Columnist, Food

A woman protests genetically modified organisms during a rally in front of the White House in May 2013, part of a worldwide series of demonstrations and marches against GMOs and agribusiness giant Monsanto. (Nicholas Kamm/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

There’s an unbreachable divide between advocates of modern conventional agriculture and, essentially, everyone else, from the mainstream (organic, local, anti-GMO) to the less-so (biodynamics, permaculture, agroforestry). The parties are entrenched, the tone is partisan. But I think we ought to be able to get along, because all hard-core advocates of this or that food philosophy have two things in common: They’re paying attention, and they’re wrong. 

It’s great that they’re paying attention, because most people sure aren’t, and we’re not going to get much traction toward improving our food supply if nobody cares. So that’s good. Being wrong, though, isn’t so good. And they’re wrong for the simple reason that food and philosophy don’t mix. 

Here’s why. Food is a constant tug-of-war between people and planet. We can’t feed ourselves without doing environmental harm. “Agriculture costs us no matter what,” says Rattan Lal, director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University. “Every option has trade-offs.”

Food production takes a toll, and neither maximizing the food nor minimizing the toll is a workable response. No one principle can reliably tell us how to make those trade-offs, because every situation is different.  

Which doesn’t mean there are no good ideas. Take organic agriculture, based on the idea of building soil health. Everyone — literally, everyone — agrees that building soil health is important. But if you take that idea and build a system around it, a system with rules and prohibitions and certifications, you take away the flexibility to make case-by-case calls. Heavy use of chemical fertilizers can lead to water-polluting runoff, but that doesn’t mean the best alternative is no chemical fertilizers at all.

Laborers pick chard at the J.R. Organics farm in California. Organic farming is built on techniques such as promoting biological diversity, maintaining soil health and providing more natural environments for livestock. (Sam Hodgson/Bloomberg)

By the same token, the Green Revolution, the period from the 1940s to the 1960s when new crop varieties and advances in irrigation and fertilization transformed agriculture, was responsible for astonishing increases in yields. But, according to Lal, “The Green Revolution never talked about the quality of the soil. It was seed, fertilizer and irrigation. The quality of the soil in which those inputs were made wasn’t talked about.” And that heavy use of chemical fertilizers is one of the consequences.

I think it’s worthwhile to take a look at the good and the bad of the kinds of agricultural approaches that attract the most attention:

Organic has a lot to like — the focus on soil health, the use of manure for fertilization, the emphasis on composting and biodiversity. There are also some minimum standards for animal comfort and well-being. But the idea that fertilizers and pesticides should be chosen for their “naturalness” rather than their intrinsic toxicity makes no agricultural sense. And the federal requirement that any animal given antibiotics be removed from the organic system is troubling, as it gives farmers a financial disincentive to treat sick livestock and plays into unsubstantiated fears that any antibiotic use in livestock puts human health at risk. Yields are also consistently 10 to 20 percent lower than conventional-farming yields, and prices are higher.

Locally grown food gives consumers — and kids — a place to go to visit a farm and meet a farmer, or a pig. Although I don’t know of any research measuring whether farmers markets help foster a sense of community, customers often say they do. Delicate produce that doesn’t travel well, such as strawberries and tomatoes, can go straight from field to market. But farms that grow a diverse product line, which many farmers-market-style farms do, generally aren’t as efficient, both because they don’t get the benefits of specialization (expertise, equipment and soil optimization) and because most climates and soil types aren’t suited to a wide variety of crops. Although the distance food travels from grower to consumer is cut, “food miles” generally account for only about 10 percent of the environmental impact of food production, and that’s easily made up in increased efficiency from growing at a larger scale, in a more hospitable area. So, for example, a Maryland-grown cucumber comes from a system that produces, on average, 7,800 pounds per acre. In Florida, they get 26,000 pounds per acre. No wonder local food is often more expensive.

Anti-GMO doesn’t have much on the plus side. The most serious problem associated with GMOs is the weeds that have developed a resistance to the herbicide glyphosate, and the anti-GMO movement prefers to fixate on that and ignore the many beneficial genetic modifications, such as disease resistance, which is hugely avantageous for papayas and, potentially, for other plants. It’s certainly true that genetic modification has contributed to the widespread planting of just a few staples (corn and soy, primarily), as the companies that develop the technologies have sought to recoup their investment by modifying the most widely grown crops, but that’s true of all agricultural technologies; an industrialized system is not a friend to biodiversity. As those technologies become more widely adopted (and go off patent), other crops will start to see the benefits (and the pipeline is full of interesting, exciting, planet- and people-friendly GM innovations). Often, wholesale opposition to GMOs is based primarily on the argument that we don’t yet know enough about them, when in fact we know a great deal. Rejection is simply not a constructive approach to our food system.

