the historical development of organic farming

Organic agriculture, i.e. a method of farming and gardening that relies on natural systems and products and is free of virtually all synthetic and toxic chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides and a holistic, sustainable production management system that promotes and enhances biological cycles and soil biological activity, has a long and interesting history. Its history has four main phases.

Phase I began in 1840 when J. V. Liebig published Agricultural Chemistry which provided evidence that crop yields are affected by mineral plant nutrients. This led to the development of Phosphorus (P) fertilizer. Then in 1910, the Haber-Bosch procedure was developed and subsequently allowed for the industrialized production of Nitrogen (N). With the use of these discoveries, synthetic fertilizers were being used on a large-scale basis by 1918.

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The Haber-Bosch Process, Image Credit: https://physics.org

Also during this time began the mechanization of agricultural production and the introduction of plant protection chemicals. It was also during this period that increased efforts in plant breeding began. These developments resulted in widespread specialization which has paved the way for monoculture. The social constructs of society also began shifting during this time period as the process of urbanization began. As people migrated to urban spaces, their interest in farming dwindled and the consolidation of farming ensued.

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Extreme Erosion during the Dust Bowl, Image Credit: http://s.hswstatic.com

With industrialization and the overwhelming use of synthetic inputs, the quality of land rapidly decreased with many environmental problems resulting, e.g the Dust Bowl (1931-1939) that was caused by drought, overgrazing, and intensive tillage. These problems and a rejection of the industrialization of agriculture spurred Phase II of the organic agricultural movement. This phase, which began in the 20th century, is characterized by counter-movements. Some of the most influential figures from this phase include:

    • Rudolf Steiner: non-material processes in agriculture (Austria)

    • Eve Balfour: the interconnectedness of soil, plant, animal, and human health (UK)

    • Albert Howard: soil fertility and composting (UK)

    • Mueller: advocate for the independence of farmers and nutrient cycling (Switzerland)

  • Rusch: microbial determination of soil fertility (Germany)

Phase III began as the concept of organic was internationalized and merged with the environmental movement. The initial defining moment for this was the release of Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring in 1962 that highlighted the negative environmental impacts of widespread chemical use in agriculture. Then in 1972, the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (iFOAM) was founded in order to promote the organic movement. In the same year, the Club of Rome published Limited of Growth that highlighted the flaws and dangers of neoclassical approaches to economic growth, i.e. always needed to grow in order to demonstrate success. Shortly after the oil crisis arose. Then in 1981, the first university program in organic agriculture was implemented.

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Image Credit: http://environmentandsociety.org

We are currently in Phase IV, which includes the professionalization, market expansion, and legal regulation of organics. In Europe, the first legislation was introduced in 1991 and in 1990 in the United States. In 2005, an international agreement on the principles of organic agriculture as instated. Progress during this phase has been challenging as organic production methods continue to be looked down upon by mainstream agriculture and it is often criticized as being incapable of producing enough food for the growing world. However, studies continue to emerge disproving this criticism and demonstrating the sustainability of organic production.

Moving beyond Phase IV will be difficult, but is arguably necessary based on the current environmental challenges caused by monoculture and chemical-based production. Success in this respect will involve both bottom-up and top-down approaches as well as a decrease in the stringency of regulation in order to be inclusive of a variety of farming approaches. These are the goals of Organic 3.0 in order to provide the greatest number of the earth’s citizens – both human and non-human – with the best benefits possible.

an introduction to community supported agriculture (csa)

First introduced in Japan and Switzerland in the 1970s, community supported agriculture (CSA) is a form of partnership between farmer and consumer.  They enter into a contract which provides consumers with a certain number of ‘shares’ in the farm. Each share provides the consumer a box (or bag or bucket or …) of vegetables or other products at a regular interval. 

There are four basic components of a CSA:

  1. Partnership: a mutual agreement between the producer and the consumer is established for the growing season
  2. Local Production: the exchange is local, i.e. a part of the community, in order to facilitate the relocalizing of the human-food relationship
  3. Solidarity: a unifying relationship is developed that is beneficial to both producer and consumer
  4. A Producer/Consumer Tandem: the direct person-to-person relationship, i.e. no intermediaries or hierarchies, is established

The establishment and execution of a CSA have several benefits and challenges for producers and consumers that are summarized below.

Challenges

Opportunities

Producers

  • Potential for a bad worth of mouth
  • Increased management requirements
  • Time demands → customer relations
  • Packaging and distribution costs

Consumers

  • May feel like they are not getting their money’s worth
  • Lack of choice
  • May be expensive
  • ‘Long-term’ commitment
  • Short shelf life (no preservatives)
  • A significant amount of produce that requires cooking
Producers

  • Marketing before the growing season
  • Consistent cash flow
  • Development of customer relationships → loyalty
  • Shared risk
  • Cuts out the ‘middleman’
  • Little capital investment
  • Word of mouth advertising

Consumers

  • Access to super fresh produce
  • Development of relationship with producer
  • Contact with the farm

Society

  • Reduced environmental impact of food(?)

