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Organic production and the labor problem

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  • Proponents of organic cropping systems are quick to promote the system as the wave of the future, but can organic really hack it? Labor requirements, which are intensive in organic production, could be the big bugaboo in an organic system.

Every organic organization I’ve come across usually argues loudly that organic farming is the one and only, truly-sustainable production system the world needs.

But can organic really hack it in a modern world, especially when it’s most precious resource, labor, may not necessarily be a willing participant?

Organic advocate Worldwatch Food and Agriculture Program recently reported that land farmed organically is growing by leaps and bounds, and now comprises nearly 1 percent of all land farmed.

Report author Laura Reynolds stated, “Although organic agriculture often produces lower yields on land that has recently been farmed conventionally, it can outperform conventional practices – especially in times of drought – when the land has been farmed organically for a longer time. Conventional agricultural practices often degrade the environment over both the long and short term through soil erosion, excessive water extraction, and biodiversity loss.”

The report went on to say that the United States “has lagged behind other countries in adopting sustainable farming methods.”

The accuracy of Reynolds’ claims aside, she can rest assured – if organic farming yields more and makes more money per acre than conventional farming, U.S. producers would take a serious look at it, on at least a portion of their acreage.

But there is a reason why they don’t – labor.

In modern agriculture, labor has essentially been replaced by the safe and effective use of crop protection products and high-tech machinery.  To get an idea of how much labor can be replaced by one machine, consider the one-row cotton picker, which did the work of 40 hand laborers.

Today’s modern cotton pickers can harvest six rows at a time, so if we are to de-evolve technologically to organic cotton production and hand labor, we would need thousands of people willing to hand-pick cotton, unless of course someone invents a dependable, widely-adaptable method of running a cotton harvester through a field without first applying chemical defoliants.

Imagine countless Americans, bent over, dragging sacks of cotton through heat and mosquito dens. Just so Patagonia can put “certified organic” on its label.

Good luck with that.

Unfortunately for organic – and as commercial operators know all too well – there are far too many unemployed Americans who think a job making $10 an hour is a waste of time.

Worldwatch correctly states that organic production techniques are widely accepted in some regions of the world. But it’s typically where the work force is willing to accept low wages. The Worldwatch Institute itself noted that 80 percent of the world’s 1.6 million certified organic growers live in the developing world.

Organic is a nice concept, and I hope it continues to grow its market share. But this idea that organic is the only way to grow a crop is fundamentally flawed, especially in technologically advanced countries like the United States.

Discuss this Blog Entry 4

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 31, 2013

Less than one percent of the world's farmland is organic. Of that most of it is pastureland for cattle rather than productive cropland. Why is there so little organic production? Because it is not sustainable. There is still basically zero testing of so called organic produce. The organic community has conned people into thinking they don't use pesticides. Organic certification is based on an annual check of paperwork by certifiers who lose their livelihoods if their clients lose certification. Most of the organic food comes from other countries where the rules are even worse than here. The small, local organic growers are exempt from food safety laws. Lower yields mean more land and resources are needed and that's not good for the environment.

Buck6 (not verified)
on Feb 4, 2013

New a winemaker who for years claimed his vineyard was dryland farmed for better quality. One very wet year a mud slide took out and acre on a slope. There hanging with the support wires plain to see. Was an underground drip system. This and othe examples exsist all over. I have no doubt that so called ststainabel and organic growers are no different. A local goat farmer and cheese maker volintarily gave up her statis as organic and just setteled back to sustainable because of land use and labor where just to much for her. She now gladley makes her money that way. Even though as they teach in school these days. Money is evil.

Mary Orcutt (not verified)
on Feb 4, 2013

Oh, come one. How cynical can you get? There is quite an active community of organic farmers,especially here in California and I read about them in lots of other states. Let's let the market decide what farmers will grow and how they grow it. And it looks like the numbers of organic growers are increasing every year.

R Andrew Ohge (not verified)
on Feb 7, 2013

“Devolving to Organic”?
Nifty word concoction. We envision a Farmer with Millions of Dollars worth of Equipment suddenly going the way of the Amish-right?
[Klaxon Sounds] Wrong!
What changes is the seeds, the “chemicals”(chemicals are still used, but have organic sources.), but corn is corn, beans are beans, etc.
Of course, if you decide to go from raising corn to grapes…SURPRISE, your operation might be a bit more Labor intensive-likewise with Produce or Fruit Trees, but comparing apples to apples is still apples. (Someone thought we were sleeping so soundly, we’d let this excursion into absurdity slide on by.)

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