Thursday, December 27, 2012

Do You Like Your Straw Man Genetically Modified or Organic?

Over at the Wall Street Journal, John R. Block (ag sec from 1981-85), gives us "organic food dreamers" a "reality check:"
I grew up on a farm in Knox County, Ill., and I still farm the family land. We grow corn, soybeans and wheat, and we raise hogs. A generation ago, we lost yield every year to corn borers, root worms and other pests. Today, with advanced technology and genetic engineering, our family farm is better protected and so are its products. We use fewer chemicals and produce better-quality crops.

Yet instead of celebrating that progress—especially with the recent debate around the labeling of "genetically modified" foods—some Americans are asking, in effect, why can't we just go back to the way we farmed in the 19th century?" Well, there's a reason for that. Several, actually...
Notice that Block completely leaves out any mention of how he and his family tended the land a generation ago. Did they practice green manuring, sheet composting, crop rotation? Were nutrients adequately returned to the soil each season? Was the soil friable enough for crop health? And so on. One suspects Block's soil was blown out and biologically worthless, but of course he doesn't say; we simply go from "My crops totally sucked," to "Hey, chemicals and machines do the work for me." That's like saying if everyone just got one of those bizarre belt vibrating machines, the obesity epidemic would vanish. It's a fool's errand to treat the symptom instead of the cause.

Later in the essay, our heroic industrial farmer writes:
Indulging in a romanticized image of the farming industry stands in the way of progress. Do we want a smart, sophisticated approach to food supply that we can depend on for safety, healthy choices, environmental stewardship and long-term sustainability? Or do we want to return to food shortages, higher prices and the days of two horses pulling a corn planter?
In addition to growing commodity crops and pigs,  Block is also a farmer of straw men and false dichotomies! Those things are heavy feeders; he must really be cranking out the humus during planting season. It's not clear who is advocating for a return to "two horses pulling a corn planter." Aside from a few biological woodsmen and Wendell Berry, I'm not aware of any organic / pasture-based outfit that wants to eschew fossil fuels entirely. The point is to use less fossil fuels, and use those fuels more sensibly, than does industrial farming. But of course then we're in for "food shortages" and "higher prices." Then we all die. It's that simple, folks.

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