Friday, May 24, 2013
"The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug."
-- MARK TWAIN
It's an article of faith at the farm that organically raised food tastes better, and is better for us than food grown by "conventional" agriculture with its chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and genetically modified crops.
A 30-year study by the Rodale Institute confirms that organic farming has other substantial benefits:
* Organic yields match conventional yields.
* Organic outperforms conventional in years of drought.
* Organic farming systems build rather than deplete soil organic matter, making it a more sustainable system.
* Organic farming uses 45 percent less energy and is more efficient.
* Conventional systems produce 40 percent more greenhouse gases.
* Organic farming systems are more profitable than conventional.
But first, consider the use -- or misuse -- of the term "conventional" when it comes to agriculture.
Conventional agriculture really began roughly 10,000 years ago in the Middle East. It led to the rise and fall of civilizations in Sumeria, Egypt, China, Greece, Rome, South and Central America, and the rise of our current civilization.
Conventional farming was still mostly organic -- the most common form of agriculture -- until the early and mid-20th century when vast reserves of nitrates were left over at the end of both World War I and World War II.
Fritz Haber, a German, invented the process for synthesizing nitrates for explosives in 1914, giving his country a distinct edge in World War I since the source of natural nitrates was far away in the bat caves of Ecuador, and the British navy would have made it difficult for the Germans to supply their war machine.
Synthetic nitrate, along with the development of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and genetically modified crops, launched what should have been called "industrial agriculture" -- big farms, run by large corporations and subsidized heavily by the U.S. government, producing commodities such as wheat, corn, and soybeans.
By the end of the 20th century, industrial agriculture had virtually replaced conventional (organic) agriculture in the United States, Europe and a lot of the rest of the world.
I can only guess that the word "conventional" was hatched in the PR departments of these industrial agriculture corporations to attempt to legitimize their very unconventional form of agriculture. "Conventional" is not only the wrong word for industrial agriculture, it is the opposite word.
Back to the Rodale study, which examined both organic and industrial agriculture practices in a side by side field study since 1981.
The hallmark of a truly sustainable system is its ability to regenerate itself. The key to sustainable agriculture is healthy soil, which is the foundation for growth, the study says.
"Organic farming is far superior to conventional (their word) systems when it comes to building, maintaining and replenishing the health of the soil. For soil health alone, organic agriculture is more sustainable than conventional. When one considers yields, economic viability, energy usage and human health, it is clear that organic farming is sustainable and conventional practices are not," it continues.
"As we face uncertain and extreme weather patterns, growing scarcity and expense of oil, lack of water and a growing population, we will require farming systems that can adapt, withstand or even mitigate these problems while producing healthy, nourishing food," it concludes.
At our farm, we don't own a tractor or any other fossil fuel-based equipment, so I would guess our use of unsustainable fuels is close to 100 percent less than our industrial farming counterparts, rather than the 45 percent found in the study.
We rely on a greatly underutilized source of renewable energy -- human power.
Organically maintained soil retains water better, fighting erosion and drought, the study indicates. The higher costs of labor on organic farms is offset by savings in the purchase of chemical fertilizer, the study says.
In answer to the question, "Why is organic food more expensive?" the study concludes that organic prices are driven up by consumer demand. That's not exactly elitist, as organic critics would charge, but capitalism at its finest.
I also would argue that organically grown food for our 80 farm share members is actually cheaper than food purchased in the supermarket. Our large shares, which often feed two families, cost $25 a week for 20 weeks and our small shares are $18.50 a week.
I haven't bought vegetables at the local supermarket recently, but I don't think $25 would get me a week's worth of veggies!
Denis Thoet owns and manages Long Meadow Farm in West Gardiner. www.longmeadowfarmmaine.com.