Native American dancers protest Monsanto at a rally in Los Angeles in 2013. The company has been at the forefront of developing genetically modified crops that are resistant to herbicides, allowing for widespread spraying that kills weeds but not the crops. (Robyn Beck/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

Conventional agriculture is the source of almost everything we eat, and its pluses and minuses are the mirror image of organic’s. It produces huge amounts of food efficiently and affordably, but the system has been characterized by soil degradation, pollution and heavy dependence on chemicals. Farmers and companies that develop products for them are putting a great deal of effort into mitigating or even reversing those problems, but there’s no question that they still exist. A focus on just a few crops also limits biodiversity, but the resulting specialization makes for astonishing yields. Animals are kept in crowded conditions that don’t allow them to express natural behaviors.

Bottom line: There’s no one way to feed the world. Yet the public conversation about agriculture seems to break down along philosophical lines, and not always civilly.

There’s a better way. Want to fix our food system? Ditch the philosophy. No more unifying principle. Call off the dogma. Instead, think small. 

The best way to tackle the tug-of-war between people and planet is to aim to improve agriculture in ways that benefit both. “There are ways to grow more food, mitigate climate change and improve the environment,” says Lal. “They’re win-win-win strategies.”  

Take cover cropping, the practice of planting a field with a crop that won’t be harvested but whose job is to decrease erosion and runoff, and to help boost soil quality. Cover-cropped fields that are then planted with corn and soy often have higher yields than their non-cover-cropped counterparts. 

Planting cover crops is one of what Lal calls the four pillars of conservation agriculture, and the other three — leaving crop residue in the field, practicing integrated nutrient management, and not plowing — also have the potential to benefit both crop and planet. So can managed grazing of livestock, the incorporation of trees (agroforestry) and increased planting of legumes.  

Dakota Janowitz restocks greens at the FreshFarm Market at Dupont Circle. Farmers markets might help foster a sense of community, but the small farms that tend to sell there don’t run as efficiently as larger, more specialized operations. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Technology also brings win-win tools. Bt cotton, a genetically engineered type that has a built-in pesticide, has increased yields and decreased the need for sprayed insecticide. Precise new tools allow farmers to divide fields into small sections and custom-fertilize each section according to its needs, which can help maximize yields and reduce run-off. 

Lal points out that even specific strategies aren’t one-size-fits-all: “In Ohio, we can grow a cover crop in the off-season, but in Nigeria, where I used to grow a cover crop, it would take half the year, and you lose a season.” Lose a season, and you lose an entire crop. “Conservation agriculture, organic, agroforestry,” says Lal, “they all have places where they work and places where they fail. There are 300,000 soil types. It’s impossible to have one system that works for all of these, not to mention climates and socio-economic situations.” 

Just to make it harder, those strategies also have to work for the farmer. Activists, policy-makers and journalists can opine all they want, but it’s farmers who decide whether to use cover crops, or invest in new tools for precision fertilizing, or go organic. And even if a strategy does both increase food and decrease harm, we can’t expect farmers to implement it if they have to take a financial hit to do it.

Which could explain why I’ve found that farmers are less dogmatic than the rest of us. All the farmers I’ve ever talked to are happy to explain why they make the decisions they do but are quick to admit there are lots of ways to do it differently. Nobody knows the shortcomings of the organic standard, or GMO corn, or no-till, better than the farmer who has put it into practice. But the farther you get from the farm, the louder the voices get.

The appeal of ideas like organic and local is understandable, and there are lots of good reasons to feed yourself and your family that way. It’s when those ideas are used to paint the world’s agricultural landscape in black-and-white that the trouble starts. The solutions to the problem of feeding people and protecting the planet are endlessly and irredeemably gray.

Haspel writes about food and science and farms oysters on Cape Cod. On Twitter: @TamarHaspel. She’ll join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon:

An agricultural company in China uses helium balloons to spray pesticides on crops, a development that has increased the amount of acreage that can be sprayed at one time. (Chinafotopress/Getty Images)