10 09 02 The Incongruities of Conventional Agriculture

Last week I wrote about my visit to the organic plots at Carman this summer, contrasting what I saw there with what we have all come to accept as conventional agricultural practise. This week I wish to sketch some of the problems I see in conventional agriculture, and in the weeks to come, describe some of the alternatives.

Conventional agriculture is extremely wasteful of fossil resources. It depends heavily on nitrogen and phosphate fertilizer from non-renewable sources. Although the nitrogen comes from the air (which is free), the process of converting this free nitrogen into fertilizer requires large amounts of natural gas, which is non-renewable. Phosphate also is mined, and all of the readily available phosphate has already been mined. We are now dependent on less available sources. What makes this waste of precious resources doubly regrettable is that it is unnecessary. There are other ways of getting the necessary nitrogen and phosphate to the plants.

Similarly conventional agriculture depends heavily on fossil energy for tillage. Within conventional agriculture, the no-till and reduced-till movement is an attempt to address this dependency, and this work is to be applauded.

Conventional agriculture is becoming increasingly dependent on distant resources: fertilizers, fuels, seeds, chemicals for weed control, insect control and disease control. There is nothing wrong with this dependency as long as all systems are working as they should – and they all have worked admirably for the last 100 years or so. In fact they have worked so well that we have come to assume they always will work well. Is this a reasonable assumption? I submit this is not a reasonable assumption. There are increasing signs that the reliability of these supply systems is under threat, whether it is global financial instability, peak oil, climate change, or terrorism, to name only the most obvious. Are we being rational when we allow such vulnerability at the foundation of our food system?

Backing away from the phenomenal interdependency of today's world does not mean going back to the stone age. There are food producers today [and the Carman researchers are working with them] who are doing things differently – differently in a way that makes them less vulnerable to potential global disruption.

I am well aware that there are those who maintain that organically grown food is tastier and healthier than that grown conventionally. Maybe it is, but I believe the science in this regard is divided, and most of the information is anecdotal. Everyone is entitled to an opinion on which food is tastier and healthier, but I, at this point, consider that an opinion, not science.

Others argue that the carbon footprint of organic agriculture is less than that of conventional agriculture. In this regard my perception is that this argument cannot be applied uniformly. Neither organic agriculture nor conventional agriculture can be tightly defined, and the outcome of any test will be determined largely by the definitions selected.

Conventional agriculture has very effectively delivered what the consumer wants: cheap, attractive food. Only two things will cause conventional agriculture to change: a change in the price of inputs, or a change in consumer preference.

By Eric Rempel