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Organic versus conventional farming

(article, Culinate staff)

On his Chews Wise blog, Sam Fromartz recently posted about the by-now-familiar farming debate: which is better, organic or conventional? Fromartz writes that focusing on yield — a metric in which organic always falls short — is too narrow:

bq. Consider that the conventional farming methods that achieve higher yield require costly fossil-fuel inputs in fertilizers and pesticides (the environmental impacts of which fall outside of yield studies), that they require highly mechanized tools that replace labor, and may rely on intensive irrigation from increasingly scarce water resources. Measured against the methods in most of the world — 80 percent of the world’s workers are still farmers — I have no doubt that the highly intensive model would produce a higher yield. But are those methods available or even appropriate to farmers in areas where food is most scarce and population growth the highest?

His argument is similar to that posited in a recent New Yorker profile of the business guru Clayton Christensen, in which Christensen points out that focusing on, say, profit margins means ignoring the bigger financial picture.

That same New Yorker issue included a profile of Daniel Nocera, a scientist trying to come up with a cheap, durable way for the world's poor to generate their own fuel and electricity via photosynthesis.

In other words, conventional farming, with its reliance on fossil fuels and heavy machinery, is a top-down system that won't necessarily work in the developing world, which can't afford either. So what will work on an affordable, sustainable level? Fromartz quotes the philanthropist and farmer Howard Buffett (a son of the even more famous business guru Warren Buffett) on the matter:

bq. Productivity in one part of the world cannot address land tenure, infrastructure, governance, investment protocol, culture, human capacity, research and development, gender disparity, and a myriad other regional issues. Decisions and investments specific to individual countries — not the yields of another country half a world away — will always be the primary drivers of food security.