Friday, April 27, 2012

How to read organic agriculture debates

The journal Nature (link may be gated) recently had an interesting meta-analysis -- or quantitative literature review -- about yields from organic agriculture.

The accompanying summary says, "conventional agriculture gives higher yields under most situations."  This is probably true.

Yet, even environmentalists are overreacting to the study.  A recent article by Bryan Walsh at Time Magazine's Ecocentric blog is titled, "Why Organic Agriculture May Not Be So Sustainable."

The evidence Walsh presents fails to support the headline, though the article does begin with two good points:
  • Organic agriculture commonly has a yield penalty per unit of land (see the Nature article above).
  • Environmentalists should care about efficiency.  Getting more output for lower resource cost is good environmentalism.
Mostly, though, Walsh repeats common overstatements of the advantages of conventional agriculture.  
Conventional industrial agriculture has become incredibly efficient on a simple land to food basis. Thanks to fertilizers, mechanization and irrigation, the each American farmer feeds over 155 people worldwide. 
Environmentalists discussing conventional agriculture should remember several key themes:
  • Not all productive technology improves the environment.  Many technologies used in conventional agriculture are designed to save labor, not to save land.  In Walsh's quote above, huge mechanized combines elevate the number of people fed per American farmer, but they make little difference to yields per unit of land (the key environmental issue addressed by the Nature study).  From one sentence to the next, Walsh conflates food per American farmer with efficiency "on a simple land to food basis."
  • Yield is not the same as efficiency.  Organic agriculture commonly requires a tradeoff, giving up some yield and undertaking some additional labor and management cost in order to gain something of value for the producer and for the environment.  Advocates for organic agriculture say the tradeoff is efficient -- getting the most output for the lowest resource cost when all environmental costs are accounted.  Walsh's first sentence boasts of the "efficiency" of industrial agriculture, but the following argument fails to support the boast.
  • Producing more grain is not the same as feeding the world.  Any time the high yields of U.S. corn production are mentioned, it should be noted that most U.S. corn goes to ethanol and animal feed.  Walsh seems to think that Iowa corn farmers do well at feeding the most people possible for the least land, which is false.  If the goal is to feed the world, then most of the calories produced in Iowa corn fields are squandered already, and this loss matters more than the organic yield penalty matters.
Most hard-headed well-grounded advocates for organic agriculture already understand the yield tradeoffs, and they already value efficiency.  For example, Rodale studies over the years have always claimed that lower chemical input costs offset modest yield penalties -- a claim that may be nearly consistent the new Nature study.

One sometimes meets beginning organic farmers who are dismissive of yields and efficiency.  But one never meets an organic farmer who has been in business for five years and remains dismissive of yields and efficiency.

There is one lesson in this whole argument for organic advocates.  It is important to speak plainly about yield penalties and about efficiency.  Perhaps Walsh was not sufficiently familiar with hard-headed well-grounded research on organic practices, but instead may have been reading some excessively optimistic pro-organic public relations.  Then, when the PR message was contradicted by the Nature study, Walsh overreacted.  It is best all around to state the relative advantages of environmentally sound production practices plainly and precisely from the start.


Liz McLellan said...

Where is the discussion of petroleum dependence? It never seems to figure into the discussion. None of this makes any sense so long as that factor is not central to the analysis. Oil is not going to stay at 80-120 a barrel.

Not planning for that means collapse and starvation.

Environmentalists and industrialists both tend to skirt this and it is critical to understanding where we are...

Anonymous said...

Oil dependence is about the last thing proponents of organic agriculture want to discuss. Turns out organic farming consumes prodigious quantities of tractor fuel per unit food generated, more than conventional agriculture when producing at a scale to feed the world. Organic zealots seem to think productive farms materialize out of wilderness with the wave of a magic wand. If so, that wand has a hoe on the end of it. And to feed 7 billion people 3 times a day most of those hoes will be drawn by tractors...tractors that drink fuel the way horses eat oats. Fools gold and organic farming. Suitable pass-time for securely affluent people who will never be compelled to farm the way they insist others should.

Steve said...

