Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Can Organic Farming Feed the Nation?

In our most recent Gardening 101 Class we were discussing seeds and the way in which seeds are described and labeled in seed catalogs. One of the ladies asked about GMO seeds, since that has been a big topic in the news lately. The instructor explained a bit about GMO seeds, and how to determine, when purchasing from a catalog, if a particular seed was GMO or Non-GMO. She also made a statement regarding GMO seeds, and Non-organic gardening/farming in general that I thought was worth expanding own.

Her comment was basically that, while organic gardening/farming is commendable, it is not possible for the few farmers in the US, less than 1% of the population, to feed the rest of the population using organic methods. This, in her opinion, is also the reason that GMO seeds were created.

I can't say whether her logic is valid or not. I have seen this reasoning before, yet have also seen suggestions that organic farming can provide sufficient food for the nation. For the purposes of this post I am going to assume that her logic is correct, that it is impossible for 1% of the population to feed the entire nation using only organic methods.

Clearly the response from the industry has been to abandon organic principles in favor of what we now consider "traditional" farming methods. Those of us who support organically grown food, however, will argue that this wasn't the appropriate response. If using pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and GMO seeds isn't the solution, though, how can the 1% possibly provide food to the rest of the nation?

The problem, in my opinion, lies with the question itself. The question is based on the assumption that 1% of the population must feed the rest of the nation. There are actually three variables that can be adjusted, however. One, would be to reduce the number of people needing to be fed, which obviously isn't a viable option. Another option is, the one that has been chosen, to abandon organic principles for methods that allow higher yields with less effort. The third option, and the one which I believe to be the real solution, is to increase the number of people growing food.

If it is impossible for the current number of farmers to grow enough food to feed the nation, using responsible and sustainable methods, without the use of potentially harmful chemicals, then I would argue that it is, effectively, impossible for the current number of farmers to grow enough food to feed the nation, period. Dumping a bunch of chemicals into our environment and genetically altering our food supply should not even be considered an option.

So how do we increase the number of farmers in this country? I don't know the answer to that. For starters, though, it would probably be helpful if we, as a society, began portraying farmers as being integral to our survival, which they are. We tell kids that it is better to be a lawyer or banker than it is to be a farmer, which of course makes it less likely that a kid is going to live his/her life dreaming to be a farmer.

I suspect that money is also a significant reason that we do not have more farmers in this country. By demanding low food prices, we have reduced the profit potential for small and medium sized farmers. The result is that a kid graduating from high school or college today is able to make more money in an office setting, with much less physical work, than if they were to choose to become a farmer. The low food prices have also created a situation that gives an advantage to large mechanized farms, that can produce hundreds of acres of a given crop. Of course that creates a barrier to entry for new farmers who can't afford hundreds or thousands of acres of land and hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars worth of equipment. The same factors that have allowed super-markets and large discounts stores to replace our small businesses and local main street stores have also allowed the mega-farmers to replace the small and medium sized farmers, while at the same time, all but ensuring that the next generation of potential farmers will, instead, be pursuing another line of work.

Thankfully, there seems to be a steadily growing demand for organic produce and sustainably raised meat, eggs, and dairy. As more and more people choose to spend their money at farmers markets and local specialty stores, instead of super-markets, the number of small and medium sized farms will, hopefully, gradually start to increase.

Clearly we need to find a solution to the problem, and I do not accept the idea that chemicals and genetically altered food is that solution. We absolutely can, and should, produce enough food to feed the nation using organic principles. If it can't be done with the number of farms currently in operation, then we need to provide incentive for more people to choose a career in farming. We can't simply sit back and be satisfied with the solution that others have provided for us. Yes, moving to an all organic food supply would increase the the cost of our food, but of all the things that we spend money on, shouldn't food be the one area in which we are unwilling to compromise?

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