Thursday, June 12, 2008

gas prices, food, and manure

There was an article in the local paper recently (not online, sorry) about how a bunch of local farmers are struggling to be able to afford petrochemical fertilizers—because just like with oil, the price of those have been going up and up, too—and some of the farmers are reduced to trying "alternative" fertilizers, like manure.

It's a sad commentary that manure is now an "alternative" fertilizer. One of the farmers interviewed even already had a dairy operation, but is only just now using the manure produced to fertilize his corn field. What was he doing with all that manure before?

Now, I know that farmers aren't stupid, and I don't mean to imply that they are. I'm sure that the dairy/corn farmer did realize that manure can be used as a fertilizer, but he chose not to use it because he believed that the store-bought petrochemical stuff was better, because that's what all the advertising says and because everybody else is using it. (Which is sadly how human society tends to function, anyway: the dominant or most visible system is the most "correct," and anything different is suspect. It doesn't matter if you're talking about farming practices or food choices or religion or sexuality or anything else.)

Although the farmers might have had somewhat valid reasons for choosing petrochemicals. So many crop plants, especially corn or soy, have been hybridized and genetically engineered all to heck, and they need mega applications of chemicals to keep them going, and the farmers think that its worth it because they can then harvest mega yields. I'd like to see some long term study done comparing the cost and yield of growing heirloom vegetables organically in smaller, rotating plots vs. growing monocropped frankenfood chemically. It would have to be conducted over a long period of time, say ten or twenty years, because eventually the monocropped petrochemical corn field is going to be a sterile wasteland—the soil cannot sustain that level of abuse and continue to rebuild itself—but organic farming has been shown to actually improve the soil over time. I would bet that the chem field would have larger, less expensive yields for the first two or three years, but that the organic field would win by leaps and bounds in the long run.

The US government is now predicting that gas prices will peak at about $4.15/gallon and will hover around $4 for the rest of 2008 and 2009. I have a hard time really caring that much. I don't drive, and a lot of the food I buy is organic. I buy local whenever I can, and I grow some of my own food (just in pots out on the back steps now, but hopefully in a year or two I will have yard space for a real garden). I don't think rising oil prices is a crisis; the crisis is a cultural system that is dependant on inexpensive and abundant amounts of a finite resource.

There was another article in the local paper a while ago where garden centers said that they were selling significantly more edible plants this year, that in addition to the usual flowers, every customer seemed to be picking up a six pack of tomatoes or some herbs or strawberries, and they posited that this was a reaction to rising food prices at the supermarkets. This economy is good for something. If everyone converted even half their lawn into a vegetable garden and started a compost pile, we could easily grow a significant portion of our food, and do it organically.

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