For veterans of the organic food debate, the cover story of Time Magazine offers few new insights into the question of eating cleanly and sustainably. Any general discussion of the food industry in America is rife with rhetorical potholes, and the debate is as massive and complex as our food production systems themselves.
The Time article, written by Jefferey Kluger, makes a judicious attempt at outlining some of the biggest points of contention in the great food debate: cost, nutritional value of organics vs. conventional food, treatment of livestock, fertilizers and pesticides. He also oddly tries to extricate himself from the debate in which he is participating, referring to “food purists” and “the shouting of the food partisans.” If Kluger is trying to mount a non-partisan argument, he ends by leap-frogging from issue to issue without settling for a conclusion. While Kluger ultimately appears to be in support of organic food and the consumption of less meat, he seems dismissive of the practicality of feeding the nation with organic food.
This is my major bone to pick with the piece. One of the main problems Kluger sees in organics is that they don’t “scale up,” that organic farms won’t be able to produce enough for our population. “Say what you will about the environmental depredations of agribusiness, industrial farms coax up to twice as much food out of every acre of land as organic farms do.” Alright, Kluger, here’s what we have to say about agribusiness: it totally depletes the soil nutrients of the land from which it’s producing so much food, creating a self-perpetuating dependence on fossil-fuel based fertilizers. Eventually, this land may become un-farmable. Plus, industrial agriculture pollutes the land and water system surrounding the farm. Although Kluger does not cite the source he takes this tidbit of data from, I’m willing to wager that it compared two acres that contained a single crop.
But the real beauty of sustainable, organic farming is that is doesn’t have to be bounded by the dictates of mechanized farming machines that distribute pesticides. Intercropping can be used to improve yield and maintain the soil. Smaller farms that have a wide variety of crops and livestock actually produce more food than massive mono-culture operations, but they do require a careful understanding of the land and more man power. With unemployment at a high, increasing farm jobs doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. In fact, the UN supports ecological and organic farming as a solution to world hunger.
Kluger comes to the conclusion that organic and non-organic food must co-exist. This will probably be the reality of food production in America for many years, but the status quo doesn’t have to be the future of food production.