Breaking Down the Sustainable vs. Conventional Farming Debate

Tuesday on #agchat there was quite the discussion about many agricultural topics (see the Agwired review). The whole goal of agchat is to discuss the five questions posed by the moderator @mpaynknoper. The goal is not to have specifically a pro GMO or organic discussion but rather a pro agriculture discussion with all stakeholders.

I will save you from all the details of the battle that has been raging on twitter this week regarding sustainable versus conventional farming but the reality is that both sides need to start to listen to each other. We need to get past the rhetoric that Monsanto is the evil empire and all people that eat organic food smoke pot and live in a grass hut down by the river. Today, a pro sustainable ag blogger posted some thoughts that showcase how strong the rift is between sustainable and conventional agriculture.

There is a place for both sustainable and conventional agriculture in the marketplace. For either side to suggest that we should do away with the other would be ignoring the demands of the end user. There is demand for both sustainable products and conventional products in the marketplace.

My wish is that the pro sustainable (organic) believers would take off the “Monsanto is evil” blinders and start realizing that transgenic traits do serve a beneficial purpose to the marketplace. I have many friends at Syngenta, Monsanto, Dow Agro, Bayer and Pioneer Hybrid and I can tell you none of those people are evil or want to control the food system. I would encourage all of my sustainable (pro organic) friends on Twitter and abroad to start opening their mind to what is really happening in agriculture (get it…….RealAgriculture).

 

Shaun Haney

Shaun grew up on a family seed farm in Southern Alberta. Haney Farms produces, conditions and retails wheat, barley, canola and corn seed. Shaun Haney is the founder of RealAgriculture.com. @shaunhaney

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21 Comments

Mike Howie

Appreciate your thoughts here, Shaun. I agree whole heartily with all but one thing.

That one thing? That we’re allowing others to define “sustainable”. I don’t know a single farmer who doesn’t operate a sustainable operation. Farmers of all sorts want their children to come home to the farm – to do that they need to make sure they are taking care of the soil, air and water.

Here is a good definition of sustainable agriculture I came across recently:

o The ability to feed future generations by increasing ag productivity while decreasing environmental impact;
o Human health through access to safe, nutritious food; and,
o Social and economic well-being of rural communities.

Conventional, organic, local or slow. All food producers have the same goal, and that is to serve the marketplace, as you note.

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Shaun Haney

I use sustainable as a reference point from the twitter conversation. I agree with your definition. Thanks for the comments.

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Anonymous

Everyone needs to have plots and grow things themselves. The satisfaction of watching something grow, and having as much food EVERYWHERE as possible. I’m talking about converting concrete slabs of city into garden zones (mega stores, road, so on) stop so much useless land for factory farms.
How do GMO foods benefit? How does tweaking genetics and making seeds sterile, how does that benefit the market. So there’s maize that has spider dna, so what?
There are better natural ways to keep away bugs. Or tomatoes with jellyfish dna that can withstand a cold fridge.
Have people grow tomatoes locally or in greenhouses, then we don’t need fridge transport trucks. Less oil, less energy, less heat.
Yea, I agree people in companies are not evil people, but you know what, they’re not making policy either. They’re the bottom or the middle of the pyramid.
Nature already has abundant diversity in foods, so much you can’t find it all at one market. Genetic meddling of food is unnecessary, it’s flawed and it’s dangerous.

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Kathy

Shaun,

I’m glad someone has got this ball rolling! There is certainly no reason why we all can’t work together on this.

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Michele Payn-Knoper

Good discussion. #AgChat was founded to bring together people interested in the business of raising food, feed, fiber and fuel. We've had incredibly fast-paced & thought provoking discussions on Tuesday nights, which are moderated with questions that come from the community (I pose the ?s written by others to guide the chat). Until last week, everyone has been great about introducing and engaging in a professional discussion.

Personal attacks aside, I couldn't agree more that there is a need for conventional and organic agriculture. It's about choice. Choice for farmer and choices for consumers.

