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Home » Farming/Growing, Feedstocks, Field/Orchard/Plantation Crops/Residues, Infrastructure, Opinions, Policy, Sustainability

Why Small, Local, Organic Farms Aren’t the Key to Fixing Our Food System

Submitted by on September 24, 2017 – 12:22 pmNo Comment

by Tamar Haspel (The Washington Post)  The food movement has a problem: It’s right about what’s wrong with our system, but wrong about how to fix it.  But what is the “food movement?” I hear you asking. For these purposes, we’ll call it the loose coalition of sustainability-minded people calling for the food system to be more focused on environmental and human health. There are lots of players with lots of agendas, but the key issues boil down to a familiar few: We have a chemical-intensive system that crowds out biodiversity, depletes the soil and pollutes the water to grow corn and soy for cheap meat and processed food, which make us fat and sick. While we can talk about the extent to which these things are true (and I have, in eye-glazing, patience-trying detail), it’s hard to look at the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico or the inexorable rise in obesity and deny that they’re problems.

How do we fix it?

But it cannot fix that chemical-intensive system that crowds out biodiversity, depletes the soil, pollutes the water, etc. And that’s not a lack of confidence in, or enthusiasm for, that kind of small farm. It’s simply a recognition that there are economic, logistic, topographical and even arithmetic reasons that those farms can only be a small slice of a reimagined, responsible, food system. There are at least four reasons:

They don’t grow the right stuff.

They can’t grow the right stuff.

The land is in the wrong place.


I asked Tim Griffin, director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment program at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, and he wrote in an email, “Having a food system that has multiple scales is better than having a preponderance of one scale (either large or small).” The growing of grains and legumes isn’t inherently less sustainable than growing produce, he says, but he would like to see a system where farms can take advantage of economies of scale without producing a homogenous landscape.

Suzy Friedman, senior director of agricultural sustainability at the Environmental Defense Fund, similarly sees roles for “farms of all sizes and production methods.” A responsible food system incorporates conservation methods that make sense for the kind of farm in question, and she looks to innovation, tools for precision fertilizing and pest control, and reliable measurement of results to help farmers do that, something that cooperation across the food chain and policies that promote, rather than discourage, sustainable practices can drive.

In general, the experts I talk to about this have a view of sustainability that encompasses all sizes and all crops, with local and organic playing an important, but necessarily small, role.

It’s time to change the focus. Local and organic are mission accomplished; awareness is widespread. Continuing to push those two things will further entrench the idea that they’re the only solution, and that idea is the enemy of real improvement. Move on to where a change in farming can make a much bigger difference: the hundreds of millions of acres of commodity crops.

I talk to a lot of farmers of those crops who are making environmental impact a top priority and implementing practices to improve their soil health, reduce nutrient runoff and retain water.  READ MORE

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