7 Nov 2008

Organic Efficiency

It's conventional wisdom that organic production methods use fewer inputs but produce fewer outputs.

A recent UN study [PDF] in 24 African countries contradicts that wisdom. The authors find that
organic practices outperformed traditional methods and chemical-intensive conventional farming. It also found strong environmental benefits such as improved soil fertility, better retention of water and resistance to drought. And the research highlighted the role that learning organic practices could have in improving local education.
Besides welcoming this result in the abstract, I have two reservations: First, the report was prepared by UNEP and UNCTAD; the latter organization is known for its anti-globalization perspective. Second, the 114 analyzed projects involved 1.9 million farmers on 2.0 million ha. Those are SMALL farms, and it's hard to imagine expanding organic practices everywhere, at all scales.

In related news, this paper finds that there is no relation between the use of Bt Cotton in India and suicide among farmers disappointed by yields. This paper will upset anti-GMO activists, who don't always argue from facts.

One such activist, Vandana Shiva, makes a number of good points in favor of a "carbon rich" future, i.e., a future with more local and sustainable farming. I disagree with her opinion expressed in the movie FLOW, (perhaps because of editing), but she makes good points here.

Bottom Line: Organic practices are easier on resources and the environment, but they involve tradeoffs. If not lower yield, then more labor. we haven't discovered a silver bullet, but it's good to make progress.

Cartoon from the New Yorker and hattip to AA.