I agree that we can't let folks who don't understand farming define sustainability. Food production wouldn't be around today if farms weren't sustainable. The reality is that N. American agriculture won't be allowed to support viable rural communities that sustain the U.S. & Canadian economies if others define are issues for us. Does agriculture exercise it's voice of choice?

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Shaun Haney

Just so everyone is aware, I am not going to publish comments that include profanity, personal atacks or unprofessional dialogue.

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Chuck

Thanks Shaun. It’s refreshing to hear your viewpoint. We need civil discourse without shouting and name calling.

I hope the discussion proves to be effective.

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Joanne Rigutto

I think that as the agriculture environment evolves there will be room for many different types of agriculture. I think that what people don’t understand is that while the small farms are great for people who want to buy direct, either from CSA farms, farmers markets, etc. that for other purposes, production ag is necessary too.

I’ll give you an example. I have a very small farm – just 6.5 acres – in Oregon. I produce eggs, goats/goat meat, emu eggs and meat, and produce as well as breeding horses. I sell direct to the public and I can produce a lot of food on 6.5 acres. Anyone who doubts that needs to look at the Growing Power farm in Milwaukie, Wisconsin to see just how much can be produced on very small acreages if it’s done right. However, that having been said, depending on what I want to grow/produce, 6.5 acres can be just the right amount of land or not anywhere near enough. If I wanted to produce commodity corn or soy beans, it wouldn’t be possible on my land. If I wanted to produce enough of anything to supply a large chain like Kroger, I wouldn’t be able to, and I don’t have any business trying to.

On the other hand, to supply the commodities market, the big chains, the biofuels industry, the manufactured foods industries, etc. we need production agriculture. Small producers, with certain exceptions, can’t really do that. Small producers, or small acreage producers, can supply a few things, but for very high volume I think you really need production ag. And you need different types of production ag, just as you need different types of small scale ag.

One thing that small scale ag can do that large scale prodiction ag can’t really do, is keep the small acreages in agriculture and undeveloped to provide a buffer between the urban/suburban areas and the large acreages that do well in high volume production ag. As someone said once, ‘you can’t turn a combine in a 5 acre field’.

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Brad Redlin

The only thing that offends me, rather deeply, is the constant inference that we entirely “real” farmers are either lumped in with admittedly not fully-informed (but certainly earnest) urban voices questioning industrial ag practices, or we are simply completely ignored or dismissed as not “real.” For just one basic example of real sustainable agriculture out of thousands, go to http://www.practicalfarmers.org/

Those farmers are precisely who people are actually calling “ag’s adversaries,” or not “real” agriculture. Or condemning their definition of “sustainable” as somehow inadequate or not “real.” And that is disgraceful and absurd.

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Andy

So what does sustainable farming look like in the real world? From a small grain perspective in the brown soil zone (where I am), sustainable farming cannot be organic farming because the tillage aspect (I do not have the moisture to consistently grow green manure crops and still get a decent crop yield, although it someday will hopefully be an option).

Sustainable in my area first and foremost involves moisture conservation (chemical fallow and/or low disturbance seeding with residue kept on the surface. Secondly, erosion control is paramount, as winds can blow at all times in the year and most summer rains are hard thunderstorms. As well, snow cover can not be counted on, so wind erosion can occur any month of the year.

Sustainability in my area must involve both chemical weed control and synthetic fertilizers.

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Zachary Cohen

Shaun, This is an important post, in fact so much so that its even made me reassess some of the reactionary and incendiary comments I made on twitter this week. I applaud your effort here! Thank you so much

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Zachary Cohen

For the commenters, I don’t think its helpful, and frankly I think its a snide and dishonest way of dismissing critics, to talk about where they live. Attack the ideas, but to say that because I live in NYC or some other sustainable champion lives in San Francisco, adds nothing to the discussion. We are talking about ideas here, not locations of where people live.

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RayLinDairy

Kudos to Shaun for this post. As I have been following this on Twitter one thing keeps coming to mind. If we do away with all the negative talk about each different system the dialogue that results will be downright earth shattering.I am a firm believer in choice, if each side continues to force their ideas on the other we will get nowhere.Some of the previous commenter’s are doing a great job of trying to be open and it needs to continue.

