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A Crop on Both Your Houses

Illustration of scientist holding wheat

30 April 2012

Luigi Guarino

Good vs Evil. East vs West. Capulets vs Montagues. Barça vs Real. We like to deal in such binary choices. It makes life so much easier. None of that groping around in the grey shadows of doubt. Love it or leave it. If you are not for us you are against us. Unfortunately, even agriculture is not immune to this seductive tendency. And so you have the unedifying spectacle of the conventional and organic farming lobbies shouting at each other in mock mutual incomprehension from their respective redoubts of righteousness.

Ah, but fortunately this is science, you say, not politics or football, so one can count on a meta-analysis to sort things out, one way or another.

Several, actually. The latest is just out in Nature, and has been much parsed in the blogosphere. The authors reviewed dozens of yield comparisons between conventional and organic farming and came out with the conclusion that conventional yields more. That's that then.

Not so fast. It is not by that much, and not always, and yield isn't everything anyway. Well, that's not much help in resolving our dichotomy, is it? So much for science. We'll have to go back to faith and bluster.

But while we do that let us remember that whichever side of this particular ideological divide we come down on, there's still one thing that we'll have in common with those rascals and weirdoes on the other. Whether we prefer high-input commercial monoculture or organic eco-agriculture or, heaven forbid, any hybrid or combination of the two, what we're going to be relying on in the end is crop diversity. Because climate change and pests and the vagaries of consumer demand are there for all of us, and always will be. The seeds we grow are going to need continuous improvement whatever system we grow them in, and different seeds are going to do best under the different systems anyway.

The roads to industrial and organic agriculture both start in the genebank, with crop diversity. Maybe instead of fighting the other side, we could all use our rhetorical skills to secure support for what we all need?

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