Sustainable Economics– Asking the wrong questions about organic food production

The Atlantic brings us an example of industrial agriculture setting the agenda.  It is completely true that you can get higher yields with GMO crops using industrial production methods versus going organic or sustainable with those same crops.  GMO corn, soy and wheat are not the only things humans need for complete nutrition, yet we are expected to embrace industrial production because it is still producing high yields of those crops.  Industrial production doesn’t work so well on potatoes and other root vegetables, or perishable vegetable crops.  Industrial organic is obviously not going to be as good as specially subsidized, cheap-energy fueled industrial non-organic.  And the much-praised industrially produced ‘golden rice’ is not yet proven in its task of supplementing a crucial vitamin.

Genuinely sustainable production is mostly regional, mostly adapted to the climate of the given region, can include organic methods, but it’s not mandatory, and is often more labor intensive. This can be limited to ramp-up with many things, though, and then it can be much less labor-intensive on an ongoing basis.

Energy is already a lot less cheap, and those much-trumpeted industrial yields are not as reliable as they once were believed to be.  And when you account for soil fertility issues, runoff damage, lower nutritional value and a complicated subsidy environment propping up farmer incomes in wealthier countries whether they actually produce or not, those absolute yields look very different.

I can’t figure out why people keep getting suckered into this trap.  It is a trap, because you can’t win if you are playing on the industrial field, with industrial help.  It’s obviously not going to get the same results.  But humans are not corn/soy/wheat machines, we need to eat other stuff, and industrial agriculture is not conclusively better or higher yielding for much of that more essential stuff.  People supportive of organic and sustainable alternative agriculture methods and practices really shouldn’t be allowing the industrial standard to predominate the discussion.  It’s just so insidious.  Diversity is key, not building up an ever more elaborate edifice of one-crop agriculture.

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