Generalizations Confuse Food Dialogue
Food dialogue often includes overly broad generalizations regarding monoculture, organic agriculture, agroecology, industrial agriculture or agrochemicals, but the perceptions surrounding these terms has wide variations. Specifying an accurate definition and context can help improve agricultural and food literacy as well as reducing confusion and the potential for deception.
The standard definition for monoculture refers to crops having a productive capability of several growing seasons. Tree, vine, trees or plant based crops with capabilities for multiple productive seasons are considered a monoculture because they occupy a defined area for an extended period of time. Examples of monocultures include vineyards in France and olive groves in Italy which have centuries of continuous use and an overwhelming lack of feasibility for change. Other crops such as sugar cane or pineapple have a shorter change horizon, but often have a large investment in infrastructure and/or a lack of viable alternatives which make crop changes difficult.
Mono Cropping, Not Monoculture
The continuous planting of a single season crop such as rice or soybeans demonstrates mono cropping as there is a capability for seasonal crop change, but the crops are not changed or “rotated” to another crop. The agronomic and ecological evidence is overwhelming in support of seasonal crop rotations. If agronomic, economic and market feasibilities permit, the most advantageous position is a more diverse rotation including cover crops between productive crops.
The use of intercropping; i.e., planting of one or more crops within the same area or field has management and operational limitations for which studies have shown limited feasibilities except with a smaller scale and larger manual interventions. In practice, farmers vary crops or crop rotations across fields within the same farm not only to hedge against end markets, but to better utilize different soil and terrain conditions.
The term agroecology is often used without defining which of the three types of agroecology applies:
· the scientific integration of agronomy and ecology at the level of individual fields, geographic regions or an entire food system
· a scope and methodology related to political and social objectives of specific groups
· a practice; for example, trees providing ecological services within a coffee plantation.
The terms sustainable and conservation agriculture are also used and reflect definitional and contextual variations within agroecology. A strong indicator of the type of agroecology employed is normally indicated by the measurement and balance of tangible benefits accruing for farmers, consumers and the environment.
Industrial agriculture can indicate crops requiring extensive processing after harvesting; for example, sugar or cotton. More often, it is used as an arbitrary reference to the size or intensity of the agricultural enterprise. The evolution of Sir Jethro Tull’s (the 17th century gentleman) invention of mechanical farm implements along with other inventors and scientists has provided crop farmers with opportunities for increased productivity through mechanization. Coupled with improved plant breeding techniques, farmers can readily farm larger areas or farm part time with improved precision and reduced manual interventions.
Integrated pest management can provide a framework; biological approaches are available, but limited; therefore, the use of “agrochemicals”, synthetic or natural, is often necessary for protection of crop investments in land preparation, seed, labor and water. Natural chemicals could include among other examples; a neurotoxic insecticide derived from African flowers, copper-based fungicides that accumulate in ecosystems or sulfur which may affect children’s health in agricultural areas. Natural and synthetic pesticides can also adversely affect applicators, bees, aquatic life, beneficial insects or leave residues. Both natural and synthetic pesticides are dependent on the chemical structure and not the natural or synthetic origin as the cause of an immediate reaction or long-term effects depending on the toxicity, manner of intake and quantity. Typical agrochemical food residues are not significantly different from the safety levels for formaldehyde in pears, nicotine in eggplants, carcinogenic chemicals among the thousand chemicals in coffee or naturally occurring arsenic and lead in foods. A key difference exists in whether the residue is external and largely removable or inherent to the food as with a natural occurrence.
Precise fertilization in which fertilizers are mineralized and/or absorbed by the exact fulfillment of the nutrients that crops require is especially problematic in relation to the use of composting or nitrogen fixation with seasonal crops. Nitrogen fertilizers, synthetic or biological, require mineralization before use by plants with the difference that the synthetic fertilizer is more advanced in the process and is more easily adaptable to specific requirements of crops. Large-scale composting has a carbon footprint several times larger than synthetic fertilizer due to methane and nitrous oxide emissions, as well as the machinery and fuel associated with collection, composting, spreading and tillage. For example, it has been noted the large scale generation of an adequate amount of compost for one hectare of corn is equivalent to the entire “conventional” crop carbon footprint and shipment of 11 tons of Costa Rican bananas to Germany.
Organic agriculture based on the beliefs of “the appeal to nature” began at the beginning of the twentieth century and restricts inputs such as seeds, pesticides and fertilizers to those “naturally derived” to the extent possible. Organic certification reflects only the adherence to organic production regulations and labeling in formal markets has only this process label. Additional product manifestations regarding nutrition, taste, safety or environmental impact are not supported by the organic certification label. For example, studies have consistently demonstrated the nutritional content of conventional or organic foods depends on many factors, the differences do not have consistent results or biological significance for the consumer and labels indicating otherwise would require scientific support.
Recent data from the U. S. Department of Agriculture indicate potato, onion and watermelon yields of organic producers are less than 50% of the varying types of conventional producers, while many forage categories are equal or better. Wheat is especially troublesome in that organic yields in Italy, Argentina and the US are 44%, 35% and 66% respectively of conventional yields. If organic farming were solely responsible for wheat in the U.S., a 2016 study indicated an additional 12.4 million hectares would be required. This is without measuring the loss of soybean production because “conventional” soybeans are often planted into the remnants of the wheat harvest without land preparation and organic agriculture does not have similar capabilities.
Philosophic Food Topics
Food topics such as natural foods, “clean” labels, artificial ingredients and genetically engineered plant breeding are challenging because the discussion is often based on philosophies, beliefs and marketing strategies without reference to demonstrated results. Obviously, the physical nutrition and health requirements of humans, livestock and plants are indifferent to philosophical distinctions and dependent solely on scientific examination of the product and environmental effects.
Changing the Dialogue
The dialogue of food and agriculture requires the recognition of factors affecting varying crops, climates, soils, terrains and cost/market feasibilities as well as reliance on scientific studies. Generalizations often promote inaccuracy or deception, especially when the audience does not have the agricultural or science background for identifying the precise context and implications. A small percentage of the population fulfills the food production requirements, but the overwhelming majority typically has little knowledge of actual food production practices and is more susceptible to food inaccuracies arising from generalizations.
Readers may notice this article contains generalizations, hopefully, with a degree of context, but also recognizing there are literally books written for each of the terms referenced.