Top | Sift

Food in Time

(article, Kim Carlson)

In Time magazine this week, John Cloud takes us along on a food fact-finding mission and weighs in on the organic vs. local debate. He comes to the conclusion, after five pages, that local food is a better option than organic.

It's easy to agree with him. Buying locally grown food supports our neighbors, reminds us of "eating with the season," and offers a sense of security; even if the local farmer sprays for pests or fungus, we feel right about being able to know his name and visit his farm.

But then you read something like Tom Philpott's "Victual Reality" column this week, over on Grist, and you are reminded, plain and simple, that organic is a cleaner way to grow:

bq. Worldwide, synthetic fertilizer use increased by a factor of ten between 1950 and 1998.

Which means there are increasingly severe effects in air and water, not to mention soil:

bq. This annual bombardment of fertilizer isn't merely degrading soil. As the soil loses its ability to retain nutrients, ever-heavier applications are needed to feed crops. The part that doesn't make it into plants doesn't disappear without a trace. Some of it is released into the air, and the rest of it dissolves into water. Both of these avenues lead to disaster. 

Disaster that comes in the form of nitrous oxide in the air (a potent contributor to global warming) and algae bloom in the water (the cause of the annual dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico).

There are those who say we couldn't feed the world without industrial agriculture, but there are others, like Brian Halweil, who disagree. Halweil, in his recent book Eat Here, cites evidence that says small farms that grow many different crops actually produce more food per acre than their massive counterparts:

bq. Perhaps most surprising to people who have only casually followed the debate about small-farm values versus factory-farm “efficiency” is the fact that a large body of evidence shows that small farms are actually more productive than large ones, producing as much as 1,000 percent more output per unit of area.

Halweil goes on to explain why this is so:

bq. How does this jibe with the often-mentioned productivity advantages of large-scale mechanized operations? The answer is simply that those big-farm advantages are always calculated on the basis of how much of one crop the land will yield per acre. The greater productivity of a smaller, more complex farm, however, is calculated on the basis of how much food overall is produced per acre. The smaller farm can grow several crops utilizing different root depths, plant heights, or nutrients on the same piece of land simultaneously. It is this “polyculture” that offers the small farm’s productivity advantage. 

Is local and organic too much to ask for?