The Future of Agriculture Is Not Conventional

09/11/2012 06:14 pm ET | Updated Nov 11, 2012

This organic nonsense has to stop. I'd like to politely request that those who don't know agriculture cease writing about it as though they do, stoking an already divisive debate that misses the heart of the problem we face: We're not sure how we should be growing food, and thus we're not sure how to eat.

Anyone who suggests that a crop can be raised without the provision of nutrients and pest management should not opine on agriculture. Roger Cohen, I'm talking to you.

Saturday's opinion piece in the New York Times, "The Organic Fable," shows me just how far off course the discussion of agricultural production has gotten, because it spreads misinformation and focuses squarely on the wrong problem. If we continue to debate organic versus conventional, continue to view food choices as an emblem of class, and continue to use the nine billion future people of the world as a gauntlet that the human race must run, we are in trouble because the question is not first about production. It's about distribution.

We produce enough to feed 1.3 billion more people than we actually do. And that's in American proportions. In 2000, the USDA reported that Americans consumed almost 2,000 pounds of food per person per year. Meanwhile, 1.3 billion tons of global food production goes to waste each year. Production by any method, standard or label is not our most pressing problem.

Getting production where it is needed and wanted is another story. We've got a billion or so people on this planet consuming too much of the wrong kinds of calories and another approximate billion getting too few of the right nutrients. Most food production happens far from population centers, and timing is everything, whether you're moving kale to market or wheat to a mill, so properly matching supply with demand is tricky. Here we are in 2012, endowed with information and technology that together can make just about any transaction instantaneous. Yet we rely on supply chains that emerged in the 19th century to connect us with our food.

The diversity that agricultural products present complicates matters too. Because of weather, seed variety, origin, soil conditions and a host of other factors, not every tomato tastes the same and sweet corn from my home state of Minnesota is like corn from nowhere else. I value that distinction in my food.

On the whole, our economy does not.

We produce and consume food within a structure that was built for undifferentiated, commodity products. The processes that move vast amounts of crops from harvest, to processing, to wholesale, to retail, to you, keep the producer and the consumer conveniently separated -- by about $0.84 for every dollar you spend. The anonymous middle of merchants, distributors, sellers and superstores has driven consumers to rely on certifications like organic to tell them more about the products they're buying than anyone else will. Producers, in turn, seek that certification as a way to distinguish their products in the marketplace.

Because so far they are all we've had to rely on to see something, anything, through the haze of the modern food system, labels have an inflated value. But don't let that fool you into thinking that only spoiled rich folks, as Cohen would have it, feel strongly about the short- and long-term effects their food has on themselves, their families and their environments.

Look at Growing Power, where Will Allen has built an urban farming empire-of-everyman. Look at the Bed-Stuy CSA of Brooklyn, where middle income families subsidize shares so their lower income neighbors can participate in getting food directly from farms. Look at the verdant farmers market culture in northern Iowa. Look at the efforts of farmers in Tchula, Mississippi, to grow food -- not corn, not soy, not cotton -- to feed their county first, and everyone else they can thereafter.

If anything, the debate surrounding how we produce and move food should unite us. Articles like Cohen's are a soap box, and soak up our energy with debate when they should instead focus on shared principles: sufficient food to feed our people, production technology and innovation (from nutrient-rich composting techniques and drip irrigation, to GPS systems in John Deere tractors) that facilitate efficient and sufficient food production, soil and water systems that promise years and years of sustained agricultural production, and access for every single person to the abundance that we now know, but that our great-grandparents did not.

The science should focus on how we get there. I'd like to see, for example, a comparison of per-acre nutrient yields and revenue for six different production systems: conventional and certified organic commodity, conventional and certified organic fruit and vegetable under mass production, conventional but diversified fruit and vegetable production, and fruit and vegetable production under what we might call "beyond organic," "practical," "sustainable" or whatever term most effectively conveys the rational approach of a growing number of farmers to use the best means they have to produce a crop that is healthy, high-yielding and good to eat. Personal experience suggests that the last of these, which takes place right now on small- and mid-sized enterprises, is our greatest hope.

The future may not be organic but it is also not conventional. We should set aside the debate about organics and start identifying at a large scale an alternative path for the production, distribution, purchase and consumption of the food that we all rely on for sustenance.

This piece also appears on Plovgh.