Despite my desire to beat Cory to the punch this morning with a post about the FDA desire to limit the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics in livestock operations, a more pressing desire to put on a decent presentation at the Yankton Organic Field Days tomorrow has led me deep into the Series of Tubes researching the economic sensibility of sustainable farming.
Yep–that’s one of my two presentations tomorrow (the other’s on CSA)–somehow I roped myself into it after expressing a desire to attend such a presentation and being told that our dear Ag Economist friends at SDSU don’t have the hard figures to present such a lecture.
So li’l ol’ English instructor and small farmer me is doing some serious reading on the subject. I’m glad I have learned the usefulness of constructing an annotated bibliography before writing a research paper or presentation–that’s what I make my students do, and that’s what I’m doing now. Looks like I’ll have a great new assignment example to post to my online classes!
What I’ve found in my reading is this: while there have been some studies on the social, economic, and environmental impacts of sustainable agriculture, there is a great need for larger studies with better measurement techniques.
Consider, for example, that many of the studies have assumed basic equality between conventional and organic/sustainable farms in terms of soil structure (tilth) and fertility without realizing that residual fertility means less fertilizer cost and better tilth improves soil’s ability to absorb and hold moisture–reducing run-off and leaching of nutrients, as well as irrigation costs.
Other studies have simply measured net yields and income without measuring input costs. Since one of the tenets of sustainability is to reduce outside inputs–that seems like a pretty important thing to measure–more important because one of the biggest costs on conventional farms is the outside inputs of fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, etc.
Add GMO seed on top of that and the conventional costs really skyrocket. Of course, not every sustainable farmer saves their own seed–and with some crops, they run the risk of being sued for patent infringement by GMO seed companies if their neighbor’s GMO crop cross-pollinates with their own seed stock.
Measuring input costs is a huge factor in determining economic feasibility of sustainable farming practices because even if sustainable yields are lower (and the popular myth that organic/sustainable yields are lower is not necessarily true), drastically reduced input costs can mean much more of the crop’s value goes into the farmer’s pocket instead of to seed, fertilizer, and chemical companies, boosting the overall profit margin beyond that of conventional practices.
So my research is basically telling me there needs to be more research–but I think that’s a good thing. More hard research on the benefits that any sustainable farmer can tell you about means more jobs, more good news, and a stronger movement in a positive, sustainable direction.
Despite the need for further research, I do feel confident that I’ll have enough hard facts and findings for a decent presentation tomorrow–and if any of those SDSU Ag Economists are there, I’ll be sure to share. 😉
OK, back to work!