Thursday, August 14, 2014

Four fallacies tackled by George Morris Centre

The George Morris Centre says there are four common fallacies about farming and it’s going to tackle each in separate papers, the first of which was released this week.

It identifies the four fallacies as:

-  We should tread more lightly on the agricultural land base.
- Small farms are better.
- Farm technologies can be picked from a menu.
- New technology will solve all problems.

The four fallacies arise from a generalization that food production needs to become “sustainable,” says the George Morris Centre report.

“ . . . aspects of this movement are simplistic, misguided, or simply wrongheaded, and following these through to their logical extent presents the prospect of pitfalls for the agri-food system,” the report writers say.

“Perhaps more fundamentally, it begs the question as to how the agri-food system, and primary agriculture in particular, grew to become so unsustainable to begin with.”

In the first report, the one about “treading more lightly on the agricultural land base,” author Al Mussel says there are two ways to increase food production for the increasing population.

The first Is to bring more land into production.

“When it is acknowledged that land in other uses, including land in pristine condition, provides an existing stream of benefits such as wildlife habitat, wetland/groundwater recharge, carbon sequestration, etc. it becomes clear that by “treading more lightly” and thus increasing the footprint of agriculture, we are in fact not treading more lightly at all. The literature supporting this is voluminous,” Mussel writes.

The second is to iintensify production on existing fields.

“Intensification has been a key driver of economic development in Canada. This relates to the development and use of yield increasing and labour-saving technologies that allow for increased production but with limited expansion in land, labour, and water use,” Mussel writes.

Mussel cites well-worn statistics farmers often use as public relations – that yields have increased and livestock and poultry efficiencies and quality have improved. He mentions corn yields doubling since 1970 and milk production increasing from an average of 6,600 litres per cow in the mid-1980s to 9,800 by 2012.

Had these gains not been achieved, more land would have been required to produce the same amount of food and that, Mussel argues, would be contrary to the sustainability goals.

He says some farmers have chosen to adopt less intensive farming approaches, such as organic-movement protocols.

“The important point, however, is that in aggregate, by treading more lightly on the existing agricultural land base out of environmental interest, we unintentionally create the opposite effect.

“Policies that support or encourage more extensive land use exacerbate the issue by requiring more land to be used in expanding the supply.

“This extends to private product standards in which food marketers assign “sustainable” attributes to practices that result in more extensive land use (such as non-Genetically Modified, antibiotic-free, etc.) which should be understood as a confusion in terms- extensification is the least sustainable because it implies land conversion.”

Mussel adds a caveat: intensifying production means farmers need to exercise more careful management. He offers the example of providing a refuge when growing a field of Bt corn.

So far, so good. However, I much prefer Maurice Hladik's book, Demystifying Food  from Farm to Fork.