Colorado State panel and Fort Collins community discuss future of organic agriculture

Luke Hyce

Meagan Schipanski, along with her colleagues, Jessica Davis [left], Gregory Graff [center left] and Garry Auld [right], responded to questions brought by CSU students and the Fort Collins public. (Photo Credit: Luke Hyce)
Meagan Schipanski [center right], along with her colleagues, Jessica Davis [left], Gregory Graff [center left] and Garry Auld [right], responded to questions brought by CSU students and the Fort Collins public. (Photo Credit: Luke Hyce)
“How do we nourish a growing population while preserving the environment and supporting the economy?”

That was the question Colorado State’s panel of experts and the residence of Fort Collins tried to answer Wednesday night at the School of Global Environmental Sustainability’s “Organic Agriculture: A Complement or Competitor” event at Avogadro’s Number.

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The event was the last of the “Managing the Planet Panel Series” sponsored by the School of Global Environmental Sustainability.

The four panel members started off by voicing their view of organic agriculture.

“Is organic more nutritious? Maybe,” said Gary Ault, a professor in the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department and the panel expert on food security, kicking off the discussion.

“Is organic better for the environment? Absolutely,” he said. “Can we feed the world sustainably with organic? I think we can.”

After the panel finished stating their opinions, Gene Kelly, moderator, encouraged questions from the about 60-person audience that had packed into Avogadro’s.

A reoccurring topic in the discussion was how to feed third-world countries that are lacking in agricultural technologies and have exploding populations, and if organic solutions were possible.

According to Jessica Davis, a panel member and professor in the Soil and Crop Sciences department, the land in these third-world countries cannot be utilized with an either/or approach.

“We need to use all the available tools that we have, and not limit ourselves by regulation that says ‘this is what organic is, you must do it this way,’” Davis said.

While there was an emphasis on specialty and commodity crops, livestock production made its way into the conversation.

A graduate student in Soil and Crop Sciences asked the panel what their thoughts were on the sustainability of organic versus convention livestock production.

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“In the livestock side of things, there’s an argument for efficiency,” Davis said.

Davis said if an animal is given inputs, like growth hormones, it is fed for a shorter amount of time. It reduces the amount of greenhouse gases and wastes the animal releases, because it has a shorter life.

“It makes a lot of sense to me, but I’m not sure if there’s a similar argument for crops,” Davis added.

Gregory Graff, a panel member and Agriculture and Resource Economics Department professor, provided an economy-based perspective. Graff said the current role of organics in the world is that they are premium and cost more because they are held to a higher standard.

According to Graff, the current production practices of organic agriculture would not be able support itself if the growing method stayed the same and the idea that organic products were premium disappeared with rising supply.

“The current business model that keeps small-scale, organic farms here in Fort Collins alive today will no longer operate,” Graff said. “They’re going to have compete at scale with the rest of the conventional agricultural system.”

According to Meagan Schipanski, the current agricultural practices, organic and conventional, have not been successful.

“The writing’s on the wall for me, in terms of climate change, footprint of nitrogen fertilizers, the phosphorus dynamics, is that we need to improve our resource use efficiency,” said Schipanski, a panel member and part of the Soil and Crop Science Department. “Regardless of what other practices go on, that’s going to include relying more on internal ecological processes.”

The panel made it clear that the solution to the problem of providing food to the globe in a sustainable fashion requires collaboration between researchers, farmers and government.

The panelists concluded that time will only tell if advances in technology and culture will aid in saving the environment, while feeding the people who live in it.

Collegian Reporter Lukas Hyce can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @Luke_Hyce.