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My Philosophy or Views on Sustainability & Organic Agriculture
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Eric B. Brennan

A few of my Thoughts on Sustainability /ARSUserFiles/21904/Photos/sustainbility icon.png& Organic Agriculture /ARSUserFiles/21904/Photos/best-organic-logo rs 100x100.png

Sustainable food production is complex & unfortunately is not just a simple matter whether or not food is produced organically or conventionally. I wish it was that simple, but in my opinion the scientific literature does not support that, and neither does my long-term research comparing several different organic vegetable systems in Salinas Valley. Organic is extremely broad as is conventional agriculture. I am concerned when I hear or read broad claims about the benefits of organic systems (i.e., that it will solve climate change or that it can feed the world) that fail to discuss details and nuance. Details matter when comparing systems and this video addresses that issue (Organic vs. Conventional.  A devil without details).  

However, I want to emphasize that there are many good things about organic agriculture that can be incorporated into conventional systems to improve them. Furthermore, I believe that organic farming research can help to improve both organic and conventional systems.  For several years I was hesitant to discuss my growing concerns about sustainability issues in organic agriculture. I guess I was afraid that people might wonder why I would want to work in organic agriculture if I didn't agree with some foundational aspects of organic (i.e., the prohibition on synthetic nitrogen and genetic engineering). In 2016 I decided to be more open about my concerns about organic agriculture in a symposium (Sustainability Challenges of Organic Agriculture) at the American Society of Agronomy annual meeting that I co-organized. In that symposium I presented two videos (see below). 

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My personal views on organic and sustainability are shaped in large part by my experience growing up in a developing country (Papua New Guinea), and by my subsequent years of work and interaction with farmers in other developing countries (Thailand, Zambia, Uganda, Philippines) where conditions for farmers are much different and often more challenging than where I now live and work (Salinas Valley, California, aka 'The Salad Bowl of the World'). Perhaps the place with the greatest influence on my thinking is the highlands of Papua New Guinea where I was surrounded by traditional organic agriculture (photo above). Those systems inspired my early interest in agriculture. I use mainly organic practices in my home garden, love doing research in organic agriculture, and appreciate the hard work of many good friends and others that advocate for greater adoption of organic farming practices. But based on my understanding of science, I'm not convinced or dogmatic that certified organic agriculture is the best approach in all situations.

Although biotechnology (genetic engineering) is not permitted in organic agriculture, I think that biotechnology can be a useful tool in plant breeding and health care. Biotechnology has been critical in the development of the life-saving COVID vaccines that I thankfully received, and has also has been critical tool develop disease resistant, GM0 (genetically modified organism) papaya that I like eating whenever visit Hawai'i.  Here's an excellent video on how public sector scientists used biotechnology to save the papaya industry in Hawai'i. Despite all these caveats, I see organic agriculture as one valuable strategy to sustainable food production in some situations, along with many other approaches as is advocated for in this thoughtful article by Dr. Jonathan Foley. Here's another thought-provoking article discussing the land required to provide agriculture's nitrogen needs from growing legumes. (Below is a link to many other related articles).

I acknowledge that some people may be surprised, disappointed, or concerned to learn about my personal views on organic and sustainability. However, I believe that it is critical that scientists be honest, and transparent about their views on difficult issues and that is why I have shared my thoughts here. I'm always willing to change my views on issues if presented with solid evidence. That's what science is about! As an enthusiastic member of the organic farming community, I know that I'm not alone in my concerns about certain aspects of certified organic systems. Many of my concerns about organic systems revolve around nutrient management and plant breeding issues. By the way, despite my concerns about some aspect of the organic regulations, we follow all these regulations in the 25 acres of certified organic land that I manage at the USDA. 

I purchase most of the fruit and vegetables that my family eats from specific organic farms that I see practicing best-management, sustainable agriculture practices (i.e., frequent cover cropping, biological control of insect pests, diverse rotations to minimize soil borne disease, etc.). Interestingly, I'm not aware of any conventional farms in the region of California where live that are consistently using these best management practices, and unfortunately many certified organic ones here that are often not incorporating cover crops into their rotations.  Vegetable systems on the central coast region of California that have large areas of their land in bare winter fallow (i.e., not cover cropped) are what I often refer to as 'leaky systems' that are contributing to nitrate pollution of the ground water that we rely on for drinking water. I discuss some of this challenge in this paper (Can We Grow Organic...Vegshort videoetables Sustainably without Cover crops?) and proposed some novel potential solutions in the paper and this thought-provoking video on cover crop juice. To address this nitrate leaching issue, a new regulation (known as Ag Order 4.0) was adopted in 2021, and it was great to see data from my long-term research on cover crops used to increase the cover crop nitrogen credit that farmers will receive under Ag Order 4.0. This is an example of how this organic research is helping to improve the sustainability of production on 540,000 acres of irrigated land in the central coast region of California.  Here's a link to a presentation (Advocating for Cover Crop Nitrogen Credits...) I gave that helped improve Ag Order 4.0 , and here's another video (Historic Win for Farmers, Cover Crops & Ground Water...) on my thoughts on this. Many problems in sustainable agriculture are 'wicked problems'; 'wicked problems generally lack clear solutions because each problem is linked to other problems, and the nature and characterization of each cannot be isolated (Rittel & Webber 1973)’ cited in Game et al. 2013. Here's a short video where Keith Grint describes 'tame' and 'wicked problems'.  

Thanks for reading this and being willing to consider my views.  I welcome any thoughts you might have on this. 

Take care, Eric Brennan

P.S. Below are 3 videos that explain more of my thoughts on this.  P.P.S.  Also, here's a link to a few papers on organic and sustainability that might interest you.  

Sustainability problems with 'repackaged' synthetic nitrogen in organic agriculture /ARSUserFiles/21904/Photos/Synthetic N Thumbnail for web rs.png

What our organic gardens taught us about the challenges of organic regulations

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Organic Versus Conventional Comparisons.  A Devil without Details

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