By Donella Meadows
–June 1, 1989–
They say money doesn’t make the world go round, but sometimes it changes the behavior of human beings wonderfully.
I have been trying for years to get farmers in many countries to see the wisdom of using fewer fertilizers and pesticides. I’ve been working especially hard in Hungary, where groundwaters are badly polluted with agricultural chemicals. I took West European organic farmers to give talks in Budapest. I supplied literature on low-input agriculture. I brought Hungarian agronomists to the U.S. to see our organic farms for themselves.
To my knowledge, my efforts did not cause chemicals to be reduced on a single acre of Hungarian cropland.
But last summer a cooperative farm there converted 2400 acres to organic vegetables. West European demand for pesticide-free produce is rising much faster than supply, and an enterprising Dutch retailer offered the Hungarians premium prices.
Similarly, in the U.S. a wave of market incentive has reduced the use of agricultural chemicals this year far more than any environmental pleading could have done.
In March the Natural Resources Defense Council launched the big apple scare. It showed that presently permitted pesticide uses can leave residues in foods at levels that threaten us all, most especially our children. The NRDC listed several problem chemicals; the one that caught everyone’s attention was daminozide (Alar) in apples.
Meryl Streep organized Mothers and Others for Pesticide Limits and went on the Donahue Show. Stocks of organic apple juice sold out. Alar-treated apples couldn’t be given away. Nearly all growers decided to stop using Alar this year, though the Environmental Protection Agency’s ban on it is not yet in effect.
Now the New York Times reports that growers of fruits and vegetables in California’s Central Valley are suddenly turning thousands of acres to chemical-free farming. There were already many organic farmers in California, most of them environmental True Believers working relatively small acreages. The new converts are the big guys, the agribiz folks, who now sense a terrific market opportunity.
They couldn’t make such a fast transition, if the pieces of this agricultural revolution had not been coming together for decades. Tens of thousands of farmers before them have been rediscovering old techniques like crop rotation, and pioneering new techniques like the use of specialized bacilli that attack only specific insect pests.
With no extension service to advise them, the farmer-experimenters have been finding each other. A low-input group called Practical Farmers of Iowa now has 280 members. California Certified Organic Farmers has 850 members. There is an Organic Growers & Buyers Association in Minnesota, an Illinois Sustainable Agriculture Society, a New England Organic Farmers Association. Over 50,000 farmers read a how-to journal called The New Farm, which must be the only farm magazine in America that runs no pesticide ads.
The growers’ associations have worked out standards to prevent cheaters from sticking an organic label onto any old carrot and claiming a premium price. In 14 states they have written definitions of ecologically acceptable farming into laws for certifying produce — laws that will now protect their new large-scale competitors as well.
Most importantly, the pioneers have worked out how to get high yields with low chemicals. If the Superior Farming Company in Bakersfield wants tips on growing organic grapes, it can look at the 640 acres grown successfully for years by the Pavich brothers in Delano. Iowa farmers can learn from Dick Thompson’s farm in Boone, where no insecticides or herbicides have been used for 20 years, and where corn and soybean yields are as high as the neighbors’ (except in last year’s drought, when they were 30% higher.)
Some folks are expressing apprehension as the switch to organic farming becomes serious. They think the nation’s food supply will shrink. Or they fear the big-time growers will so flood the organic market that they’ll bring down the high prices that attracted them — and then go back to dousing the countryside with chemicals.
I don’t think either of those things will happen. I offer as evidence a survey carried out by Kevin Carroll and Margaret Krome of the University of Wisconsin. They interviewed 389 conventional farmers in their state and 177 farmers who had greatly reduced their use of chemicals.
They found that a large majority (70.9 percent) of the conventional farmers thought yields would decrease if they cut the chemicals — but 65 percent of those who actually did cut them got the same or better yields.
Sixty four percent of the conventional farmers thought organic farming means lower profits, but 76 percent of the organic farmers reported higher profits, not because they got higher prices, but because they spent so much less on pesticides and fertilizers.
When asked what would cause them to go back to chemicals, a few of the organic farmers said that increased pest problems would, or that changed market conditions would. But 75 percent of them said their yields were now more stable, their finances more secure, and their soils, animals, and families in better health. Nothing, they said, would convince them to go back to the old way of farming.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989