For the implementation of a successful CSA, the participants – both farmers and consumers – must have the ‘right’ type of personality, i.e. committed and patient. However, if such a relationship can be established, CSAs are a very viable marketing strategies that can be used by small farmers to remain competitive in an environment largely dominated by industrialized agriculture.

sources:

http://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex3482?opendocument
http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fy597

7 tips for the successful implementation of direct marketing strategies by small farmers

Direct marketing is a form of marketing that is drastically different than commodity selling. Where commodity selling is based on a market-determined price and generally focused on standardized, large-scale sales that are impersonal in nature, direct marketing involves 1:1 selling between an individual/group and the seller. In doing so, trust is established and alternative forms of value are created. The value created in this respect enables small farmers to remain competitive against agribusiness as they are able to provide alternative benefits, for example, novelty or flavor, for consumers.

Accordingly, the expansion of direct marketing strategies is grounded in the trend towards embracing consumer preference. Examples of prevalent consumers demands include:

  • Authenticity: consumers are interested in the simpler things in life
  • Community: consumers want to support local businesses
  • Family: consumers want activities that the whole household can enjoy together
  • Security: consumers desire to have food that is safe for consumption
  • Convenience: consumers seek out food that tastes good and is readily available
  • Balance: consumers want a balance between work and recreation

When deciding to implement a direct marketing strategy, there are 7 basic keys to success:

  1. Involve all ‘players’: develop a strong and diverse network in order to enjoy the benefits of different skills and talents
  2. Start small: Smaller operations are easier to manage and can more easily adapt to any challenges and opportunities that may present themselves. 
  3. Grow naturally: Once a plan has been proven successful, it can be expanded at a healthy rate.
  4. Keep (good) records: Quality information is required in order to evaluate progress and determine whether goals are being met. Records are needed not only for financials but also for product interests and on-farm productivity. 
  5. Make decisions based on recorded success: The information gathered through record keeping allows for more informed and intelligent decisions to be reached. 
  6. Find and develop the niche market: Sellers should think like consumers in order to determine what products and services consumers desire. Once consumer preferences have been determined and/or a loyal consumer base has been developed, it is essential to continue to interact with customers and offer incentives, e.g. tastings, to maintain loyalty.
  7. Develop a toolset for information: Information is a key to success. Being prepared can aid in the development of new customers and help to maintain the loyalty of existing ones. 
    • Examples: Business cards, price lists, product information sheet, recipes/prep tips, website

sources:

http://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex3482?opendocument
http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fy597
http://www.investopedia.com/terms/c/commodity.asp

question: what strategies can small farmers use to better compete in a challenging market environment?

Small farmers are an integral part of society. They produce food, provide rural employment, and contribute to diversity in both ownership and societal structure. However, they are also faced with a number of struggles, particularly when it comes to market entry and competition with large-scale agribusiness. In order to address these issues and maintain profitability, small farmers must be innovative and adaptive. This implies the use of new marketing strategies to protect their existing market share, and, if possible, expand it. There are three main types of new marketing strategies. They are as follows:

  • Differentiation: providing a product that is clearly different from that which is offered by conventional producers. Conventional production can offer mass quantities of goods at a low price, but this is often at the expense of other desirable qualities or services.  This presents small farmers with an opportunity to fill identified market gaps. Differentiation can take the form of, for example, offering heirloom varieties or personalized service.
  • Specialization: choosing a specific product or group of products and fine-tuning the production process to reduce costs. When specializing, it is essential not to fall into a low-value monoculture trap, as it will not prove economically or environmentally sustainable. Instead, specialization should focus on high-value products, e.g. berries which can be sold fresh, as jams or other processed products, and wine. Specialization may also take the form of vertical integration or functional upgrading. Vertical integration refers to the process of internalizing multiple steps of the production and distribution process. Functional upgrading refers to the introduction of a new, higher value product.
  • Diversification: integrating different activities, processes, or methods to add value, e.g. growing several types of crops including some perennials and raising some dairy producing ruminants. In doing so, farmers are able to mitigate some risk in that the likelihood of total crop loss in the event of an inclement weather or pest event is reduced. Likewise, it can support biological diversity and support a more stable farm ecosystem. From a different perspective, diversification can take the form of services provided, e.g. partnering with local schools to provide educational opportunities or senior citizen centers to provide elderly care in exchange for low-impact assistance.

