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Why Organic Must Replace Chemical and Energy-Intensive Agriculture: An ‘Agri-Intellectual’ Talks Back

A lot of folks have asked what I think of the essay “The Omnivore’s Delusion: Against the Agri-intellectuals,” by Missouri corn/soy farmer Blake Hurst, published in The American, the journal of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute.

My first reaction is that I’m thrilled this debate is taking place. The sustainable-food movement needs to step up and start grappling with big questions. I’ve said for a while that I see three big challenges for the sustainable-food movement as it scales up: 1) soil fertility—in the absence of synthesized nitrogen and mined phosphorous and potassium, how are we to build soil fertility on a larger scale?; 2) labor—sustainable farming requires more hands on the ground; who’s going to work our farm fields, and at what wages?; and 3) access—in an economy built on long-term wage stagnation, how can we make sustainably grown food accessible to everyone?

Hurst’s essay begins to engage these questions—sort of. I don’t have the time or energy right now to take it on point by point. But I will say that the discussion would be much richer if he acknowledged a few serious questions about the industrial-farming model he champions.

For example, he barely acknowledges climate change. The EPA reckons [PDF] that half of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions from agriculture come from fertilizer-related nitrous oxide—a greenhouse gas some 300 times more potent than carbon. The Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, an atmospheric chemist, has concluded [PDF] that the EPA is dramatically underestimating the amount of nitrous oxide produced by industrial farming. Given that reality and the looming climate emergency, how long can U.S. farmers keep churning out titanic corn harvests? Hurst never goes there. Of course, he’s vice president of his state’s branch of the American Farm Bureau Federation, which has both been vigorously fighting climate legislation (on the grounds that climate change is a myth) [PDF] and campaigning to make sure that any bill that gets though Congress has plenty of goodies for agribusiness. So maybe be doesn’t consider nitrous oxide emissions a problem?

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