Applying organic sensibilities to commercial agriculture

Increasing crop yields while being kinder to the Earth: is it possible? Yes.

My husband swears that New Jersey corn -- harvested in August and shucked and eaten as quickly as possible off the stalk -- is the sweetest that money can buy.

So we often buy a lot of it, as well as local beefsteak tomatoes, until that ephemeral sweetness has faded. I don't know how much of that corn is grown organically here in the chemical-happy Garden State, but my guess is very little -- at least based on an article about agri-business that I've been reading this afternoon online that will appear in the next issue of the Natural Resources Defense Council's OnEarth Magazine.

In fact, that article reports that just 1 percent of the cropland in the United States today is considered organic.

I bet you never expected the word "hybrid" to be associated with agri-business strategy, but that's exactly what this article is all about. The piece explores farms that are attempting to blend the best elements of organic and commercial farming -- using technologies to help cut energy consumption, reduce water usage and cut out as many pesticides as possible. This matters, the article suggests, because as much as 30 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by agriculture. One of the main foci is an operation in the Sacramento Valley owned by the Muller brothers, who wield gadgets including iPhones in order to keep tabs on all the raw data needed to make a farming operation more sustainable -- such as the daily evapotranspiration ratio (how quickly the sun will suck up moisture from plants and the dirt) and wind speeds.

There are two big things I took away from the OnEarth article:

First, it IS possible to measure TOO MUCH data when setting the base levels for sustainable agriculture. The writer offers the example of Unilever, which started collecting sustainability information for peas come 1997. The article quotes David Pendlinton, Unilever's sustainable agriculture program coordinator:

"In those early days it was impossible, we were measuring too much. We pretty much measured everything that moved and we got killed by data collection that did not tell us anything."

The company fixed this by focusing on specific metrics that matter the most for sustainability, such as density and water usage.

Second, agri-executives (aka farmers) need to look at the impact of each crop, each acre on a very individual level. Because what works for a tomato, as an example, won't work for a grape or a potato.

I'm also going to spend some time boning up on something called the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops. The index, which NRDC had a hand in developing, is an attempt to track the seed-to-shelf environmental impact of all produce-based products. Among the big businesses focused on its developments are representatives of Bayer CropScience, General Mills, PepsiCo and Walmart. Some of the metrics in the index started being tested earlier this year. The role of the index is described in more depth in the video.

Photo: Sweet corn. (New Jersey Dept. of Agriculture)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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