How green can we grow?


When environmental concerns hit economic realities something’s got to give and if the conflict is between addressing hunger and staying in business now versus saving the planet for the future, cost and volume will be two of the deciding factors.

That’s why I don’t think Barney Foran  is on the right track when he says that if New Zealand farmers don’t lead the world in environmentally sustainable production we’ll be forced out of business.

He predicts that within a decade, meat will be marketed on its greenhouse gas emissions as well as water quality, biodiversity assets and cultural values. “Tomorrow’s meat enterprises will focus on product quality first, backed up by measured and low environmental impacts, austere production chains, avoidance of most chemicals and heavy metals and making farmed landscapes waterwise, biodiverse and beautiful.”

Food is already being marketed on greenhouse emissions. Last week I was shown packaging from French sausages. My French isn’t up to translating all the writing but it was obvious the little green box was showing the carbon emissions generated in production.

That will be a consideration for those who can pay to be choosey but not everyone can and even at the top end of the market price matters. Looking after the environment is important but if we don’t supply affordable food we’ll be out of business in much less than 20 years.

If that happened the world would be going hungry or else producers in other countries would fill the gap left as our production dropped and their production methods may well have a much larger environmental footprint than ours.

Commenting on  Foran’s view, Farmgirl asks if environmental concerns are a higher priority than food itself.

They shouldn’t be. Sustainability is supposed to be a three legged stool which gives equal value to environmental, economic and social concerns. If we concentrate on the environment at the expense of the other two factors the stool will fall over.

The issue also comes up at Mother Jones:

When most of us imagine what a sustainable food economy might look like, chances are we picture a variation on something that already exists—such as organic farming, or a network of local farms and farmers markets, or urban pea patches—only on a much larger scale. The future of food, in other words, will be built from ideas and models that are familiar, relatively simple, and easily distilled into a buying decision: Look for the right label, and you’re done.

But that’s not the reality. Many of the familiar models don’t work well on the scale required to feed billions of people. Or they focus too narrowly on one issue (salad greens that are organic but picked by exploited workers). Or they work only in limited circumstances. (A $4 heirloom tomato is hardly going to save the world.)

Responding to this, The Visible Hand in Economics  asks if organic farming is sustainable:

The key issue is:

  1. Organic farming uses a LOT more resources than normal farming;
  2. To call yourself organic and get that market recognition you need to be 100% organic;
  3. There is no market standard for recognising that a farmer is more sustainable or environmentally friendly than their rivals if they’re not organic.

I think that most consumers who buy organic are also the type of people who want to do the environmentally friendly thing. While organic farming may not be as polluting as farming with synthetic fertilizer it is much more resource intensive. So where’s the incentive for farmers to move towards less resource hungry AND more sustainable alternatives?

But there’s another question: when everything is taken into account is organic farming actually better for the environment?

The North Otago Sustainable Land Management Group was set up about 15 years ago and has done a lot of work, in conjunciton with the Otago Regional Council, to educate farmers in sustainable production and they’ve done a very good job. I don’t think any of the farms which follow the guidelines are organic but they use science-based practices  to maintain the health of the soil and waterways while producing meat, milk and crops which meet all the requirements for food health standards.

If they switched to organic farming the volume produced would fall, and it’s a moot point as to whether the quality would be any higher or if it would be any better for the environment.

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