I like Paul Roberts. I liked his book The End of Food. But I must admit that I was a bit underwhelmed by his recent article on sustainable farming in Mother Jones, “Spoiled: Organic and Local Is So 2008.” That’s not to say there’s nothing to recommend it. His central premise — that we way we’re farming today isn’t sustainable and that no large-scale model of what sustainable agriculture would look like currently exists — is valid and important (as anyone who hangs out around here is well aware).

And any article that gets its money quote from sustainable ag guru Fred Kirschenmann is certainly on the right track. Said Kirschenmann, “We’ve come to see sustainability as some kind of fixed prescription — if you just do these 10 things, you will be sustainable, and you won’t need to worry about it anymore.” Which isn’t true, of course.

But that title! Shouldn’t it be “conventional agriculture” that’s so 2008? Meanwhile, there were far too many straw men in the article for my tastes (ever eaten a straw man? Blech!) Take, for example, the thought experiment supplied by environmental scientist Vaclav Smil on the effect of totally eliminating the use of synthetic fertilizer:

Such an expansion, Smil notes, “would require complete elimination of all tropical rainforests, conversion of a large part of tropical and subtropical grasslands to cropland, and the return of a substantial share of the labor force to field farming — making this clearly only a theoretical notion.”

That’s probably accurate as far as it goes. But it’s unclear how he modeled this version of organic agriculture – at a minimum it appears to be a vast oversimplification. And his conclusion then becomes the basis upon which to reject the whole organic concept. Meanwhile, look at one of Smil’s central assumptions — that “dietary habits remain constant,” i.e. in his experiment we’re all eating as much meat, high-fructose corn syrup, and processed foods as we are now. Well, to take one example, you don’t have to look far to find folks who will tell you that current meat consumption, especially red meat consumption, is the sine qua non of unsustainability — Roberts himself held forth at length on that very point in his book. By holding that constant, you’ve just pre-determined the outcome of your thought experiment. And look at a crucial element in Smil’s calculation — that he’s trying to determine “the extra land we’d need for cover crops or forage (to feed the animals to make the manure).” Now I don’t know for sure if he presumes the forage will be pasture or cereal (aka corn), but either way that’s a pretty high bar he’s set.

Neither Smil nor Roberts takes account of improving what the United Nation Environmental Programme report, “The Environmental Food Crisis,” refers to as “food energy efficiency.” I’m willing to give Roberts a pass and assume that his article lead-time precluded the inclusion of any of the following information (Note to magazine editors of all stripes: Folks, it’s the 21st century. The Age of Twitter will not allow months-long lead-times for feature articles anymore. Get used to it).

As this report details, any movement toward sustainable agriculture will require that we first attack the problem of wasted food (and water) in the agricultural system (and here’s a great article on food waste, not to mention a great blog). Whether it’s the fact that as much as 50 percent of fruit and vegetable harvests are lost to waste at some point in the production and consumption chain or that 30 million tons of fish are discarded at sea every year, it’s clear reforms that presume “business as usual” in this area will fail. As for Smil’s point about forage, if we did need to vastly increase our manure production, we should look first to efficiency gains as a feed solution (as perspective, that 30 million tons of lost fish equals the total amount of aquaculture feed used annually). Even better, the UNEP report observes that all the research into cellulosic ethanol may allow us to develop ways to feed livestock on wood glucose rather than cereal grains — but that’s for another post.

The point is that Smil’s thought experiment was destined to fail. Meanwhile, Robert’s uses it to undercut the whole concept of the mass application of organic farming. Nowhere does he mention the United Nations study that organic farming practices are perfectly suited for Africa or even the research that indicates that organic farming at scale in the developing world can exceed conventional yields by 80 percent.

Another oversight came in this anecdote about Fred Fleming, a farmer who has moved to a conventional no-till system as a way to save his soil. This has put him in purgatory, apparently. Neither conventional farmers nor organic farmers accept him as one of their own:

Because Fleming doesn’t till his soil, his fields are gradually invaded by weeds, which he controls with “judicious” amounts of Roundup, the Monsanto herbicide that has become an icon of unsustainable agribusiness. Fleming defends his approach: Because his herbicide dosages are small, and because he controls erosion, the total volume of “farm chemistry,” as he calls it, that leaches from his fields each year is far less than that from a conventional wheat operation. Nonetheless, even judicious chemical use means Fleming can’t charge the organic price premium or appeal to many of the conscientious shoppers who are supposed to be leading the food revolution. At a recent conference on alternative farming, Fleming says, the organic farmers he met were “polite–but they definitely gave me the cold shoulder.”

The anecdote itself dates from Roberts’ book and the author admits it comes from “a couple years back.” But since then, we’ve learned that conventional no-till is deeply problematic. Meanwhile, agriculture researchers like those at the Rodale Institute have developed a form of organic no-till with yields that exceed conventional ag without the problems that Fleming faces and that doesn’t rely on hand-weeding.

Straw men indeed.

Roberts’ worst offense, however, is the virtual absence of climate change and resource limits in his discussion of sustainability. Though he clearly identifies current practices as unsustainable, he glosses over the underlying reasons. Where do the pressures on resources and yields exerted by climate change fit in to Roberts’ analysis? For example, conventional farming requires lots of water. What affect will recurring droughts have? Roberts doesn’t address it. Meanwhile, as water becomes scarce in places like California, farmers are spontaneously adopting organic practices because they limit soil loss and use less water.

There are, however, several development that Roberts is right to emphasize. No, not robots. I’m referring to things like limited use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides (such as with Integrated Pest Management). It may be that such low-use systems — let’s call it conventional-ag lite — which reduce synthetic use by 80 percent will be a necessary part of the equation. But it won’t be because the conventional lion will have sat down with the organic lamb (Mmmm. Organic lamb…) but rather because synthetics will have become prohibitively e
xpensive.

And he has a good analysis of the potential future for urban agriculture, so-called vertical farming. But for some reason, he ties it to a hit on local foods. He sets up local food as a quixotic quest that will never scale while proponents of local food are portrayed as unwilling even to consider the idea of bringing food in from farther-flung rural areas. It seems that any “reasonable” account of sustainable farming must now put itself at a comfortable arm’s length from “foodies.” We’ve been seeing a lot of that lately. And it’s true that our current food systems can’t support a large-scale move to local. But if it’s so unreasonable, why was New York City able to come up with a set of recommendations that, if enacted, could vastly increase the amount of food produced by its local foodshed without a significant increase in carbon emissions (its current Achilles Heel).

For all my criticisms of Roberts’ piece, I do think it has a strong finish and ends up hitting all the right points — that the dominance of monocultures and the classic “efficiencies of scale” concept in agriculture and the food industry is a major part of the problem, that farm subsidies (as long as they subsidize the right things) will remain a crucial part of the solution, that the federal government could transform agriculture overnight by simply changing what kind of food it buys and that the future of farming will likely look nothing like today’s. And buried at the end is a compelling (and ominous) observation that we aren’t necessarily headed for a happy ending. Americans (supported by many of our representatives) may simply not accept what needs to be done. Instead, they will demand that we drive our tractors over the cliff. I just wish I didn’t have to pick so much straw out of my teeth to learn it.