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Controversy swirls around WSJ opinion

Confined animal feeding operations may be responsible for nitrates leaching into water.
Confined animal feeding operations may be responsible for nitrates leaching into water.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

One of my goals today is to let you inside the creative process here. Therefore, here's what a typical writing session might look like.

I sit down with the laptop, open Google and search for news on my beat. Then, I decide if that news is worth publishing. Frequently, I'll find news that's really not, new that's not interesting (the highly technical often gets categorized here), and news that's off my beat. Occasionally, there's news that represents a narrow point-of-view that needs more thought before I pass it on. Such was the case in mid-May, when I encountered Henry I. Miller's opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, which angered many farmers and supporters outside mainstream agriculture. Miller claimed that organic farming was not a sustainable solution, largely because of lower yields, nitrate leaching of composted manure, and greenhouse gases created by the composting process.

Week after week, the news search was filled with rebuttals of Miller's claims. However, Miller does cite scientific research to back up his reasoning, and scientific results that find otherwise simply led me to wonder what the real truth is. Of course, the internet being what it is, not all the rebuttals by far were scientific in nature. People were incensed. That's a red flag for me.

Currently, indicators such as yield inform the funding of agricultural research, so judging other facets of agriculture by the same parameters is not a stretch. Additionally, with the world's population growing at an ever-increasing clip, lower yields and pollution potential are legitimate concerns. It's well documented that manure associated with intensive hog production, such as confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) has created nitrate leaching. It's simply a case of too much of a good thing. But are there other indicators of success of failure? Turns out, not enough of them.

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy released a report earlier this month calling for new ways to measure success in less-intensive agriculture. Partnering with The Main Street Project, a group supporting free-range poultry, they began in 2012 "to establish a research framework for a new set of indicators that would better represent the diverse benefits of local, agroecological food systems and that could be tracked over time." This would include measuring benefits such as soil health, water quality, wildlife habitat, and carbon storage. The report contains the preliminary findings of this research.

In short, scientific research contains the truth as a small group of people see it. As a writer and commentator, I seek a wider truth, and that often takes time to produce.

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