The New York Times Mark Bittman writes about a fascinating (though not particularly surprising) ten-year Department of Agriculture study on 22 acres of Iowa State University farmland:
[R]esearchers set up three plots: one replicated the typical Midwestern cycle of planting corn one year and then soybeans the next, along with its routine mix of chemicals. On another, they planted a three-year cycle that included oats; the third plot added a four-year cycle and alfalfa. The longer rotations also integrated the raising of livestock, whose manure was used as fertilizer.
The results were stunning: The longer rotations produced better yields of both corn and soy, reduced the need for nitrogen fertilizer and herbicides by up to 88 percent, reduced the amounts of toxins in groundwater 200-fold and didn’t reduce profits by a single cent.
This type of integrated, long-rotation land management is what farmers practiced for generations before the widespread adoption of chemical fertilizers and pesticides starting in the mid-20th century, so I personally don't find its efficiency all that surprising. These longer rotations required more labor, the study found, but fewer expensive chemical inputs, so the costs balanced out in the end.
And note, we're not talking organic here. Chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides were still used when needed, but only when needed, as opposed to on some Monsanto-dictated regime. As Bittman observes:
Debates about how we grow food are usually presented in a simplistic, black-and-white way, conventional versus organic. (The spectrum that includes conventional on one end and organic on the other is not unlike the one that opposes the standard American diet with veganism.) In farming, you have loads of chemicals and disastrous environmental impact against an orthodox, even dogmatic method that is difficult to carry out on a large scale.
But seeing organic as the only alternative to industrial agriculture, or veganism as the only alternative to supersize me, is a bit like saying that the only alternative to the ravages of capitalism is Stalinism; there are other ways. And positioning organic as the only alternative allows its opponents to point to its flaws and say, “See? We have to remain with conventional.”
The Marsden Farm study points to a third path.
I garden organically because I find it easier and less complicated, but I'm not orthodox about it; I don't use any chemical fertilizers or pesticides, but I don't exclusively purchase organic starts and seeds. Also, I'm not a farmer, so I don't have to worry about turning a profit.
Likewise, I don't exclusively purchase organic produce and other foodstuffs because, quite frankly, I can't afford it. My daughter gets organic dairy, and I'm willing to a pay a premium for higher quality organic produce (lack the amazingly sweet and crunchy Nash's Best Carrots we buy at the PCC during the late fall and early winter). But I'm only willing (and able) to pay so much more for the sake of an organic label alone.
So as a consumer, I would love to see this less toxic, less environmentally damaging "third path" be adopted more widely. Here's hoping the Department of Agriculture bucks Monsanto's pressure, and gets the word out.