Saturday, August 26, 2006

Commodity organics

Given the chance to use a product or a substance or a practice that'll reduce or eliminate the risks crop face from weather, insects, weeds and fertility conditions, most people will grab for the product. I've seen this phenomenon in suburban back yards where the gardener starts out with good intentions of never using an insecticide and then suddenly along comes some insect bent on eating its fill of the crop and ka-pow, out comes the insecticide.

I worked with subsistence agriculture in south and central America. Subsistence agriculture means you're scratching every day all day to nurse food out of the ground. Improving and assuring that the crops bear enough fruit to feed the family is constant work. The work is hard. In fact, we're talking about stoop labor; work where you're bent over all day sweating, or freezing depending, and you're dirty.

Somehow, in my head, I have organic production connected to subsistence agriculture. The connection sticks in my head in spite of what I've seen of organic agriculture in North America. I've seen what looks like highly productive agriculture.

Knowledgeable people, in whom I trust, tell me it's possible to ramp up organic farming to meet a mass market challenge. They add that they think such a ramp up is most likely in the arid, irrigated west of the United States (or other similar places).

The humid Midwest, south and east probably aren't well suited to produce organically grown food in a mass scale. There are simply too many challenges to the crops to consistently provide enough organic food to meet mass market demands.

People in the organic business aren't entirely sure they care about a mass market anyway. A recent article in the Chicago Tribune (registration required) quoted representatives talking about Wal-Mart marketing as a violation of the "spirit" of organic farming. A big retailer such as Wal-Mart will work to drive down prices paid to producers and has the weight to go anywhere in the world to find supplies.

A goal for many producers of organic food is to maintain small-scale production. So now if it's possible to mass produce food without the use of various fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, then shouldn't we go full bore in that direction?

I'm so confused. It just seems hard to have it both ways.