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Anonymous

Yes I am sure you know many people who work for Monsanto and other big agribusiness companies, and none of them are “evil.” Nonetheless, that does not mean that they are not facilitators of evil. Look at the ultimate outcome of what Monsanto and others are attempting to accomplish in terms of world domination of the seed and food market, look at the means they are using to get there, look at the doubling of chronic diseases in the American population since GMO products began to flood our food supply (unknown to us, since GMO’s are not labeled here), look at the results of scientific studies into GMO’s which have been done in other nations (which allow independent research, unlike the USA), look at the inevitability of the adverse environmental and economic affects of Monsanto’s products, look at the future in a world where biodiversity and such essential knowledge as seed-saving has become lost to most people… This adds up to evil.

No, your friends are not evil and of themselves. For evil to flourish, it requires assistance from non-evil people too. It depends upon people to say, “but I know Fred and Fred’s a nice guy, so obviously the company Fred works for must not be doing the bad things people say it is.”

Unfortunately, it is not that simple.

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AdamO

This is an intresting topic as it seems that there is an ever-growing gap between public perception of sustainability and what sustainable agriculture looks like to the agri-food industry. There is room for all types of food production and I beleive that it’s a great idea to pursue unconventional, or if you think about it primative agriculture, where everyone grows at least a portion of their own food in urban settings. But as an industry we need to do a better job of educating consumers and urban people about the realities of the food supply system we use today. Starting with the fact that without all of these of these “evil” chemical, genetics and “factory farms” (I hate that term) we would only be able to produce enough food to feed 1/4 to 1/3 of the world population. As well that the benefits of all of these technologies is a reduced dependancy on chemicals and devestating tilliage practacise. The reality of the situation is that farming is not low risk venture. Farmers invest millions of dollars each in their operations and pursuing practices that are harmful to the environment or consumer would result in the loss of that investment. Beacuse we make our living off the land it would be rediculous to think that we would not do everything in our power to care for it and ensure we are able to continue our buisnes. At the end of the day I find it very discouraging when I finish harvest and I’m looking at enough food to feed 50,000 people for a year and knowing that people are out there vilanizing what I do because of sensationalist extrememist are spreading their idealistic and ignorant beleifs to the world.

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Kevin

It is refreshing to read comments on a topic like this that actually have some content in them. I have to applaud Shaun for sorting through the comments before they get posted. There is no point in posting radical comments that do nothing to bridge the gap between “sustainable” vs “conventional” farming. I read a blog a couple of days ago on something related to this same topic. Full of anger and militant posts. What purpose does that serve. It ends up being a bunch of swearing and name calling that serves no purpose. I am disappointed though in people that post anonymously on this blog. If you feel so strongly about your beliefs, why hide behind that mask.
There are just a couple of points that I would like to comment on. The first is the phrases sustainable and conventional. I believe that no matter what, you can’t have one without the other. The other thing that I would like to touch on is seperating emotion from fact. That is one of the biggest problems with this whole argument. What kind of statements are “Monsanto is evil……..they are seeking world domination………chronic diseases have doubled since GMO’s hit the market”? Where is the proof of this? It is merely a ideology that is spread by people that do not truly understand what is going on but listen to poor information.
Frankly, the first thing I thought of when I read those statements was an Austin Powers 4 movie gone bad.

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JeffFowle

Personally, I believe that we have two types of agriculture, organic and conventional.

Sustainability is the ability produce a product, to earn a profit, reinvest in the farm/ranch, pay the bills, and still have something left over. For me, a farm/ranch is sustainable if it can provide the income to improve is value, improve the environment and NOT rely on outside/additional sources of income(off farm/ranch). If a farm/ranch operation is dependant upon outside income it is NOT sustainable.

Both organic and conventional farming/ranching can be sustainable or not, it strictly depends on managment.

A topic, I have been thinking about often since the last agchat. Perhaps I’ll blog a bit on it myself.

