March 9, 2011

Organic Farming: What is Technology’s Role?

Jessica Krauss

Jessica Krauss

A recent post on Software Advice entitled Organic Farmers: Can They Be Tech Savvy?” by Mr. Hunter Richards serves as a reminder of why one interested in sustainable farming mustn’t instinctively cringe at the thought of new technology and agriculture.

As the blog states, organic food has taken off as an industry; the Organic Trade Associations estimated that national sales of organic food and beverages total $24.8 billion annually in comparison to $1 billion just 20 years ago. Organic fruits and vegetables, for example, now represent 11.4% of all U.S. fruit and vegetable sales. Naturally, one would think that increased demand would push producers to seek efficiency – that is, doing more with less.

Combine food, not just organic food, with demand and, well, you have yourself a headline.

A special report by The Economist, The 9 billionpeople question, introduces the question of if there will be enough food to go around come 2050. But the report focuses on industrial agriculture – since, “traditional and organic farming could feed Europeans and Americans well. It cannot feed the world.”

An entire chapter highlights efficiency. How does one increase yield by 1.5% a year over the next 40 years to feed mankind? The article details three ways: narrowing the gap between the worst and best producers, spreading the “lifestock revolution” (expanding the CAFO system because – “battery chickens” do a better job than traditional methods), and taking advantage of new plant technologies (marker-assisted breeding seems to be the key technology).

Additionally, The New York Times recently asked seven professionals Is the World Producing Enough Food?” Multiple authors were in agreement that meeting the greater per capita food consumption could be met by increasing yields through increasing technologies. Dr. Kenneth Cassman, a professor of agronomy at the University of Nebraska, mentioned the current weakness in yield comes partially from “a substantial decrease in funding of research to enhance yields by methods other than biotechnology.”

These three articles all mention new technology’s potential to meet increasing food demand. Although The Economist focused on industrial agriculture and technological improvements, Mr. Richard’s article is a unique reminder that those involved in “organic food,” who some may assume are defined by their aversion to technology, also can crave increasing their efficiency through technology.

Some of the technologies that Mr. Richards mentions are:

  • Data Solutions: Farmigo is a business data management solution. This web-based service is for small farmers (not necessarily organic farmers) looking to become more profitable. A testimonial by Tara Firma Farms confirms the company’s intentions:

“We didn’t realize how much organic pasture-raised meats could be in demand. Farmigo’s e-solutions have allowed us to focus on growth and profits, while taking care of headaches like accounting and inventory. A huge relief and critical move toward a sustainable business.”

  • Fertilization and Yield: Hoop houses are a way for organic farms to increase yield. Hoop houses in fact can be beneficial to farmers, not just organic farmers, who are looking to extend their growing season without the expense of greenhouses. Hoop houses are simply raised beds in a walled-off piece of land. Materials used in their construction can range from fiberglass to plastic pipes.Here in Baltimore one doesn’t  need to trek far to see the benefits of hoop houses. Center for a Livable Future works closely with the people behind Real Food Farm. Real Food Farm partnered with Safe Healing Foundation to build a HoopVillage: three agricultural hoophouses on the Lake Clifton High School campus. With an expanded harvest season, these hoop houses are able to provide nourishment for the community and curriculum enrichment.
  • Pest and Weed Control: Ever hear of clay on apples? SurrondWPTM is a product used for apple integrated pest management (IPM). The key is in its main ingredient: kaolin clay. The biodegradable product can be sprayed on apples to deter insect and sun damage. According to the a published factsheet by the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, the product has been shown to control or suppress insects ranging from leafrollers to thrips along with reducing heat stress and  sunburn. The factsheet concludes that Surrond is an “environmentally benign, worker-friendly, and cost-effective tool…. “

Based on this blog, organic farming, just as industrial farming, is faced with increased demand and room for technology improvements. In my opinion, Mr. Richards is correct in saying that these organic food technologies increase efficiency in a different way than those of conventional farming practices, highlighted in The Economist article. Both the industrial and organic technologies  increase efficiency by reducing time and labor. But the technologies Mr. Richards highlights seem to do this in a way that doesn’t harm our nation’s carbon footprint and water quality.

It is important to embrace technology for what it is: the practical application of knowledge. Although Mr. Richards’s article focused on the United States, his blog provides evidence for Dr. Cassman’s argument that funding for research in areas other than biotechnology, in this case, for those concerning organic farming, needs to be increased in order to enhance yields. After all, as more members of the youngertechsavvygenerations enter the farming industry, now is the time for peer-reviewed research to produce the knowledge needed for technology.

2 Comments

  1. hi,
    my name kartik, presently i am international student in new zealand , doing doing hospitality in new zealand management academy, and i am doing research on organic food as a part of my studies.
    so can you please help me by providing some related information.

    KARTIK PATIL
    +64-021 1743789
    kartik_patil@hotmail.com

    thank you and regards

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