Bridging the Organic-Conventional Divide

Growers who can wisely blend organic and conventional farming methods will help sustainably feed a growing world population.
Combine and tractor in barley field. (Photo: Getty Images)
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Oct 20, 2016· 5 MIN READ
Russ Parsons is an award-winning food journalist who spent more than 25 years covering cooking and farming at the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of the cookbooks How to Read a French Fry and How to Pick a Peach.

Listen to the arguments raging today about how our food is grown, and you might think that there is a vast gulf separating organic farmers who nurture their plants with little more than good intentions and conventional farmers selling fruits and vegetables drenched in poison. You’re either buying from barefoot baby Jesus, or you might as well be mainlining Agent Orange.

But having spent the last 25 years covering the intersection of food and farming for the Los Angeles Times, and having written a book on the subject and participated in panels and symposiums involving both farmers and environmentalists, I’m here to tell you that the reality is much more complicated.

Though both sides have strong arguments to make, the real world in which most of the nation’s food is grown falls somewhere in between. As with so many of the discussions having to do with where our food comes from, the gray area just keeps expanding.

Call it sustainability, call it agriculture 2.0, or just call it good farming: Today’s leading-edge growers are embracing the best practices of both organic and conventional farming to come up with a blend that can produce enough food to feed a growing population while preserving the health of the environment.

That’s a good thing, because the challenges we face in feeding the world are only going to get more ominous.

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Consider this: According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the world’s population is projected to grow by almost a third by 2050. Combined with a burgeoning global middle class, the U.N. predicts the demand for food will grow by roughly 70 percent. Yet the amount of farmland we can use for growing that food is predicted to increase by less than 5 percent.

So you see the problem: Where is that extra food going to come from? The U.N. says 90 percent of it will have to come from farmers getting more crops from the same amount of land.

Figuring out how to do that without further damaging the environment is going to be one of the signal challenges of the 21st century. It’s a problem that will require a multifaceted approach that has to start with the shedding of some old dogmas.

First, a little background: This is not the first time we’ve faced this problem. In the years after World War II, in order to increase harvests to feed a growing population, agriculture turned to modern chemical solutions—including synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

This succeeded beyond most people’s dreams. Norman Borlaug, the scientist credited with being the father of the Green Revolution, won the Nobel Prize and is credited by some with saving more than a billion people around the world from starvation.

Starving or not, we all benefited. The amount Americans spent on food dropped from almost 40 percent of average household income in the early 1900s to less than 20 percent in 1960 and less than 10 percent by 2000.

But these gains came at a cost. Today we are more than aware of the price that has been paid in terms of environmental and human health for our dependence on those early chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Soils have been depleted, rivers and streams have been polluted, and the health of workers has been compromised.

So how do we find a middle ground? How can we plan to feed a rapidly growing world population on a finite amount of arable land while minimizing environmental costs?

There is a multitude of ideas out there—reducing food waste, urban farming, backyard gardening, aquaculture, and even turning to insects as protein sources. Each of them can play a part, but all of them together will only account for a small percentage of the food that’s needed. Although new technologies are promising, their impact is uncertain.

Central to solving the problem is going to be bridging that old divide between organic and conventional farming methods.

Progress is being made. One of the things that has always bothered me about the way this whole organic-conventional debate has been framed is that it seems like all the focus has been placed on the best organic farmers and the worst conventional farmers.

But more and more, it seems that people are recognizing that there is a middle way, one that uses many organic growing methods but allows for responsible use of synthetic chemicals when they’re needed.

Though organic farms produce less than 5 percent of the nation’s food, organic farmers have made significant contributions to modern agriculture, demonstrating the viability of techniques that reduce the amount and toxicity of chemicals required in farming.

For example, integrated pest management is a system for reducing the populations of pests without relying entirely on chemicals, including carefully cultivating a population of good bugs that will eat the bad bugs.

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Crop rotation is another good example: Growing a meticulously orchestrated series of different crops on the same piece of land can increase soil health and reduce the populations of pests that can build up when the same crop is repeated year after year. Both of these techniques, once regarded as fringe, have been widely adopted by conventional farmers. Roughly 70 percent of the farm acreage in the U.S. uses some form of Integrated Pest Management, and 80 to 90 percent practice crop rotation.

Conventional agriculture has done its part too. For the most part, the chemicals used today are much less dangerous than the ones used 50 years ago and in many cases are less toxic than some that are approved for organic use. They are more targeted, and they can be used at lower concentrations and less frequently.

Better Food For All

Examining the complexities of scale, labor, cost, and quality when it comes to making food that is better for everyone and the environment.

The payoff has been dramatic. In California, which produces more than half of all the fruits and vegetables grown in the United States, pesticide use in agriculture has fallen by almost two-thirds since 2000—from 14.2 million pounds in that year to 5.2 million pounds in 2014 (the year of the most recent report). Of those 5.2 million pounds of pesticides, more than half are chemicals approved for use by organic farmers.

Why don’t we go all organic? There is a price to pay there too. Barring dramatic advances, organic farming will never solve the problem of feeding a growing world. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, organic harvests, on average, are 20 percent smaller than conventional. This varies, depending on climate, soil, crop, and the ability of the individual farmer, but clearly it comes nowhere close to the 70 percent increase in food supply the United Nations says will be required.

What is needed is a system that embraces the advances pioneered by both organic and conventional farming. This is where sustainability comes in. But what does “sustainability” mean?

There are a lot of definitions floating around, but perhaps the best is the one proposed by the National Campaign for Sustainability, a farmers group. It proposes three central tenets: environmental responsibility, social equity, and economic viability. Or, as one sustainable farmer puts it: “taking care of your land, taking care of your workers, and making enough money that you can keep your farm going for the next generation.”

That sounds promising philosophically, but there aren’t a lot of specifics. And that might be its greatest strength. As we learned from the organic movement, when philosophies become too defined, they become limited. The key to growing food in the 21st century is going to be keeping our eyes on the end goal of feeding people and maintaining the environment while allowing the flexibility required to react to changing circumstances.

This will take some adjustments on both sides. Farmers on the conventional end will have to be open-minded about trying new ideas, such as fallowing fields and practicing no-till farming to increase the biological health of the soil. Farmers on the organic side will have to take a fresh look at the use of low-impact synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and even genetically modified varieties.

This is farming that doesn’t fit a single definition or a template. Sustainability is a process, not a goal. The real goal, the one on which we must stay focused, is finding a way to feed people healthful food while preserving—and even improving—the environment. That’s a goal that’s bigger than any label.