Reader probes deeper into organic issue

Harry, having been on the receiving end of a good lickin' by organic farmers over the issue of biotechnology in San Luis Obispo County, I found your chastising by the CCOF director in the last issue of Western Farm Press rather entertaining. While a graduate student at UC Davis, I learned that organic farming was more emotion than reason. I learned quickly that you are either one of “us” or one of “them” in my sustainable agriculture courses. One question that I've asked, yet has never been answered by organic farmers or others is: “Given the fact that farming organically requires more human labor than conventional herbicide based farming, what are the impacts on the planet that are associated with keeping these extra humans alive 24 hours of the day not just the eight they are working on the farm?”

So, bear with me: If you took all the impacts of producing a kilogram of corn conventionally and compared them to all the impacts to produce that same kilo organically, which would have lesser impact? Sure, let's go ahead and put everything in a common currency, let's use the common unit of a kcal as David Pimentel does in his comparisons.

When I ask for all impacts I mean ALL impacts. These would include the environmental cost of sewage, gasoline, heating, air conditioning, electricity for appliances, impacts associated with traveling to and from work, impacts associated with all daily life (the metal to put into irons, washing machines, and dishwashers, the rubber, leather, and vinyl put into shoes, etc.) and not just the direct on-farm impacts for which Pimentel and others account in their comparison studies. I wonder what numbers would pop out?

This is coming from somebody who does frequent the organic food store because I support the lifestyle, but also from somebody who recognizes that there is a reason that less than 2 percent of the population is producing over 100 percent of our food and fiber. You can't bite the hand that feeds you.

Scott Steinmaus,
Associate Professor
Biological Sciences Department
California Polytechnic State University

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