Agricultural journalists have long anguished over our failure to defend agriculture to people not in agriculture. We're preaching to the choir, we are told — our good message is hardly news to an already enlightened flock of farmers.
So imagine my surprise the other day when I got a call from a reporter at Forbes magazine wanting to interview me about an article I had written in Delta Farm Press in which I addressed myths being perpetuated about conventional cotton. I wrote that Wal-Mart's claim that its sale of 200,000 organic cotton outfits had saved two jumbo jets full of pesticide from being applied to the soil was pure malarkey — it was off by a factor of 500.
The Forbes reporter said she found my article in a Web search on the Internet, probably using the search engine Google. A search engine, for those who have not been out of a tractor cab for the last 10 years, has a search bar in which key words are entered, and if there is anything on the World Wide Web that has anything to do with what you wrote in the bar, it comes up scary fast.
I went to Google myself this morning, entered “organic cotton myths” in the search bar, hit enter and lo and behold, the first article to appear was the one the Forbes reporter had referred to.
The Forbes article “Hard Sell for a Soft Fabric,” appeared in the Oct. 13 issue and was about the questionable marketing tactics used to promote organic cotton. The article referred to a marketing association called the Organic Exchange which has been busy conjuring up some nasty images about conventional cotton, including one that implies that buying organic clothes will prevent thousands of Indian cotton farmers from committing suicide over the high cost of pesticides.
The Forbes article also referred to a Web site for Gaiam, which markets organic cotton, which said many Indian cotton farmers had spent $70 to $115 a year on pesticides, over 25 percent of their annual income, before shifting to organic methods.
Something here doesn't quite seem to add up, and this begs a very important question not asked by the Forbes reporter, “Are the staff of organic marketing associations inherently deficient in math?”
Seriously though, it would seem at first glance that Indian farmers don't appear to make a whole lot of money, $280 to $460 a year, if indeed the $70 to $115 they spend on pesticides constitutes a quarter of their annual income. Heck, no wonder they're depressed. In the good ol' USA, that will barely buy you a bag of seed.
Another more likely explanation for the low income could be that Indian farmers are only farming a couple of acres of cotton. If so, why the heck were they spraying pesticides on it in the first place. Organic is probably the most cost-efficient system for them. Heck, with 2 to 3 acres and a big family, you could probably hand-pick worms off the crop.
On the other hand, the $70 to $115 figure referred to might actually be a per acre figure reported as a whole-farm figure.
Who knows? Truth be known, over the past few years, more than a million Indian cotton farmers have converted not to organic farming but to Bt cotton, and have subsequently lowered the number of pesticide applications they make and the total pesticide applied.
At the same time, they've increased yield and income significantly. I'm told their mental health has changed from down in the dumps to downright chipper.
The outside world and the consumer press may not understand agricultural economics, its cultural practices and biotechnology well enough to drill deep into claims made by the most radical of these organic marketing groups. But the Google nation puts those claims out there for everyone to see, and fortunately, to dispute.