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Elizabeth McVay Greene Headshot

An Ode to Farming Isn't Enough: We Need a Reality Check

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Foreign Policy has compiled stunning photographs in its "An Ode to Farming", and what a beautiful tribute to farms and farmers around the world it is. I wish I could say that what you see is what you get. Much though I would like to ponder the lovely landscapes, these photos tell an incomplete story. They capture the rich diversity of human beings, ecosystems, climates, and crops that contribute to our agricultural reality, but in conveying the bounty that is one part of that reality, they fail to acknowledge the environmental effects of the decisions those farmers are making, the nutritional impact their crops have, the poverty in which many of them live.

The publication fills in the picture a bit with this article about the absurdity of taking a die-hard stance on organic and local food. In the article, Robert Paarlberg argues that without new technology (biological and otherwise), Africa and South Asia will continue to suffer from low yields and a hungry population. Furthermore, he criticizes the critics of the Green Revolution, suggesting that their well-intentioned, conscientious decisions about food (sustainable, local, organic, what have you) may have unintended consequences (surprise!). Most compelling is his description of how technology is allowing farmers in developed countries to pursue precision agriculture, thereby reducing inputs like fertilizer and pesticide.

I appreciate the conversation about the Green Revolution because Paarlberg offers a nice explanation of where it went right without diminishing the importance of rectifying where it went wrong. As the granddaughter of Pete McVay, a former President of Cargill, I have long held an appreciation for the innovation and commitment that a generation of people who grew up during the Depression brought to the world's food, and do not believe that anyone who was part of pushing large-scale production in the mid-20th century had a malicious motive. Quite the contrary: they meant for everyone to be well nourished, much as my peers and I do. So, why haven't we been able to achieve nutrition for all?

We possess the technology, the sensitivity of implementation, and the capacity to see nuance that we need to solve global food challenges. We are at an inflection point in how we think about and consume food, and dwelling on either extreme - all-out industrial or exclusively organic production - is probably a mistake. The more compelling approach, and one that is gaining ground on both sides of the spectrum, integrates practices and philosophies from a range of farming styles.

Let me offer a personal example. Last Monday, I had the privilege of visiting what some would call industrial spinach fields in King City, California, while on an agriculture trek with classmates at MIT Sloan. As we stood in the fields, I was surprised to hear that the farmer does not use herbicide; instead of using chemicals, he has workers weed the fields (don't worry, the labor is legal and unionized, and I have proof that a taco truck shows up to serve them lunch and they have ready access to biffies). He also uses integrated pest management to control disease in his fields, which both lowers his costs of production (fewer tractor passes through the field saves on fuel costs and emissions) and reduces the need for synthetic chemical use on the crop. In the next field, the farmer uses drip irrigation to save on water use and fertigation to target nutrients where they're needed in the soil, and avoid runoff of excess nutrients. This farmer is growing conscientiously and cost-effectively while also getting a superior yield to the organic fields across the road.

Across the country on a Brooklyn rooftop, Ben Flanner works a different landscape but takes an approach recently dubbed "beyond organic". Growers are using this term to convey their commitment to the environmental stewardship traditionally associated with organic production, but to demonstrate that they do not need a bureaucratic sign-off on their practices in order to find an eager market or grow a good crop. Furthermore, their practices, which tend to incorporate the best of the organic mindset with the best of low-impact non-organic production, tend to achieve strong yields, quality food, cost effectiveness, and a modest environmental footprint.

Could it be that the urban farm down the street from me and the spinach fields in the salad bowl of the US could be migrating toward a shared vision for the future of agriculture? I'm not saying these farmers agree on everything, nor would I want them to. Diversity in how, where, and what we produce is critical to a healthy food system. I'm just saying that there may be some common ground after all. Innovations in fertilizer production, irrigation systems, and precision machinery will help move us toward a sustainable food future, but our true transformation will come from farmers like these taking risks to find new and better ways of producing food.

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