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Agriculture should move 'beyond conventional'


By JON ELDON


For the Capital Press


Recently some farmers have begun using the term "beyond organic" as a new label to set their products apart from other "(merely) organic" alternatives.


This is, as one farmer friend explained to me recently, a way to bypass the complications and expense of organic certification and get back to the basics of the idea, although another farmer friend quickly replied that it was an arrogant move that involves no accountability and shows no appreciation for what the organic movement has accomplished.


My two friends who make their living on the cutting edge of the alternative local agriculture movement have earned the right to debate this and similar questions surrounding organic agriculture.


However, most people -- myself included -- aren't justified in focusing exclusively on these issues. No combination of college degrees, Whole Foods receipts and book sales can equal actually making a living as a small farmer supported by local markets. But anyone who eats food and appreciates clean air, water, or soil can weigh in on the much larger question of how do we minimize the environmental impact of food production across the board?


"Organic," for all its problems, is a legally defined concept that essentially means that all of the inputs that go into an agricultural product are biological in origin. If someone wants to go beyond this and use only free range nitrogen or fair trade phosphorus, then they are certainly more than welcome to do so.


But what about everything that isn't organic? Currently, any farmer that applies urea, a single synthetic herbicide, or any other input that is not biological in nature falls under the term "conventional." It doesn't matter if they use excessive amounts of methyl bromide before every planting or are only farming in a place that has pesticide residue from decades before, they're conventional. This term lacks any legal or even social definition other than it is anything and everything that isn't organic. While both of these terms could be improved on, we should probably start with the one that defines 99 percent of the cultivated acreage in the United States but is currently only defined in the negative.


For being such a simple insight it is somewhat embarrassing that I can't claim it as my own. I am currently in a research position at the University of California where I share an office with a visiting international agronomist. He was recently -- as he does almost every day -- marveling aloud at our two-party political system here in the United States, both at our apparent lack of creativity and the fact that we seem to assume that it adequately represents the broad spectrum of ideas and values that makes up this nation.


This particular day he ended with the surprising statement that, "Worse than that, you have a two-party agricultural system!" Without waiting for me to ask, he went on to note that the only distinction of national consequence is between "organic" and "conventional" and everything else -- "natural," "no-spray," "beyond organic," for example --are essentially third party labels that don't pack any widespread economic punch.


More importantly, he continued, while the environmental impact of farming falls along a gradient as a result of the huge variety of management options on both sides of this division, the economic benefit of reducing the environmental impact of agriculture falls under one of these two major categories.


As a result, the only economic advantage that a well-managed conventional farm that minimizes nutrient runoff, for example, has over their most poorly managed competitor is the savings in fertilizer. If the Gulf of Mexico is any indication, this is not a very good incentive. Similarly, an organic farm that barely passes certification -- or worse, only passes certification when there is a certifier watching -- has the same economic advantage as the most carefully managed operation.


So the important question that we should be considering is not whether all U.S. agriculture can become organic (answer: probably not, but regardless it won't happen tomorrow) or whether we should all be eating within a 100-mile radius (answer: not a bad idea if you can do it, but this is somewhat easier in Northern California than in North Dakota), but rather how we can minimize the negative environmental impacts associated with food production across the board?


If we are to do this, then the vast majority of us need to focus on the vast majority of the land. Whatever your opinion might be of organic agriculture, at the moment 99 percent of the cultivated acreage in the U.S. is classified as conventional.


There are numerous ways in which the environmental impacts of conventional agriculture can be reduced, but the only two that are ever discussed in earnest -- increasing government regulation and converting more land to organic production -- might be the most impractical and incomplete options. With consumers clamoring to know more about where their food is coming from (and pay more accordingly) conventional agriculture should take the initiative and create an economic gradient that reflects the wide range of conventional practices and associated environmental impacts.


If there is any question regarding the benefits that come with embracing market segmentation and economic incentives instead of waiting for regulation, well, just ask an organic farmer.


Jon Eldon is an agricultural scientist completing his doctorate at the University of California-Santa Cruz.


He has previously worked as a commercial fisherman, wildland firefighter and farm laborer.



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