sources:

Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. (2017) Farm Direct Marketing for Rural Producers. Retrieved from http://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex3482?opendocument
Fromm, I. (2007). Upgrading in Agricultural Value Chains: The Case of Small Producers in Honduras. GIGA Research Programme: Transformation in the Process of Globalisation. Retrieved from https://www.giga-hamburg.de/de/system/files/publications/wp64_fromm.pdf
Mitchell, J., Coles, C., and Keane, J. (2009). Upgrading Along Value Chains: Strategies for Poverty Reduction in Latin America. Retrieved from https://www.odi.org/resources/docs/5654.pdf
Rethink. (n.d.) Resilient Food Systems and Market Differentiation. Retrieved from www.rethink-net.eu/fileadmin/user_upload/Pictures…/RETHINK_CS-leaflet_LT.pdf
Rosset, P. R. (1999). The Multiple Benefits and Functions of Small Farms. Food First The Institute for Food and Development Policy.

 

 

the green revolution

There is no doubt about it – there are a lot of people in the world: more than 7 billion. The sheer number of humans is probably even too much for our brains to process. Still, we’re all here and more people are coming joining the global population and every day.

Feeding so many people is a daunting task. So much so that food security is one of the most prominent issues facing the world today – despite the fact that output is greater than ever before. Successful increases in output are retarded by issues with food waste, problems with logistics and the unequal distribution of resources. However, the biggest issue preventing lasting change is the use of unsustainable production practices like monoculture, the irrigation of arid and/or semi-arid locations and high chemical inputs. For true food security to be achieved alternatives that are better adaptable to dynamic conditions are required.

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Norman Borlaug   Photo credit: nytimes.com

That is not to say that the evolution of the current system is not a biological and technological wonder.  It is a result of the Green Revolution which started the 1940s. It was during this time that Norman Borlaug, a plant breeder from the University of Minnesota, developed a high yielding wheat variety that revolutionized crop production throughout the world. The new varieties were not sensitive to hours of sunlight each day which allowed farmers to grow wheat anywhere, had more above ground mass which increased yields and produced shorter plants so that more of the plant’s energy could be focused on the usable grain production.

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A comparison of dwarf and full-size wheat varieties Photo credit: http://www.lsuagcenter.com

These genetic improvements coupled with the use of newly developed irrigation systems, altered farm management techniques, hybrids and chemical pesticides and fertilizers resulted in unprecedented increases in output. For example, following the introduction of high-yielding wheat, Mexico was able to go from importing half its wheat in 1944 to exporting a 1/2 million tons of wheat in 1964. The success was so great that shortly after high producing rice varieties (with IR8 being the most notable) were introduced in other places throughout the world. The increase is estimated to be so great that these changes are credited with saving more than a billion people from starvation. It is also credited with allowing the population to continue to balloon out of control.

IR8
Photo credit: yubanet.com

Depending on the person, this is a good thing or a bad thing. Many find that humans are the best thing in the world and that continued population growth can result in improved economic climates, expanded intellectual capital and ultimately an overall betterment of the world. Others see the human presence as a burden that the world cannot truly bear. With a continuing world hunger crisis and severe weather conditions across the globe, it is hard to argue for the former.

Still, continuing efforts are being made to improve the genetic potential of seeds. There are 16 centers throughout the world focusing on the continuing development of improved crops including maize, sorghum, and beans. Unfortunately, this has led to a rapid decrease in genetic diversity and it has resulted in plants that are only able to survive with human intervention and high inputs. This has and will continue to cause serious issues as a result of droughts, floods, pests and/or disease (ex. bananas). Furthermore, many of the inputs used are non-renewable (fossil fuel, water). There are also rapidly changing consumer demands as third world countries develop and demand lifestyle choices comparable to those enjoyed by westerners (ex. higher rates of meat consumption), environmental degradation concerns, a limited amount of arable land, and unchecked population growth threatens food security.

To address these issues, there is a call for a second Green Revolution that is based on sustainability. The new revolution is aimed at efforts to reduce dependence on synthetic inputs and reduce the use of non-renewable water sources. Success in this respect can be achieved with the use of nitrogen fixing cover crops, crop rotation, alternative cropping styles, reduced tillage and farm diversification. There is also a need for a Green Revolution in Africa in order to focus efforts on improving the output of common crops grown on the continent. This would also help to reduce the yield gap that plagues many African countries.

bringing good food to others: investigating the subjects of alternative food practices

“Watsonville is a largely Latino community, where many farm workers live – and several students […] have gone there with the intention of teaching Latino youth how to grow food, apparently with nary a trace of irony shown.”

