some kind of insurance against contamination hire than that, and everyone will be happy and planting what they want. Yes, a certain percentage will rail against any solution other than the death of Monsanto – but you do the rest of the organic community a disservice in thinking that all are that unreasonable. People want rights and protections, and once even minimal efforts are given to coexistence with protection from “high” levels of contamination, things will mellow out.

    I enjoy your writing, love this blog as a whole, and hope that we can find a way to develop real co-existence between the two markets (neither of which is going away). But this post came off as being a bit disingenuous. It’s also okay to have ideologies, labels and choices, just be honest about which ones you are for – this blog post came of as disingenuous in that you are very “pro-genetics” and as such pro-biotech, just like I am pro-(food)choice and the foodies are “pro-local”. No big deal to be an advocate or an agvocate. Embrace it.

  • Charles M. Rader

    Ideo Logue, your answer is mostly reasonable, but can you comment on why, for a promiscuous crop like canola, a single state ban is sufficient, while for a much more easily managed crop like sugar beet a complete national ban is appropriate?

    Also, I’m somewhat disturbed, both with alfalfa and with sugar beets, that one group’s irrational preferences can outweigh another group’s rational preferences. Jews and Muslims who don’t eat pork aren’t attempting to ban pork, or even claiming that it is harmful.

  • Ideo Logue

    Charles,

    FIrst, on the pork – I can only guess at this, but I am fairly sure that if there were an attempt to insert porcine genetics into a plant, and that plant could outcross, that followers of Halal and Kosher diets would object voraciously. Yeah? I think we have to be careful here, in that organic eaters aren’t all “born again organic”. There are plenty of people who eat a small percentage of organic food (Hugh Grant, president of Monsanto is an admitted organic food consumer) who are not ‘religious’ about it. This is not just about individuals but about economic markets – organic is no small market any longer. Yes, it’s a fraction of regular ag – but it’s still billions of dollars (someone fact check me – but I think I read that Organic Valley alone was well over 300 million per annum). These are livelihoods – and no one can deny that organic has helped me conventional multigeneration farms stay in business by transitioning to organic (especially in dairy!). So we must be careful to be flippant about it being an “irrational” preference. It’s a preference with economic implications, and that’s about as rational as we get in America. Also, using words like that, well, it’s easy to argue that our love affair with corn is irrational (Pollan et al) and unnecessary – and while I don’t fully agree with Pollan, I do think the corn game is played for dollars not for sense = it is completely irrational from a resource management and economic standpoint (once subsidies are taken down a notch) that we have so many acres in corn, and believe that we should have more diversified conventional farms in the corn belt. As someone who comes from a large conventional ag family, I can tell you it is not all rational – not when the banks, politicians, and lawyers all have their say -but the irrationality of American ag isn’t the fault of only ‘organic’ irrationalists. Sorry my friend, but this is not a rational world, yet we strive to make it one and I admire that you have that intent – but be careful casting stones.

    On the sugarbeet – I read most of the judge’s ruling from 2008, but not the most current one other than what has been in the press. My understanding is there was not an injunction placed on RR sugarbeets. The judge recognized that they had not passed regulatory standards, and therefore they could not be legally planted because they are once again regulated. It’s a tricky bit of legality – but I think he was using the Supreme Court case to say “hey, this is now a regulated crop not yet approved for planting anywhere”. Was hoping to read his full comments this evening.
    And by the way, not a state ban on canola in Oregon – only banned in one valley.

    • The sugar beet decision was in 2009, not 2008. Correct, an injunction was not placed on the planting of beets, first because there were not enough conventional beet seeds and it would have caused economic harm to the beet farmers. Then with the ruling last Friday, there still was no injunction, even though the CFS et al argued for one. The Supreme Court ruled in the Alfalfa case that an injunction on top of the vacatur (re-regulating it) was overkill. Still doesn’t explain why they continued to argue for an injunction post-SCOTUS.

