Competitive Advantage

The previous owners of the place I am living in now must have been terrific gardeners. Not only is there a healthy line of apple trees, there’s a 20’+ tall cherry tree and crazy awesome kiwi vines (the ones I spent ages pruning earlier this spring). And plenty of space that is ripe for annuals.

So ripe, in fact, that it is chock full of weeds right now. The soil is great, but the few (wanted) perennials are getting choked out by invasive weeds. Even mint is getting crowded, which is saying something. There are strawberry plants all over the place, but hidden.

A few days ago, the mother of my au pair family arrived home while I was out in the garden with the kids. As she surveyed the field of weeds, she made comments of mild despair about what to do. It does look like a lot of work to take every single weed out individually. She quickly made a suggestion that almost made me faint: well, we could just use a weed spray.

Well, you could.

When I pointed out that she has two young children who are out in the garden–specifically the basically abandoned ‘wildlands’–she didn’t immediately see what I was getting at, but eventually it sunk in: toxic chemicals for plants are typically not so great for children either. Instead, I suggested a gradual plan of modifying the area to make it more of a lawn, which is easier to maintain than a garden.

Let a sturdy variety of grass out-perform the weeds. Alter the environment to give the grass a competitive advantage. Start by cutting weeds, keeping area closely shorn and free of “successful” weeds (weeds allowed to go to seed). Chop up what remains. Clear out the big stuff and start sowing grass seed. Keep mowing. Keep sowing.

In my book, it’s not a perfect solution. And probably there will still be weeds–there are dandelions and buttercups throughout the rest of the lawn already. However, that’s okay. More flowers bring helpful insects (including bees) to the yard–and they’re pretty. But changing the circumstances from those that favor weeds to those that favor grass isn’t that hard, and it’s certainly less dangerous than introducing chemicals throughout the yard.

Additionally, chemical sprays don’t actually solve much–with a few exceptions, like applying RoundUp directly to poison ivy. If you try to use chemical treatments, you are making the environment more toxic for new plants–including grass–to grow. And in the absence of a competitor, there is inevitably some weed plant that is well-suited to that location. Bare earth is not a sustainable state for the average temperate climate suburban lawn. Bare earth quickly becomes either a garden (with intensive management) or a garden of weeds (without intensive management).

My grandfather was kind of horrified at the state of my garden two summers ago, because I didn’t spray anything and didn’t bother to weed very much. I did, however, keep my plants safe, so as long as I could still find them amidst my little jungle, my plants were free to mingle with their wild neighbors. What I did do was offer certain protection: viciously tearing away any vines threatening to strangle delicate plants, keeping seedlings free of invaders, and making sure that weeds weren’t ever “winning” or stealing valuable resources (like water) away from my veggies.

I did let weeds work to my advantage. When grasses grew tall, I would rip them out and leave them there, unrooted and drying in the sun, to serve as poor man’s straw, holding moisture into the ground. The truth was that the garden was too big–there was too much bare earth, and I wasn’t about to spend my whole summer weeding or spraying chemicals (especially with my baby chickens running around everywhere).

Nature abhors a vacuum. Weeds promptly come into open spaces when the conditions are in their favor. The key is making sure those conditions are not in their favor. And this is the same premise that must happen on an economic level to make more sustainable means of production viable. It is hard to grow crops in a way that can “feed the world” for more than the next few years. Yet the alternative is simply not having enough.

Considering that we already (globally) grow more than enough calories to feed the world, yet we still have massive hunger, shows that our current emphasis on caloric output and maximum production misses critical elements of the global food situation. What about distribution/access (to healthy food, to arable land, to adequate safe water)? What about health (both of people and land)? 

In standard grocery stores, organic food (non-produce) is typically relegated to a single aisle. With high (though not always higher) prices, organic food has a bad rap for being exclusive, the domain of the rich. The recent trendiness of farmers’ markets unfortunately only adds to that reputation. Yet conventional food is falsely cheap with massive systems (yes, systems plural) of exploitation supporting low prices.

Remove and modify the barriers to an equal footing and sustainable farming methods can prove their own. Crop yields are not as vastly different as companies like Monsanto want us to believe; most older seeds will underperform hybrid developments like Monsanto’s modern corn given laboratory conditions, but real fields are not (normally) like laboratories. Given unpredictable weather–and weather is getting more unpredictable–and farms with more diversified portfolios of crops produced, organic methods can start to compete and even outperform their ‘conventional’ cousins.

The point is not that we should all be eating organic–as Mark Bittman points out, “organic” is not the most important part of healthy eating. The point is that changing what kind of products we find in the marketplace relies as much on changing the circumstances of competition–the rules of the game–as it does on changing consumer behavior.

As many farmers point out, organic products normally should be cheaper than ‘conventional,’ because successfully avoiding the use of many pesticides and herbicides often means replacing expensive chemicals with knowledge or time-intensive husbandry. (“Time-intensive” can mean higher labor costs, but doesn’t necessarily. Those can be offset by more localized distribution–lower fuel costs–or direct distribution, rather than distribution through a market ‘middleman’ taking a cut of profits–and adding to the total cost–by selling products from farmers to grocery stores.)

And, indeed, I’ve often found some of the cheapest produce at farmer’s markets. People buy organic. People buy lots of things. People buy, mainly, what is in front of them, looks good, and looks cheap. To make sustainable farming work, food produced via sustainable methods needs to be readily available, be as appealing as bright cereal boxes and pictures of cartoon ‘happy cows,’ and be just as cheap, if not cheaper, than ‘conventional’ food.

Part of making farming more sustainable is in technological developments. Part of it is in developing better systems on farms. But a big, big part of it is changing the circumstances we already have. Without a lot of innovation or development, we could have a better farming system prompted by consumer demand. We just need to make it easier for people to make the right choices, which means swinging the competitive advantage to sustainable food.

Doing this requires two important steps. (1) Agreeing on what is sustainable, and (2) defying corporate interests lobbying to maintain the position of Big Ag. Whether or not we can do these two things–neither simple or easy–will determine whether we have a sustainable food system in the future.

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