Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Unintended Consequences of Organic Farming

A very interesting piece from the Economist. The main point is, if you think that organic farming is good for the earth or the environment, you better think again:

Yet even an apparently obvious claim—that organic food is better for the environment than the conventionally farmed kind—turns out to be controversial. There are many different definitions of the term “organic”, but it generally involves severe restrictions on the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers and a ban on genetically modified organisms. Peter Melchett of the Soil Association, Britain’s leading organic lobby group, says that environmental concerns, rather than health benefits, are now cited by British consumers as their main justification for buying organic food. (There is no clear evidence that conventional food is harmful or that organic food is nutritionally superior.)

But not everyone agrees that organic farming is better for the environment. Perhaps the most eminent critic of organic farming is Norman Borlaug, the father of the “green revolution”, winner of the Nobel peace prize and an outspoken advocate of the use of synthetic fertilisers to increase crop yields. He claims the idea that organic farming is better for the environment is “ridiculous” because organic farming produces lower yields and therefore requires more land under cultivation to produce the same amount of food. Thanks to synthetic fertilisers, Mr Borlaug points out, global cereal production tripled between 1950 and 2000, but the amount of land used increased by only 10%. Using traditional techniques such as crop rotation, compost and manure to supply the soil with nitrogen and other minerals would have required a tripling of the area under cultivation. The more intensively you farm, Mr Borlaug contends, the more room you have left for rainforest.

What of the claim that organic farming is more energy-efficient? Lord Melchett points out for example that the artificial fertiliser used in conventional farming is made using natural gas, which is “completely unsustainable”. But Anthony Trewavas, a biochemist at the University of Edinburgh, counters that organic farming actually requires more energy per tonne of food produced, because yields are lower and weeds are kept at bay by ploughing. And Mr Pollan notes that only one-fifth of the energy associated with food production across the whole food chain is consumed on the farm: the rest goes on transport and processing.

The most environmentally benign form of agriculture appears to be “no till” farming, which involves little or no ploughing and relies on cover crops and carefully applied herbicides to control weeds. This makes it hard to combine with organic methods (though some researchers are trying). Too rigid an insistence on organic farming’s somewhat arbitrary rules, then-copper, a heavy metal, can be used as an organic fungicide because it is traditional-can actually hinder the adoption of greener agricultural techniques. Alas, shoppers look in vain for “no till” labels on their food-at least so far.

Take that, you crunchy cons!

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Anonymous said...

Let me guess, you aren't an organic farmer are you? I don't know where your state educated scientists came up with the poppycock about lower yields (probably from the corporate hacks that buy university scientists). I have conventional neighbors that scratch their heads over our yields. It's not a miracle, it's management. Anyway, my land is happy, my cows are happy, I'm getting twice the conventional price for my milk, it's all good. As for you nay sayers...tip up a nice frosty glass of anitbiotic rgbh goodness-coporate America loves ya!

The Editor at IP said...

Thanks for the comment. You shed a lot of heat, but not much light.

I am a buyer and consumer of organic milk, but that doesn't make me any more impartial about this than the 'corporate hacks' or organic farmers like yourself.

If you want to win an argument, you'll have to actually produce data - like Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug (apparently one of the 'corporate hacks' you disapprove of).

The Editor

Philo-Junius said...

Whether or not organic dairy farming outyields conventional dairy techniques is a sublimely insignificant question in considering organic farming's impact on hunger worldwide. Lactose intolerance is the default condition of humanity worldwide; dairy consumption is a parochial concern primarily of Europeans.

The real question for those who profess concern about hunger is genetic modification of cereals--golden rice, Roundup-ready beans and grains--these are the products which could significantly reduce hunger and raise living standards globally, if governments worldwide only decided to encourage rather than discourage their cultivation and consumption.