Thursday, August 27, 2009

On the Other Hand...

Tevya, from Fiddler on the Roof, talks things over with his Constant Companion. "On the one hand..."

I struggle philosophically over the tension between the need for adequate food supplies to feed the vast underfed of our planet, versus the impacts of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, genetically modified foods/organisms (GMO), etc. on the health of humankind and the planet. I have been holding off on an article about Monsanto and GMO for quite awhile because I have trouble writing it. I just am so torn. (Sorry, cousin Marcia, friends Nona, Gail, etc. I just march to my own drummer and it's been years since I've been fully onboard with any ideology. The world just seems so complex to me.)

Today I read an article called "The Omnivore's Delusion" in, by Missouri farmer, Blake Hurst. The title is a take-off on Michael Pollan's excellent book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," a must-read book decrying the harsh environmental and health consequences of prevailing agricultral and eating practices. Hurst is a conventional "industrial farmer," very aware of the movement toward organics, and the strong outcries against GMOs. This article doesn't quell my struggle by any stretch of the imagination, but it does do a good job of explaining some of the things we may give up by going organic, and some of the actual physical, scientific - yes natural - challenges that have given rise to some of today's modern farming practices. For example, poultry is raised in sheds (instead of "free range") because otherwise they are felled by the weather instead of the butcher. Another example: naturally occurring fertilizer will, apparently, support crop production for about 4 billion people, whereas there are just under 7 billion of us occupying the planet now. Hurst (citing Pollan citing geographer Vaclav Smil) notes that "[forty] percent of the people alive today would not be alive without the ability to artificially synthesize nitrogen."

One of the things I've come to realize over the years, working from the inside on policy matters, is that ideology must sometimes give way to reality. In this situation, I am both deeply concerned about our capacity to farm adequately to provide food to the hungry masses around the world, and about the health and environmental implications of the science that allows us to, in fact, make sure less people go hungry.

What do you do with intractable, oppositional facts? One thing I don't do, and we as humanity must stop doing, is to take sides, dig our feet in, and become part of the screaming and shouting going on around us. That screaming and shouting makes it nearly impossible to hear ourselves think through these problems. Instead, it is critical that we begin to think outside the box, to look for workable "third solutions."

The other day, I delightedly blogged about Ben & Jerry's search for an ice cream formula that isn't frozen. It's this kind of "who'd-a-thunk-it?" thinking that is going to get us past these predicaments. Another example: my friends at Montemaggiore Winery are not only organic, but biodynamic, and when they couldn't adequately keep the weed population down but didn't want chemicals, they brought in sheep. The sheep, of course, brought their own issues. They stripped the bark off young olive trees, ruining an entire newly planted orchard. The vinyard owners, the Ciolinos, have worked that through and now pasture their sheep away from the olive trees. It wasn't painless, but they did not give up.

I don't know all the ways that we might be able to think outside the box about healthy alternative practices without lowering food production levels. Maybe it has nothing to do with farming. Maybe we rethink all the non-food corn products (e.g. fuels, absorbents, adhesives, alcohols, building materials, cleaning products, coatings, de icers, drilling supplies, lubricants, oil products, packaging, paper- and plastic-making supplies, textiles, solvents, proteins, pharmaceuticals and more*) and ask ourselves, "what other substance could be substituted for corn?" so that we can return some of those fields to food production.

Of course, that begs other questions: corn prices rise when corn is used for fuel and not food. Would farmers fight a move that would lower their own incomes? Unlikely. And what might the environmental and health implications be for corn substitutes? Nothing is easy, clear or painless, or we'd already be doing it. But believing in, and rewarding, "third solutions" is going to get us farther than entrenching ourselves in political rhetoric and shrieking at each other at Town Hall meetings or in the halls of Congress or even on facebook.

Anyway, my point: We have to be innovative. For many of the world's poor, it's not a choice between eating organic or not eating organic. It's a choice between not eating organic or not eating. That is not an acceptable set of choices.

It may be - as we are often told - that our finite planet can only support so many people by methods that are both healthy for our planet and for ourselves. But since we have apparently already surpassed that number by a couple billion people, any solution that advocates for organics over feeding the hungry is a solution that advocates blindly walking away from the hungry among us.

And any solution that advocates for feeding the hungry at any cost to our environment and our health is a betrayal of our own physical integrity and our quality of life - and of the planet's integrity as well. Surely either alternative, played out to its ultimate conclusion, will lead to the same bitter end - unnecessary illness, disease and death.
Yes, each idea we come up with will bring it's own set of new challenges. But we must keep thinking. We must stop pitting ourselves against one-another - our worst and most useless behavior - and instead gather our best minds together to seek out exciting new ways to resolve these problems. Let us stop fighting and keep searching for "third alternative" solutions.,

Additionally, here is a response to Hurst by Greg Plotkin, in a blog on the website:
* from the National Corn Growers' Association,

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