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Organic production and the labor problem


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In modern agriculture, labor has essentially been replaced by the safe and effective use of crop protection products and high-tech machinery.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 3

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 30, 2013

What does hand-picking cotton have to do with organic production??? Organic growing systems use diverse crop rotation systems, while fully using modern technology. Chemical-dependent agriculture is reverting to 2,4-d, a herbicide in Agent Orange from the Vietnam war, to battle its problem with herbicide resistance. How is that progress? Farms are biological systems, and treating them like chemical warfare zones worked for a while, but it is now more expensive to produce food your way than using biology-based sustainable agriculture practices. We can have a rational discussion about growing methods, but first relieve yourself of the notion that hand-picking cotton, or any other crop, has anything to do with organic production. Articles like this destroy the credibility of your news site, Delta Farm Press.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 31, 2013

Organic has become less about an alternative food production system that competes honestly in a free market and much more about a heavy handed political movement led by hardcore elitist, food bigots who would force their feelings of superiority on the rest of us by limiting access to certain products in our food supply by hindering through legislation, non-organic competition.They are committed to throwing obstacles in the way of modern, science based agriculture as a way of elevating their product and placing onerous and punishing regulations on conventional agriculture and biotech products. They are a dangerous and cynical movement because they are not out to honestly compete for the customer, they are out to limit what the customer can purchase through government regulations. The recent Prop 37
campaign in California (defeated) was an example of these broad scale tactics.

carl wayne hardeman (not verified)
on Jan 31, 2013

There is room for all types of farming each suited to a place and time. Some countries have an abundance of cheap labor and/or people willing to grow their own food. You would fall short of making case they should do something other than organic (sustainable) farming. The US has capital and equipment and vast acreage farms so that model works well for us. Its not an all-or-nothing and I would hope you would understand that and report fairly rather than backing into a corner and attacking those for whom an alternate model works best. You also need to think about the never ending search for more chemicals as extant ones become less effective. That alone makes mechanized farming unsustainable. You cannot fool Mother Nature in the long run.

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