Thursday, May 3, 2012

Borrowing Against the Future for the Present

Yield isn't the issue.  The issue is sustainability.
As an addendum to yesterday's blog post about the organic -vs- conventional debate, let's talk a little about our societal perspective on how to go about feeding ourselves.  Although we might not want to think about it, it's no secret that in the United States we often lack a forward thinking mentality, and that focus on the present has negatively manifested itself a lot in the last few years - the Bush-era tax cuts, the social security crisis, the medical emphasis on expensive treatment rather than preventative care, the list goes on.  And because this is a systemic problem, you might guess that it also makes itself apparent in our food system.  Well, you're right.

As Kristiane mentioned yesterday, the debate about whether organic can outperform conventional or vice versa is really beside the point.  During a really good growing season, conventional agriculture might increase your yields for a year or two, while simultaneously:
  • degrading your soil and water
  • producing less nutrient dense (and therefore less nutritious) food
  • running the risk of failure should the affects of climate change rear it's head
  • pumping tons of fossil fuels into the air to accelerate the risk of failure from climate change
  • poisoning the wildlife (and people) of the surrounding ecosystems
You might get a few exceptionally good harvests, but at what cost? Is it really worth it in the long run, and when you look at it with that broader perspective, can you really consider it a success? Probably not.  In this way we have taken out a loan against the future of our food system in order to sustain an expensive, wasteful, unhealthy, and wholly unsustainable present-day food system.

And it's not just the environmental effects of conventional farming that show a consistent lack of forward thinking. An editorial response to yesterday's mentioned study about conventional -vs- organic yields begins,
A new a study from McGill University and the University of Minnesota published in the journal Nature compared organic and conventional yields from 66 studies and over 300 trials. Researchers found that on average, conventional systems out-yielded organic farms by 25%—mostly for grains, and depending on conditions.
Embracing the current conventional wisdom, the authors argue for a combination of conventional and organic farming to meet “the twin challenge of feeding a growing population, with rising demand for meat and high-calorie diets, while simultaneously minimizing its global environmental impacts."
This statement assumes that it's reasonable to expect and tolerate an ever increasing demand for meat and high calorie foods, even though a diet high in meat and animal products is both less cost effective and less healthy than consuming mostly plants.  It takes more energy, both in fossil fuels and in feed, to produce enough meat to feed one person than it does to produce enough plants to feed that same person, and the person who ate the plant-based diet is much less likely to develop (and cause everyone to spend a lot more on healthcare to treat) lifestyle diseases like diabetes and heart disease. By continuing to emphasize a diet loaded with animal products, we are indulging in an unsustainable present at the expense of our economic and medical future.  This system is also exclusionary:
In reality, the bulk of industrially produced grain crops goes to biofuels and confined animal feedlots rather than food for the 1 billion hungry. The call to double food production by 2050 only applies if we continue to prioritize the growing population of livestock and automobiles over hungry people.
So we are also taking out a loan against the future of the many in order to provide an expensive and unhealthy lifestyle for the few, an action that ultimately will adversely affect us all, regardless of our socioeconomic status. Continuing with a conventional food system affords us the possibility of a few years of questionably higher yields at the expense of our climate, our farmland, our money, and our health.  That's a tradeoff that isn't in anyone's best interest, so lets try to eat more plants and buy food that was produced sustainably and closer to home in order to promote a better future for us all.

Have a healthy afternoon!


  1. An excellent argument, not only for organic farming and gardening, but for a healthier way of life.

  2. I will...even with the understanding that we are borrowing against our future for badly-needed economic stimulus.

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