      One thing to consider is that no GE company has declared that they are trying to end the organic business forever, however the organic organizations are the ones saying “It’s us or them.” While you could say that the GE companies are ‘attacking’ organic by merely producing GE crops, at the same time it is the organic system that is asking for 0% cross-pollination in a world full of diverse interests. Search for Consumers Union on this blog to find a study that found that most organic consumers do not care or care little about such “contamination.” I’ve been thinking lately about how organic is using the excluded method rule as a weapon to force their beliefs about agriculture on everyone else. Politics is like a busy intersection, the best kind allows the most people to be able to get where they want to go, while not preventing any one direction from being able to move forward. With GE, no one is preventing organics from growing things organically. But it appears that some in the organic sector are trying to prevent GE from taking place at all.

  • Charles M. Rader

    In fact, Ideo Logue, Jewish religious scholars have already weighed in on the pig gene issue. They say that a gene copied from a pig gene is not essentially piggy. A plant with a gene derived from a pig can still be considered kosher.

    I think the comparison between a kosher preference and a non-transgenic prefernce is very instructive. Orthodox Jews are not demanding that others bear a sacrifice so that they can follow their dietary laws.

    I think about this when anti-GMO groups talk about the labeling issue. There’s no problem when a food vendor chooses to say on the label that his product contains no GMO ingredient. But these groups are adamant in their demand that other vendors who do use GMO commodity ingredients must so label them. If that demand were met, it would certainly force segregation of ingredients which are now intermingled because they are considered interchangeable, which would certainly add some costs to the commodity ingredients. Those of us who don’t have a problem with GMO ingredients would have to bear the cost to satisfy those who do and who will not buy the product in any case.

    By contrast, Orthodox Jews and Muslims look for Kosher or Halal on meat labels but they do not demand that other meat products be labeled non-Kosher/non-Halal.

  • Wanting Kosher or Halal labels to me is exactly the same as wanting GMO-free labels. Another similar label is animal by-products. Voluntary labels for any of these non-health issues can be helpful and definitely have a place in the marketplace. Mandatory labels for any of these would only harm people who don’t want them. I’ve talked about this on the blog before in What’s in a label? and Labeling GMOs.

    As for the sugar beets, I’m in the process of writing a post so will respond later. Thanks for the great input and conversation, everyone!

  • Great post!

    There are already models for sustainability labeling in forestry and fishery systems that seem to work well – but I suspect agriculture is too diverse and complex for this to be straightforward. Do we really know what sustainable ag looks like in different cropping systems? Is there an easy way to measure it that’s better than the dogmatic, inaccurate organic heuristics?

    As a first step, maybe we could make pollution the primary focus (as it’s simple and easily quantifiable). E.g. maybe farm runoff could be tested for concentrations of ecologically-damaging chemicals of varying risk levels (especially nutrients, also pesticides). As a next step, farms could get extra points for using whatever agronomic practices are scientifically validated as sustainable, or maybe have their soils tested for carbon sequestration.

    Farmers already pay more to grow organically due to the price premium. Maybe they could pay local extension soil testing labs to run a “Sustainably Grown” testing kit that allows them to use the label. If it makes sense, these labels could also indicate different “levels” of sustainability (shades of green?). Using agronomic methods that are actually SUSTAINABLE instead of just following dogmatic organic requirements would lower their costs, help the environment and give consumers a more honest product.

    • Oooh – shades of green. That has a nice ring to it (possibly because I am a veteran).

      I’m glad you like the post – I wrote it in hopes that we (sus aggies and all) could have some science-based conversations about what is sustainable and how to incentivise it.

      • Eric Baumholder

        Anastasia,

        To find out what is ‘sustainable’ and how to incentivise it, you need look no further than the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). If your company or market is under siege by Greenpeace et. al., WWF will negotiate a truce with you. For a fee, they will sell you the right to claim your product or process is ‘sustainable’ so long as it meets certain criteria. This business model has made the WWF the world’s largest ‘green’ activist group. So you might want to think twice about going that direction and the possibility that you would indirectly be abetting the WWF business model. You might also want to consider the possibility that sustainability has always been incentivized anyhow. What person or business voluntarily destroys productive assets?

    • There could be traffic lights or bars like we have on our cell phones to grade the foods according to such standards.

  • […] this excellent post says: It’s time to get beyond debates about  “organic” vs […]

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