Even though both conventional and organic production can be sustainable, organic production is actually less healthy for the planet than conventional production, in the view of Alex Avery, director of research for the Hudson Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
Organic farming leaves a larger footprint, he says, because it’s less efficient, thus more land has to be brought into production, and means less land for wildlife, he says. He continues that contrary to what some contend, both small and large farms can be models of sustainability.
rBST and dairy
Avery believes that the very same people who oppose rBST for dairy cows should be embracing it because it makes cows more efficient, thus it is a more sustainable model. “The debate on rBST needs to be reopened,” he says. In his view “we have a responsibility” to make agricultural production as efficient as possible.
But, he says, the public discussion of agricultural sustainability “is horribly one sided,” because those with an agenda of organic farming and small farms have gained access key makers of opinion, such as The New York Times, Oprah, and Rachel Ray. The facts, he says, suggest that conventional agriculture is more efficient, and more environmentally friendly.
For example, data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that organic farming increases soil erosion because neither nitrogen fertilizers nor herbicides can be used, meaning that no-till farming cannot be part of the organic model.
Free range chickens
Giovanni Gasperoni, executive vice president for Novus International, has a concern that the voices from wealthy urban groups will drown out reason on defining sustainability. In his view, free range egg production actually is less sustainable because more land and more resources are required, not to mention the fact that eggs from such a system cost more.
Put another way, the end result of California’s Proposition 2, which passed last November by an overwhelming margin (it outlaws battery cages by 2015 in the state, but cannot stop the import of eggs from other states, or countries, into California) is a system that is actually less sustainable, long term, than the conventional model.
But that, Giovanni and others say, was a difficult point to get across to citizens of San Francisco and West Hollywood during the heat of the debate. Giovanni also has a concern that if some groups who push for organic and free range have their way, eggs and other products will become less affordable for those without high incomes.
At the same time, agriculture has become increasingly more sustainable, Avery has concerns about efforts of urban-based food activist groups “who romanticize the past” and try to define sustainability as small farms because they don’t like anything too big or animals confined. And he is concerned that such groups have the attention of the media, allowing them to set the agenda for what sustainability is, a fact that those involved in agriculture must be aware of. One of the most important missions of agriculture, he says, is to counter such groups with facts on what sustainability is, and is not.