How does the state of our agriculture today compare to twenty years ago? How similar are our farming issues and healthcare ones? Can they even be separated? Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Chuck Benbrook PhD, chief scientist at The Organic Center to discuss the findings in a new provocative report comparing the findings, conclusions, and recommendations in the 1989 NAS/NRC report “Alternative Agriculture” and the June 29, 2010 NAS/NRC report “Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century.” The later report assesses and updates the former, and since Benbrook served as the executive director on NAS/NRC board that produced the “Alternative Agriculture” report, I find his perspective on the updates particularly insightful. My interview follows:
AK: Since 1989 what do you see as the biggest changes that have occurred / are occurring in Agriculture?
CB: On the public health side, the dramatic upward trajectory in the rates of obesity and diabetes is triggering a long overdue awakening of interest in health promotion, as opposed to disease treatment. We are finally beginning to take seriously the notion that what and how we grow food, and what we eat, impacts health outcomes. The growing frequency and severity of reproductive and neurological problems – especially autism, ADHD, and other learning disabilities in children – have focused more science on the impacts of chemicals in food. Pressure will continue to grow on farmers, the food industry, and government to clean up the food supply. About time.
On the technology side, the big new development in U.S. agriculture is genetic engineering. We now move genes around, between unrelated life forms, in the hope of overcoming some problem or challenge usually rooted in farm management systems. To accomplish the task of moving genes into a new organism, scientists use tools designed to overcome nature’s attempts to stop such “mutations” from happening. The techniques used to overcome natural defenses against such gene transfer appear to cause unanticipated, and sometimes negative consequences. Our ability to move genes around and add traits to plants and cloned animals has far outpaced our understanding of what will happen as a result. For this reason, we should not be surprised when we are, in fact, surprised by an unforeseen problem linked back to a transgenic plant.
In terms of the politics of food and farming, the big change has been the steady growth in the number of people taking part in the collective dialogue underway across America about what ails the American food system and how best to fix it. While it is clear that a vast range of opinions exist on nearly every important issue, it is intrinsically beneficial that more people are paying attention, asking questions, and working to craft answers and alternatives. Plus, there is some very exciting experimentation going on across the country, and this will deepen the well of innovation in the future.
AK: In medicine, we are moving from the terms “Alternative” to “Integrative.” Can the same be said of the shift in titles here “Alternative Agriculture” and “…Sustainable Agriculture”? If so, what does it represent and what factors are responsible for this shift?
CB: “Alternative” just means different. “Integrative” suggests movement in a particular direction that takes fuller account of the inherent biological and ecological inter-relationships between system components and system outcomes, whether a human body (the system) and disease (an outcome), or a farm (the system) and crop yields (an outcome).
I would be glad to see the term “integrative” used more often. On the other hand, the term “integrated” has lost much of its meaning and power in agriculture, because it is so commonly used to describe current, conventional production system. Integrated Pest Management is a great concept that is rooted in biocontrol and ecology, but farmers relying almost solely on pesticides for pest control can claim to be using IPM if all they do is scout for pests and apply pesticides in accord with a population threshold. That sort of “integrated” is more about using pesticides cost-effectively than changing the inherent plant-pest-ecosystem dynamics within a farming system.
The kind of “integrated” we need in our farming systems, and which lies at the heart of organic agriculture, is the integration of decisions about what to grow, where, and in what rotations, how to integrate crops and livestock on the same farm, how to integrate tillage and planting schedules and cover crops to maximize the cycling of natural sources of nitrogen on a field, and the need to integrate a number of “tiny little hammers” in keeping a diversity of pests and beneficial organisms present, but in balance, so no one species dominates the ecosystem and reaches population levels high enough to do economic damage to a crop.
AK: How do economics factor into sustainability or how is sustainable farming economically positive?
CB: Economics is a critical factor on all farms. A small percent of farmers are wealthy or are just waiting to cash out equity in their land, so they do not have to worry about generating a profit. But the vast majority do. The complicated part of tracking farm budgets and net returns is that you have to take into account the longer-run impacts of short-term decisions on the health of the land, buildings, animals, and other physical infrastructure.
Farmers have worked hard to try to do the best possible job within the terms of their “contract” with society. They are price takers, and their income is fully dependent on pounds of crop X sold, with relatively little attention to the nutritional quality of each pound of food produced and sold. Until recently, several aspects of food safety also received relatively little attention. It has been and remains easier for farmers to produce using conventional systems and technology, knowing that the federal government will step in with subsidy payments if markets or the weather go south. That is why they are still “conventional” and widely adopted.
Today’s high-yield, chemical-intensive farming systems have 50 years of continuous public and private sector investment in science, technology, and infrastructure behind them, and because of those investments, it is far easier and cheaper to farm using conventional technology. For the same reason, experience and knowledge regarding integrative systems like organic farming is vastly underdeveloped. Creating a parallel infrastructure of sufficient scale and depth to support a major transition to organic farming will take a generation, even if the country quickly reaches a durable consensus that such a transition is essential.
Most conventional farmers will thrive as they transition to organic, but policies and markets will have to change to make organic farming the more profitable option, all things considered. There are two key, necessary steps to accelerate the transition. First, conventional agriculture must be asked to pay a larger share of the total costs imposed by it on society as a whole. Full cost accounting – and accountability – will go a long way in driving needed change.
The second necessary change is for the government to honestly communicate the many benefits of organic food and farming to the public at large. Today, the official policy of the U.S. government states that organic farming delivers some environmental advantages compared to conventional farmer, but no food safety or food nutritional quality benefits. It is amazing to me that the government refuses to acknowledge that virtually eliminating exposures to high risk pesticides through organic farming is a major health benefit. It makes one wonder why the EPA is spending some $100 million per year trying to keep pesticide risks under control.
AK: What are two changes in policies or behaviors will make the biggest difference to encouraging sustainable farming?
CB: First, farmers need to be paid to maximize essential nutrients produced per acre, while minimizing calories and other negative constituents in food, or negative externalities on the environment or communities. In other words, a good portion of the payment per acre of crops should be made on the basis of crop quality instead of just crop volume.
Second, as a goal, at least 80% of the money invested in preventing pest damage or animal diseases on farms should be spent on plant and animal health promotion and the prevention of problems, and less than 20% should be spent on treatments. Today, rarely more than 10% is spent on prevention, with 90% or more being spent on pesticide, animal drugs, and other treatment-related interventions that target symptoms of ill-health, not the causes of it. Imagine the profound improvements in the public’s health if we could make such a shift in the human health care arena.