It’s harvest time in Michigan. Pumpkins for sale crowd the lawns of farmhouses on a few rural roads. The combines are harvesting truckloads of corn. The farmers’ market offers a dozen varieties of crisp apples. In my garden, a riot of morning glories still covers the gate. The last tomatoes are ripening and the chard grows exuberantly in the cool weather. Last spring, it was hard to imagine that the empty beds and piles of compost would eventually yield such bounty. Now all the weeding, mulching and coaxing of seedlings has given me enough onions, potatoes, squash, tomatoes and beans to last through the winter.
Food encompasses sublime tastes and hidden cruelties, personal health and environmental quality, individual choices and global trade policies. The food we eat today represents choices made by our ancestors over thousands of years about taste, texture, color and hardiness. In turn, the choices that we make about which foods to purchase affect the foods of future generations. In choosing the foods we eat, we’re participating in political and ecological processes across the globe.
I learned many of these connections after my husband and I moved to a small farm 15 years ago. We were neophytes to farming. Since our livelihoods didn’t depend upon farming – both of us are professors at the University – we could afford to experiment with subsistence farming. We farm organically, partly because we’re committed to that philosophy and partly to understand what the challenges are. It’s a way to learn about soils, plants, animals and weather on a daily basis. We’ve received valuable information and assistance from neighboring farmers, both organic and conventional. We’ve found friendship and mutual support in our neighborhood – such as a pint of fresh raspberries in our mailbox and a neighbor plowing our driveway early on a snowy winter morning.
In a large vegetable, herb and flower garden, I grow about half of our vegetables for the year. From early April, when the rhubarb and asparagus poke up, to November, when I harvest the last carrots and leeks, we are treated to a succession of flavors. The garden has been the source of many lessons about food. I’ve tried many varieties of vegetables and different methods of weed control. I’ve had unexpected successes and total failures. I’ve learned about companion planting, cover crops and composting.
Some of the most valuable lessons are about the bigger picture of food. For example, I realize how much time and effort it takes to grow food. Much of the work goes to preparing the soil, weeding, watering and harvesting at the right moment. For me, it’s part education, part relaxation and part recreation; I don’t calculate a cost-benefit ratio. But for our farmer neighbors, the work is relentless and the pay is low. This pattern occurs throughout the United States and is part of the economic crisis that has caused many small farms to collapse, many rural communities to vanish and most remaining farms to become larger and more mechanized.
Contradictory ideas prevail about the cost and value of food. We live in a society that expects and purchases cheap food. Consumers and Washington policy makers enforce this pattern each in their own way – consumers by purchasing food at stores that offer low prices and lawmakers by awarding subsidies to crops whose products permeate our food system. Growers and farmworkers are caught in the middle. In the United States, the average family spends a smaller proportion of its income on food than in any other developed country. But the affordability has its own cost. Faced with an abundance of cheap food, Americans have a high daily caloric intake and are beset with a host of food-related afflictions – a high incidence of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
I often hear the question – why is organic food so expensive? This is the wrong question. The right question is – why is regular food so cheap? Although the checkout price is low, the full cost is much higher. Agricultural subsidies, which now cost taxpayers over $25 billion per year, go to conventionally produced food. Conventional agriculture aggravates environmental deterioration through soil erosion, runoff of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides into wetlands, biocide poisoning of non-target plants and animals, greater greenhouse gas emissions and loss of native biodiversity. Programs to reverse this damage are funded by taxpayers. And finally, most research funding, whether from federal or industry sources, is directed toward conventional agriculture. Thus we pay for conventional agriculture at many stages. In contrast, organic agriculture pays its own way. Ongoing research is revealing other benefits of organic food and farming. A recent study from the University of California at Davis showed that organically grown tomatoes had higher levels of anti-oxidants (anti-aging, anti-cancer compounds) than conventional tomatoes did. A long-term study of organic and conventional methods of raising grains at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania found that the organic system, using cover crops, sequesters more carbon in the soil than the no-till conventional system.
The conventional lore is that the yields from organic farming are well below those of chemically intensive farming – hence, organic food must remain a niche market in the global food system. A group of us on campus decided to investigate whether the yield data from the scientific literature supports this claim. On a field trip for a course I teach with Ivette Perfecto, called “Food, Land, and Society,” we visited Garden Works, a small organic farm north of Ann Arbor. There, an impressive patchwork of vegetables undergoes several harvests each growing season. We asked Farmer Rob how much produce comes from his 2.5 acres each year. His answer was 27 tons. That’s a lot. If he can grow 27 tons of produce on 2.5 acres, why can’t organic agriculture feed the world?
For a year, eight of us combed the literature for studies comparing the yields of organic and non-organic crops and analyzed the results. What we found differed from the conventional lore. Our results, based on 293 yield comparisons of plant and animal foods, showed that organic agriculture has the potential to feed the entire human population based on the amount of agricultural land currently in use. We also found that leguminous cover crops, grown between normal cropping periods on current cropland, could fix more nitrogen than all of the synthetic nitrogen fertilizer currently applied.
Our study was published in the June issue of the journal “Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems.” The paper attracted attention at a conference on organic agriculture sponsored by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, and subsequently, several press releases reported that the FAO was supporting organic agriculture. We have received inquiries from all over the world about our paper, and the reception has largely been enthusiastic. There has also been a backlash. Both academic crop ecologists and a spokesman for a right-wing think tank have criticized the validity and accuracy of our data. Ironically, their standards seem to differ for the studies that come to the opposite conclusion from ours. A colleague at the FAO has notified us that lobbying on behalf of conventional agriculture increased after they circulated press releases promoting organic agriculture. High stakes are involved, because global agribusiness corporations make billions of dollars each year selling synthetic fertilizers, synthetic pesticides and genetically modified seeds. But more and more people are aware of the benefits of organic farming, of eating food in season, of supporting local farmers and of the impacts of farming on ecosystem services locally and globally.
So enjoy the bounty of the harvest. Also, know that what you choose to eat will have a wider impact reaching all the way to the farmworkers, the farmers, the soil, the earthworms, the grocers, the Secretary of Agriculture, the monarch butterflies migrating to Mexico and beyond. Through our food choices, we affect the world.
– Catherine Badgley is a research scientist in the Museum of Paleontology and an assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.