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nesbitt65

Loss of soil and of organic matter can’t be considered sustainable. Nor can reduction of biodiversity. Lets not kid ourselves that these problems can go on forever. We need to take our nitrogen from the atmosphere through legumes. Chemical quick fixes are causing too many problems. We must ween ourselves from them.

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AdamO

Nesbitt, Where do you think nitrogen fertilizer comes from? It is made from atmoshperic nitrogen that is highly compressed in the presence of a catylist to form amonia. Is there a carbon footprint from this process? You bet, but nothing comes for free. Using legumes as a nitrogen source isn’t free either, first it would require taking at least half of the acres out of food production and putting them into “nitrogen” production and secondly that method is highly reliant on tillage which further degrades soil resulting in errosion, nutrient leaching and water contamination as well as organic matter degredation, releasing alot of CO2 being released. Secondly on my farm we’ve increased the organic content of the soil over 1% in the last 15 years sequestering thousands of tonnes of CO2. What have you done for the enviroment today? Furthermore the majority of the chemicals we use today are far less persitant in the environment than those of even 20 years ago many of them even degrading as soon as they come in contact with soil.

I also find it intresting how urban people point fingers at farmers blaming them for reduced biodiversity, I guarantee you I have more biodiversity my back yard than you’ll find in any city. It’s icreadably hipocritcle and ignorant to blame all the worlds problems on farmers with your mouth full. With that said I applaud people taking an intrest in where there food comes from but I would encourage them get information straight from the source as opposed to websites of radical enviromentalist groups who for some unknown reason has made it their agenda to attack the people that produce their food. Remember that there is a difference between demmanding accountability and persecution and that difference is education. And if after that you don’t like where your food comes from, grow you’re own, but it’s not as easy as it looks.

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nesbitt65

Adam, you seem to assume that I’m an ignorant urbanite when in fact I’ve lived my entire life on a farm and have actively farm for 26 years. Most of those years were involved in conventional farming (ie lots of fertilizer and chemical). At the end of the day I found myself just myself handling a lot of cash. Cash sales of grain bringing in income and an almost equal amount of costs going out. As you know, modern farming, for the most part, means very low returns on equity and a high reliance of off farm income to pay the bills.(it helps if your wife is a nurse or teacher). I’ve noticed that the people involed in agribusiness, the people I used to buy farm supplies from, are driving a lot nice trucks than I am. They do well in a maximum production model. The big multinational grain companies like it as well. All I’m saying is we need to find a way that serves farmers, their communities and the environment better than the current model.

Another thing that annoys me is the idea that here in North America, we need to feed the world. This idea is insane. We overproduce and dump all this product on world markets and deflate the prices. We undercut farmers in other parts of the world and they lose their food security and we export to them our topsoil.

By the way, there is a free lunch regarding nitrogen. We need farms that have crop and livestock integrated. We need better rotations (need to move away from corn/soybean or wheat/canola rotations). Nature is far more complex and we need to move to rotations that are more complex in order to be sustainable. This doesn’t mean quiting chemical pesticides and fertilizer cold turkey but rather slowly weening ourselves from them over many years. I know this can be done. There are several successful no till farmers in the Bismarck, ND area who are moving in this direction. I suggest you Google “Gabe Brown”.

Ok, enough of my rant.

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Colin

This is possibly the most hilarious discussion I have ever seen. With regards to Organic Farming and food production. It fits a niche market and people want the product. There is not arguing with the economics of that.

Having said that, if you believe that is the way that our food should be produced you are condemning are large portion of the worlds population to starvation.
IF you believe that organic production will feed the world you need to open your eyes. It is even funnier (not haha funnny) because our countries (Canada, US, UK France…) will not feel the effects of that loss of production. It would be Africa, southeast Asia, and South America that would feel the impact.

It should also be understood that organic production will produce less per acre than conventional agriculture. If you believe otherwise there is no arguing with you.

Having said all of that, there are definitely conventional producers in my area (north Central Alberta) that are not sustainable either. They are probably worse for the whole world food production thing, not to mention economics of farming, because of their poor management practices. Rumor has it that one guy is onto his 12th year of Canola in a row. DO I really need to say anything else?

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