Organic farming: Beyond the yield debate

Yields from organic farming may not match those produced by farmers who use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, but there are other good reasons to buy and support organic–its health benefits, the good that it does for farm workers, even its animal-welfare rules.

So, at least, say executives of the Organic Trade Association, a Washington-based group that represents about 6,500 organic farmers, producers, retailers and suppliers.

“Yield is only one window into organic farming,” says Laura Batcha, executive vice president of the trade group. Organic farming is “good for the environment. It’s good for local economies. It’s good for the farmer incomes.”A 2008 USDA survey of organic production found that organic farms had average annual sales of $217,675, compared to the $134,807 average for U.S. farms overall. Overall, the US organic industry, including fiber as well as food, generated about $31 billion in 2011, up from just $1 billion in 1990. Despite the US’s sluggish economy, organic food and farming remain growth businesses.

I went to see Laura and Christine Bushway, who is CEO of the organic trade group, at their offices on Capitol Hill to talk about several issues, including the push to require labels on food containing genetically-modified organisms, the Farm Bill and food safety, including a recent incident of mad cow disease in California. But we talked a lot about yields because it’s in the news: A recent survey of 66 research studies published in Nature, which found that organic yields lag those of conventional farming, has stirred up a bit of a brouhaha. [See my blogpost Organic food is not as green as you think, and the comments.]

Yield is an environmental issue, of course. As demand for food increases on a planet with limited resources, we’ll want to use of land, water and other inputs efficently. But, as Laura Batcha notes, maximizing yield is not the only way to feed today’s global population of 7 billion, which is expected to grow to 9 billion. “Poverty drives hunger. War drives poverty,” she said. “It’s a lot more complicated that bushels per acre out of Iowa.” We can also eat lower on the food chain (more vegetables, less meat), reduce food waste, stop growing corn for ethanol, etc. [click to continue...]

Organic food is not as “green” as you think


To Hindus, cows are sacred. Jewish dietary laws (kashrut) and Muslim dietary laws (halal) prohibit pork consumption. Traditional Catholics abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent. Religion and food have forever been intertwined. Food is deep, emotional stuff.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that devotees of organic food often embrace with quasi-religious fervor the practice of growing food without synthetic fertilizer or pesticides. [See, for example, my blogpost about Maria Rodale.] But if we want to understand impact of organic agriculture on the planet and on our health, science and not faith ought to guide us.

New scientific research points to a key drawback of organic agriculture, unfortunately: It is typically less efficient and productive than conventional growing methods. That’s a problem for fans of organic because the world has a limited supply of farmland, a billion or so undernourished people, a growing population, an expanding middle class and therefore a vast appetite for affordable and nourishing food. If, in fact, organic methods are less productive, scaling up the production of organic food at will require more land, contribute to deforestation and cost more than growing our food using conventional methods. That suggests that organic methods alone can’t feed the world in a sustainable way. [click to continue...]