“We have only just begun,” said John Mesko, executive director of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES), speaking at the 2018 MOSES Organic Farming Conference on February 23 in La Crosse, Wisconsin. “We are here to stay; we are not a niche.” Mesko explored the influence of the organic and sustainable farming movement and how it sets the stage for a bright future for farming.
The organic farming movement has lead innovation in sustainable agriculture for 30 years, said Mesko, whose career has covered all facets of agriculture, from his early days in fertilizer sales and biotechnology research to his current focus on organic and sustainable farming. Reduced tillage, cover crops and widespread interest in soil health all have roots in the organic community, he explained.
The pioneers of the organic farming movement, said Mesko, also understood what consumers wanted and sought to deliver it. “Over the last 30 years, the pioneers of [the organic farming] movement have built a $50 billion organic food industry … and it’s growing at a rate of 8 percent a year.” In comparison, said Mesko, the conventional food system is growing at less than 1 percent a year, not even keeping up with the rate of population growth in the U.S.
The past is not the future
The organic and sustainable farming industry has been in “prove-it” mode for so long, said Mesko, and now it’s time for the industry to leverage that and grow it further. “We’re not talking about how to farm in the 1800s,” said Mesko, who explained that the “new organic” going forward is about modern, thoughtful, high-tech farming that is very much a part of the future. And, Mesko added, whether you’ve been farming sustainably for 30 years or 30 days, whether you feel it’s a moral obligation or your main motivation is because you want to take a higher price at the market, it’s all part of the new organic.
Organic agriculture is not reliant on coming up with a new invention to solve the problem, said Mesko, who added that this science is not sustainable and will not keep us going for the long-term. Conventional farming, he explained, is based on the perspective that resources are limited and the idea that something must be added to the land to make it productive. Conventional farmers already have to compete with each other for land, for money, and for resources and labor. Organic farming, on the other hand, works with the systems already in nature to expand productivity. The organic perspective looks to grow the base and make more productivity available by the farm methods, creating the resources needed. “The way we farm is solving the problem; that is the difference,” Mesko said. “We’re making things better by the way we farm, not worse.”
Organic farming can feed the world
Organic farming can feed the world, said Mesko. Long-term research studies from Rodale Institute show that organic production can equal conventional yields and even outperform it in drought. Other conclusions from the study state that organic farming systems build rather than deplete the soil and that organic farming uses 45 percent less energy.
“There is a lifetime of discoveries yet to be made on how we can farm better,” said Mesko. “We can feed the world, we have the capacity to do it, and there is a growing number of people who want to see us do it.”
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Agricultural Statistic Service (NASS), U.S. farms and ranches sold US$7.6 billion in certified organic commodities in 2016, up 23 percent from US$6.2 billion the year before.