Ah Anonymouse -- LET's talk about oil dependence -- tractor fuel is really the least of it --why don't you count the cost of all the highly energy-processed petrochemical inputs NEEDED to manufacture all the synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, biotech seed, ETC that are NEEDED to bring in a crop and then see where all the oil is flowing....VS an organic SOLAR based bio system that feeds soil organisms to produce sustainable crop yields...

Anonymous said...

I think Anonymous is right about how much fuel per unit of food produced. It does come down to yield after all and thats where synthetic fertilizers shine even with the fossil fuel to make them. And herbicides. Obviously Steve has never fueled up a tractor and cultivator at dawn and rode the damned thing till dusk then done the same thing the next day and the next. I don't think any of you know the first practical thing about farming to earn a living for your family. You wouldn't have so many silly naive opinions if you did.

Steve said...

Hi Anon #2 -- Just so you know -- I've spent 30 years in a tractor seat (so far)... silly.

And there's a MAJOR consideration regarding comparative yields between organic and chemical farming that hasn't been factored in yet -- SEEDS.

As the big agribusiness corporations have taken over and bought up most of the world's major seed companies -- farmers and gardeners are left with fewer and fewer varieties on the market that respond well to biological farming.

That is, conventional and biotech seed breeders are producing varieties that are designed to work with soluble chemical fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and other pesticides. And the lion's share of taxpayer supported public plant breeding programs and research is going into the pockets of the biotech/chemical corporations...

Anonymous said...

OK, things are becoming clear now, we now see the real agenda. The main thing is to stall technological progress and prevent any agricultural business from making a profit. Even if human populations are forced to endure food shortages due to obsolete seed, nitrogen deficiency and overwhelming weed pressure. All they while plenty of fossil fuels being expended in a futile effort to manage weeds. Lame excuses and dreamy sermons about solar energy -- pretty well sums up organic farming.

Anonymous said...

The claim "Walsh overreacted" is a typical example of hyperbole by an organic advocate.

Parke Wilde said...

Ha. I don't mind you calling my post "hyperbole." But "typical example." That really hurts my feelings. :-)

tarzanjaneboy said...

This will be my first and last post--ever--on the subject of organic versus conventional farming and food growing. I've grown fruits and vegetables and specialty crops for human consumption all my life--and I'm an old man. Until the leaders we elect are enlightened men and women of conscience and character, we'll have what we've got now--fruits and vegetables slathered with systemic pesticides that kill the insects meant to pollinate them (and which are linked to the early onset of Alzheimer's in humans), meat from farm animals fed the feces of other farm animals, laden with antibiotics from the routine inclusion of non-therapeutic antibiotics in their feed, milk laden with the residues of growth hormones, mad cows, whose ground bones have been fed to chickens, and the chicken manure fed back to the cows, Genetically Modified crops of all descriptions fed to human guinea pigs to note the outcome, and the companies responsible for all of the above being the largest donors to the campaigns of our elected (and appointed) leaders. It's easy enough to read between the lines of the posters on this thread and note the shills for those very companies and concepts. I wouldn't eat conventionally-produced meat, dairy, fruits or vegetables if you paid me a thousand dollars a fork-full. It'll make you goofy to the point of believing that slathering the food you're about to eat with poisons and chemicals and antibiotics--and destroying the environment in the process--is the proper thing to do.

Jeff said...

Hey Parke, nice parenthetical mention on Mother Jones!

Nicole Tichenor said...

Thanks for your post, Parke. I don't have a comment on the popular press follow ups, but the Nature article itself. After reading it, two things popped out at me:

1) They averaged yield data from the studies to ensure that data points were independent. I don't this was the best way to go because as they stated in the paper, organic yields are usually lower in the first couple of years until you build soil quality. If you average the time series of these yields, then it seems obvious that organic will not stand a chance. I haven't looked at the supplementary data yet, so I could be missing something. But, I think this is worth pointing out.
2) The authors acknowledge that looking at yield is NOT a holistic way to analyze productivity in organic systems. Better to quantify the amount human edible portion (their exact term is escaping me) per unit land area. The biodiversity inherent in well-managed organic systems may make yields of individual crops appear lower, but total food produced can be higher (with intercropping, rotation, etc). Not to mention that non-food crops in organic systems can be animal fodder, which in turn feed people, thereby potentially providing an indirect food source.