Organic and Local is so 2008—or at least that’s the case that journalist and “The End of Food” author Paul Roberts makes in Mother Jones this month. The gist of his argument: because the food system’s problems are so deep, the food movement needs to mature beyond its one-dimensional, at times robotic devotion to Organic and Local and instead adopt a broader range of solutions.
He offers the example of Fred Fleming, a noted Washington wheat farmer whose masterful no-till system has greatly reduced erosion from his land. Fleming remains outside the foodie circle because his system depends on using herbicide, but Roberts argues that he is just the sort of farmer we should be embracing. Roberts does make an important point: agriculture faces many more issues than whether or not farmers use pesticides; to boot, all of those issues are currently being compounded by climate change.
Wes Jackson of the Land Institute recently made a related point underscoring the threat we face from soil erosion. He argues that the most damaging climate-change-related weather events we’re seeing are not hurricanes hitting the Eastern seaboard, but heavy rainfall and floods in the Midwest. In Jackson’s view, even the destruction wreaked by Katrina did not compare to the long-term loss we suffer from having millions of tons of farmland topsoil washed away in floods, as happened last March and April. I can imagine Roberts chiming in to say that if using some Roundup would hold that soil in place, the tradeoff would be worthwhile. It’s hard to disagree with that.
But after hearing Roberts make his case live at Organicology in February, I would argue that he’s too near-sighted with his remedy. Rather than embrace farmers’ lesser-of-many-evils practices within the existing system, we need to overhaul the system itself. As it is, farmers are expected to be purely economic beings that fit into the free market alongside mortgage securities; the true solution instead lies in seeing them as the ecological caretakers we so desperately need them to be.
Think of it roughly like the National Parks: Years ago, we as a nation recognized the need for large areas of land to be taken out of the real estate market for the express purpose of maintaining them according to a different set of priorities; we saw that wild lands served the public good, and that not protecting them was to our detriment. Well, now we’ve reached the same situation with our working lands, as the constant pressure of the market system has led them to a threatened existence.
I’m not suggesting we buy up farmland and make it government property, but rather that we recognize farmers and ranchers as a kind of public servant. To begin with, replace the Farm Bill’s provisions for subsidies and incentives for commodity production with a true support system of financing, education, and farmer-centered research and market development; that could enable growers to switch their focus from bank notices to caring for their lands long-term. In time, probably most would gravitate to ecological methods such as the organic no-till farming system that Rodale has been developing for the past decade.
Some, though, might choose herbicide-dependent no-till as the suture that would hold their land in place. In that lies the greatest challenge of supporting farmers: trusting that given the proper tools, they know and will do what’s best for the land. I believe that trust is where Roberts’ argument was leading, even if it didn’t quite reach that conclusion in the MoJo article. If so, it’s a step in the right direction.
Northern California-based writer/photographer Lisa M. Hamilton focuses on food and agriculture. Her book "Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness" (Counterpoint) comes out in May.