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Organic production and the labor problem

Every organic organization I’ve come across usually argues loudly that organic farming is the one and only, truly-sustainable production system the world needs.

But can organic really hack it in a modern world, especially when it’s most precious resource, labor, may not necessarily be a willing participant?

Organic advocate Worldwatch Food and Agriculture Program recently reported that land farmed organically is growing by leaps and bounds, and now comprises nearly 1 percent of all land farmed.

Report author Laura Reynolds stated, “Although organic agriculture often produces lower yields on land that has recently been farmed conventionally, it can outperform conventional practices – especially in times of drought – when the land has been farmed organically for a longer time. Conventional agricultural practices often degrade the environment over both the long and short term through soil erosion, excessive water extraction, and biodiversity loss.”

The report went on to say that the United States “has lagged behind other countries in adopting sustainable farming methods.”

The accuracy of Reynolds’ claims aside, she can rest assured – if organic farming yields more and makes more money per acre than conventional farming, U.S. producers would take a serious look at it, on at least a portion of their acreage.

But there is a reason why they don’t – labor.

In modern agriculture, labor has essentially been replaced by the safe and effective use of crop protection products and high-tech machinery.  To get an idea of how much labor can be replaced by one machine, consider the one-row cotton picker, which did the work of 40 hand laborers.

Today’s modern cotton pickers can harvest six rows at a time, so if we are to de-evolve technologically to organic cotton production and hand labor, we would need thousands of people willing to hand-pick cotton, unless of course someone invents a dependable, widely-adaptable method of running a cotton harvester through a field without first applying chemical defoliants.

Imagine countless Americans, bent over, dragging sacks of cotton through heat and mosquito dens. Just so Patagonia can put “certified organic” on its label.

Good luck with that.

Unfortunately for organic – and as commercial operators know all too well – there are far too many unemployed Americans who think a job making $10 an hour is a waste of time.

Worldwatch correctly states that organic production techniques are widely accepted in some regions of the world. But it’s typically where the work force is willing to accept low wages. The Worldwatch Institute itself noted that 80 percent of the world’s 1.6 million certified organic growers live in the developing world.

Organic is a nice concept, and I hope it continues to grow its market share. But this idea that organic is the only way to grow a crop is fundamentally flawed, especially in technologically advanced countries like the United States.

TAGS: Management
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