An open letter contributed by Dylan Harding
The Guelph Organic Conference has been a very thought provoking experience for me, and maybe I shocked some people over the course of this weekend with views that I expressed. I will no longer be specifically involved with the organic farming movement. This has been a long considered decision. Don’t get me wrong, organic production has a place. I believe that place is in local vegetable production and rightfully this is where much of the focus in the organic world lies. However, there are greater issues than the vegetable supply in the world today, and we should not kid ourselves in to thinking that current organic practices will reform the global food production system. Organic and local vegetable production is a piece of the puzzle, but in my mind it is a small piece. The worldwide demand for calories is met by industrial farming, and that demand is not going to go away. This is the issue towards which I will now be addressing my energy in terms of learning, consideration, and action. I am not saying that anyone is wrong for their interest or involvement in organic farming, but it is not for me. Many people may consider this decision a moral sacrifice. I feel that this is far from the case and I encourage you to read this letter if you will have the patience to consider my reasoning.
Please keep in mind: While I will stress the importance of sound methods for maintaining today’s yields, I do not mean to imply that we should be attempting to increase these yields. We should certainly be taking pains to address population growth. This discussion is however beyond the scope of my argument, which I base solely on the very real fact that there are currently some 6 billion people alive on earth who we consider to have rights.
Industrial agriculture has undeniably changed the world. The global population boom following world war two was driven in a very real way by humanity’s newfound ability to produce anhydrous ammonia, a very basic fertilizing agent (as well as a component of many explosives) on a massive scale. This process, known as the Haber-Bosch process, is why we are all here. The population boom that we are a part of has been possible because of farming techniques based on synthetic fertilizer production and mechanization.
Although industrial farming as it is currently practiced is certainly unsustainable, we must first give it credit for bringing us here, because we wouldn’t be without it. Pandora’s Box is open and we are now reliant on this system. Yes, this system needs reform, but applying organic farming methods on the scale required to feed the current global population would be just as unsustainable as our current conventional methods and considerably less practical. Take the notion of “peak phosphorus” that is considered an especially great threat to organic farms. An obvious source of phosphorus is available in biosolids (the solid byproduct of waste-water treatment) but safely processing biosolids is impractical on the small scale that organic farming principals generally demand. Beyond this, biosolids are forbidden under organic regulations. Industrial farming is not currently sustainable, but organic agriculture is not a viable alternative.
There are certainly commonly practiced organic principals that should be incorporated into industrial farming such as polyculture planting and a focus on replenishing the soil’s organic matter content. In the conventional farming world however these principals can be readily considered if they are indeed more practical. In organic farming, many conventionally accepted practices with potential for extreme benefit are ignored simply because they do not adhere to an outdated and romanticized notion of what food production once was. Rather than argue with the definition of a luxury item I have chosen to farm in a less restricted environment because this is the environment in which the vast majority of food production will occur. Although neither side of the organic/ conventional divide is currently sustainable, only one side allows unhampered consideration of how a sustainable food system can be designed.
It is my belief that ecologically and morally sound methods of food production are possible on an industrial scale. We need to figure out how this can be made a reality, because industrial agriculture will continue for as long as it can whether it is sustainable or not. We’re all here because of industrial agriculture, and industrial agriculture is not going to go away until people are willing to stop eating. Thus, we must accept it and reform it. For this reason I will no longer be dedicating any of my energy to the organic farming movement, but rather to reforming industrial agriculture.
I’m still open to debate, and again, I’m not suggesting that anybody is wrong for their interest or involvement with organic agriculture. It’s no longer for me however, and I hope that you can now appreciate why.
January 31, 2011