Julie Guthman, a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz in the Department of Community Studies (it is noted that Santa Cruz is often considered “ground zero” of the US alternative food movement) runs a program that provides students with an opportunity to work in a variety of food scarce locations in an alternative food program. Based on the work of the students and her personal research, she is able to inform readers that there is a great discrepancy between the goals and intentions of the student participants and those of the communities that they are attempting to serve. Below is a more in-depth summary of her findings:

Alternative food institutions have tended to cater to relatively well-off consumers, in part because organic food has been positioned as a niche product – even obtaining the moniker of “yuppie chow”. Furthermore, farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) tend to locate or distribute to areas of relative wealth. These places are also generally white spaces in terms of both the demographic that frequent them and the cultural codings that are performed at such markets. The same can be said of schools that attempt to incorporate farm-to-table programs unless they are heavily subsidized by private foundations or the public sectors.

Food deserts are then defined as urban (or rural) environments where few if any venues provide an array of healthful fruits, vegetables, meats and grain products. However, there are some issues with this definition. The quote:

 “To a lesser degree they situate the food desert phenomenon with the neoliberal restructuring of urban space more broadly which through disinvestment and endemic unemployment have relegated the inhabitants of some cities to intense poverty,”

summarizes the issue with this explanation of the current issues with food production in poor, minority communities. She goes on to explain that Blacks who are the target of these efforts appear to reject them (the efforts) because they believe they replicate the very phenomenon being addressed – the effects of white desire to enroll black people in a particular set of food practices.

However, despite historical precedents, the same feelings were not expressed in Latino or more recently Asian communities. It is theorized that this is due to many members of this demographic being undocumented, so they have limited access to government programs.

It is then explained that the origin of the word organic (which is often touted as a championing quality of urban agriculture) is controversial in nature because of its historical roots in use by Nazis influenced by the works of Rudolph Steiner and the nationalist foundations of the British Soil Association. Community gardens are also often associated with the term localism which in itself is considered to be xenophobic in nature and contradicts the black community’s desire to be a part of American modernity and technology. Additionally, many of the catchphrases such as “Dirt First” associated with gardening contradict efforts by many Black Nationalist groups to dissociate the Black community with idioms of dirt and filth. There is also the issue of getting one’s hands dirty and the presumption that everyone is interested in tending the land. This historically contradicts many of the non-white norms in the USA because land was given away to whites at the same time that reconstruction failed in the south, Native lands were seized and Natives killed and the Chinese and Japanese were excluded from land ownership. When coupled with the persistent injustice of white land being tended by non-white workers, the agrarian ideal does not resonate with many non-white groups. Furthermore, for some newly arrived immigrants the concept of community gardens can be considered eugenic in nature because they appear to mirror efforts to reform foodways by the United States. Finally, the mere definition of food desert often elicits the image of many of the impoverished neighborhoods as being beyond repair which has been suggested as containing colonial codings.

The issue of the term teaching kids how to eat has also garnered resentment because it is perceived as trying to instill a particular (white) ideology about eating. It was also found that many kids do not like to garden – they did not like getting their hands, clothes and shoes dirty.  The following quotes were taken from student’s notes from a community study students about their experiences working in Black communities. They summarize many of the feelings about the alternative food efforts:

The person laughed and said she did not know how to cook any of the things we planted.”

Often times girls show up with Jack in the Box for breakfast, eating it while working.  The youths were asked to say what they thought organic means, many used the terms disgusting, gross or dirty.

  • On why a neighborhood resident chooses not to purchase food that has been locally produced:

Because they don’t sell no food! All they got is birdseed…Who the hell are they to tell me how to eat? It’s not food. I need to be able to feed my family.

  • One of the students drew the conclusion that

Insistence on alternatives may well reinforce a sense of exclusion and stigmatization – as if residents of food deserts are not even deserving of what others taken for granted: a Safeway.

To deal with these issues, some alternative markets are adopting different monikers, such as Mandela’s farmers’ market and Growing Power, emphasizing black cuisine and culture to interest the local community, and imploring community members to rectify the historical issue of landholding inequalities and highlighting issues like the toxic nature of many conventional foods. However, it is noted that it often takes selling foods at below market prices or people literally becoming sickened by industrial food for the target market to adopt these food options.

The author concludes that there is a disjunction between what alternative food activists do and what food desert residents seem to want. In order to deal with this, she suggests shifting the focus of activism away from food qualities (local, organic, etc.) and onto injustices that underlie disparities, for example, addressing issues such as urban renewal, living wages, the expansion of entitlement programs and environmental preservation.

Guthman, J. 2008. Bringing good food to others: investigating the subjects of alternative food practice. Cultural Geographies, 4, 431-447.