Friday, November 11, 2011

Organic Farming and the Sanity of Common Sense

At the very beginning of her monumental book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson acknowledged the many people who were trying to stop the irresponsible poisoning of the world. She then wrote that it would require many small battles to ultimately bring "sanity and common sense" to the world.

That was written back in 1962 when much of the agricultural community was intent on using a handful of very effective (and very toxic) molecules to bring the myriad insect pests, weeds and pathogens under control. This was a great period of change in America and the rest of the developed world. Previous generations had always assumed that the natural world (which they loved and which they relied upon for their lives) was a challenge to be overcome with hard work and intelligence. These new chemicals were just the newest advances in the on-going quest to bring nature to order. And, as it turned out, they worked very well.

We now know that these early successes came with a price and Rachel Carson's book was a large reason why things are so different now. In the half century that now separates us from Silent Spring we have a much larger variety of pesticides. These products are many times safer (both to people and to other living things) than the chemicals we were using 50 years ago. Our agricultural colleges now teach a wide variety of agricultural techniques that were unheard of back then. And the banner of Organic Farming is now being waved all across the country. Pesticide-free produce is becoming a big business and consumers now demand that growers measure pesticide residues in parts-per-billion, whereas their parents could hardly measure chemicals a thousand times more concentrated. We are much safer and much more concerned about anything on our food these days than our parents ever were.

And yet things continue to change. The rising generation is no longer as worried about pesticides as it is about global warming, water conservation and soil loss. This doesn't mean that nobody is worrying about weed killers. A lot of us do. But frankly, regulatory agencies and chemical manufacturers have been dealing with these issues so long now that an overall consensus has been reached. The rules are clear: you can't sell nasty chemicals anymore. Of course there are still people who ignore the labeled instructions that come with agricultural chemicals and sometimes accidents do happen. But people also drive cars even though they continue to kill so many of us. We have just come to a better understanding of the risks and the alternatives involved.

And so you'll have to forgive me for being so bold as to say that Organic Farming is failing to address the full needs of our new reality. This is a little sad for me to say. I started my career over 20 years ago developing a botanical insecticide derived from the neem tree of Asia. My job was to measure the activity of this natural product against a wide array of pests. My co-workers and I were convinced that the world would soon recognize how important this was and that we would soon replace most of the nasty synthetic chemicals then in use.

Well that isn't exactly what happened. We did sell some of our product, but in the end, the company was bought by another environmentally conscious company, which then filed for bankruptcy only a couple of years later. And this is the story of most Ag biotech startup companies. They somehow get some funding, tell a great story about the rising business of organic agriculture, and then proceed to flounder. Only a handful of well-managed exceptions are still in business.

Which brings me back to Rachel Carson's plea for common sense. We have much bigger issues to deal with than pesticide abuse right now. Our parents were right - as was Silent Spring - that there existed a toxicological crisis in the world that needed immediate attention. But it's time today to take a look back, another look forward and yet another look around us. Songbirds are singing again in rural America.

Now I am not suggesting that we eliminate our watchdog groups. They are important. I am saying that the volumes of dire toxicological angst that the environmental movement continues to bless us with should target a more worthy opponent. We need to take better care of the land. This is our new crisis. And until we consensually recognize this problem, there is no guarantee that it will ever get resolved.

An example of what I mean by misplaced advocacy is the state of organic farming in California right now. There are well over 1,000 growers managing nearly 200,000 acres of organic farmland in the state. On average organic farmers are working a bit over 100 acres of land each. This may not sound like much in today’s world of mega-farms but the size is important. Managing 100 acres effectively requires that an organic farmer use fully modern equipment. And in order to justify the use of this expensive equipment, large markets in far-off places have to be found. What this means is that organic farmers are using just as much fuel both in production and shipping activities as their traditional neighbors - all in the effort to tap into a niche market or to satisfy an antiquated ideology.

These old-school soldiers should be commended for their hard work. But we no longer need all of their services. What we need now are a few more farmers determined to build up organic soils and use less water. Some of us are, in fact, doing just this. But we need a much larger cultural recognition of these efforts. We need consumers to pay for this larger conservation. We need a larger motivation for farmers to participate in saving the land. We also need more of us to start putting our small plots of land into production and start caring for the little spaces we do have responsibility for. We can either do so now voluntarily or at some future time when soaring food prices leave us no other choice.

It's time for a new generation to take the organic movement in a different direction. If Rachel Carson's generation was threatened with poisons, our children are more likely to be threatened with hunger and malnutrition. We need to take better care of the places that feed us and the places we live. Much depend on it.

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