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.


  1. The UN report lumped too many things into one conclusion (that organic was better). Obviously any practice that maintains soil tilth and prevents erosion is beneficial. They compared fairly low input traditional methods with an extractive and ignorant approach to modern methods; naturally the traditional approach looked better. One of the vexing problems in establishing stable food production systems in the developing world is figuring out what is "appropriate technology". A lot of wonderful tools can be a disaster in the hands of people who don't understand how to use them. Antibiotics are a good example. We don't want poor nations not to have them, but we also don't want them to be dispensed casually, breeding super-bugs.

    I don't have any problem with organics (although the attitudes about fertilizer are about as rational as astrology), but the practice is being oversold. It's like saying providing everyone a puppy will end human despair. There's nothing wrong with puppies, and lots of folks have had their lives improved dramatically with the addition of a pet. But let's not get carried away.

  2. In my uneducated opinion, the conservation of soil, water and other resources argues in favor of organic agriculture. Making it work to feed the world probably involves a radical reversal of modern trends in agriculture. It is the inefficiencies of the current system that could allow greater food abundance whatever your method. We waste, what was the number?, 50%? of the edible food we grow. We use prime growing land for buildings and yards and golf courses. We also grow a bunch of corn, extract vitamin C out of it (and last time I checked, corn didn't have a huge concentration of vitamin C) and then add it to things like shampoo!
    I do, however, also don't believe the earth has an infinite carrying capacity of humans, no matter what our technology, and that it may be a good idea to cut population too.

    This bigger picture is important. As much as I'd like to see an un-flawed report that showed organic produced higher yields than conventional, I'm not holding my breath. We all know that more goes into the story of starvation than the production of food.

    I'm curious to hear philip's take on the fertilizer issue? Conventional fertilizer uses fossil fuels and is not a complete and balanced nutrition for the plant and soil. Do you eat cotton candy all day and then pop a multi-vitamin? You might grow nice and fat, but you'd probably be pretty susceptible to disease and need a lot more antibiotics (pesticides).

  3. We sure got some huge squash from our organic truck garden this year. We harvested four 45 lb. Hubbard squash off one plant, 25 Delicata squash off two, way too many zuchinnis in three varieties, and a bumper crop of Acorns, Butternut, several mysterious unidentifiable hybrids, Buttercup, and a huge patch of these flattish pumpkins that are fantastic in soup, pie, salad, and bread. We started everything from seed, some of which was our own from last year, some mail ordered, some given to us by friends. Our asparagus is growing like mad. This year was good for lettuce, cabbage, green beans, and peas. But we also watched aphid destroy our broccoli, wasps infest our plums, and gophers chomp most of the beets and ALL of the carrots. This gopher and his ugly pals trashed half the onions and garlic too. (He must have had really bad breath). Our tomatoes had a bit of blossom end rot, especially the heirlooms. The heirloom pink Brandywines seem less hardy and don't put out much fruit compared to regular hybrids, but oh boy are they tasty. We had to cover the squash and outside the fence to keep the deer from eating it all. Fruit netting worked great! Two of three young cherry trees mysteriously died of a "virus" according to our nursery expert. We also have something killing entire branches of apple trees. I think organic produces quality over quantity, but is more vulnerable to pests. Things we grew from our own seed like the Delicata and Hubbard squash seem more adapted and prolific. Every year is lesson learned.

  4. it is not organic agriculture that will lead to this carbon fix, just look at the huge organic industrial farms in California, they are only a bit less sustainable then your traditional industrial farm.
    Industrial agriculture is what needs to change. This will require decentralization, a rescue of our family farms, increased land access for everyone, a tremendous increase in education on ecology and agriculture so we have farmers that actually understand the ecosystem they are working in. It will require a complete change of philosophy and lifestyle.
    Many studies have shown that sustainable farming practices will increase yields over the long term with good soil management (it is all about the soil). But you are right about labor, it will require more people farming. This will require less people in the military, less nuclear scientists, less people working in factories making useless wasteful things that are pollution our planet, and yes, less economists.
    It will take the human race to realize what they need to survive... and that is food, nontoxic food. It will take people who work hard in the fields so they are no longer obese, people who live off and love their land, have a connection to their place and want to keep that place in good health for those who come after.
    It is not going to be reached by a technological fix. It can only be reached by a philosophical and cultural fix.

  5. I know from friends that grow apples commercially - your picture was apropos - their organic stands require much more oversight from their workers, which lead to their workers using a lot more fuel patrolling the rows on ATVS. So while they're organic, fossil fuel usage in growing them is considerably higher, I'm told.

  6. Michelle, what I meant about fertilizer was more the idea that some fertilizers are OK in the organic catechism, and others are not. To a plant, all ammonia molecules or potassium ions are the same. There is nothing magic about plant nutrition (the Calvin cycle is another matter, *that's* magic). There are wasteful and damaging ways to farm in all systems. The 10,000 year history of organic agriculture is largely one of famine, war, and disease. That is not to say both systems are mutually exclusive, or that each can not benefit from practices of the other. I have no problem with the business, and I purchase excellent expensive vegetables from farmers' markets (although I could care less if they are organic or not).

    But the issues of human starvation are very serious ones. There are by most estimates a couple of billion people who would not be alive today but for the Bosch-Haber synthesis of inorganic nitrogen. If we take away their food they won't just curl up into a ball and die; they'll raise a hell of a fight first. Take a look at "Enriching the Earth" by Vaclav Smil. He is educated, very engaging, and most certainly not some sort of pro-chemical crank.

  7. Another blogger wonders why I point out UNDP's bias, asking "how, exactly, would this invalidate the conclusions or the report?"

    Here's why: There are lies, damn lies and statistics, and organizations with bias (incl IMF and the Bank) can turn evidence to suit that bias.

    That blogger also questions my worry that the farms are really small, and organic can't be scaled...

    I agree that small farms can do quite a lot, but large farms tend to dominate markets for ag production. Can those large farms go organic or must they be subdivided into smaller farms? If the latter, then adjustment to sustainability will be harder.

  8. I think that large agribusinesses depend on USDA subsidies and huge production to be profitable, small farms depend on subsidies to barely squeak by--bottom line is farming in the US is not profitable unless you find a niche and take advantage of subsidies. Organic specialty crops are such a niche, but only a few small farmers are making it, and the ones that are become huge agribusinesses like Stoneybrook Farms and Seeds of Change. Small farm subsidies make it possible to stay afloat, (but in debt), making just enough to cover the payments to carry over into the next year. Taxes, subsidies, regulation, and debt are interwoven and ingrained (no pun intended) into the system, and the small farmer prays for breaking even to qualify for the next round of loans (which are based on the expectation of subsidies). Some wheat farmers get paid more to leave land fallow, so they do, leasing their equipment to neighbors for extra income. The cash flow and economics of farming is bewildering.

  9. Jackie, I think subsidies damage all agriculture, large and small. The largest and most successful operators receive no subsidy at all, since they grow things like almonds, pistachios and Pima cotton. Even the large farmers who do grow subsidized crops are damaged, since their smaller competitors receive proportionately far more in subsidy dollars than the "big boys". We have markets to tell us what crops are worth.

    The cash flow and economics of farming are no different than for other businesses. Obey the law, attract and retain good people, watch costs, be proud of your work. The risk profile is a little different because of things like weather and insects; but these are risks that can be hedged. Every business person has to deal with markets. When government begins to interfere with market signals, resources are wasted in producing crops that nobody wants. Land prices and rents are artificially inflated because of the "safety net". Imagine how many bad movies we would have if the government bought all the tickets that the audience did not want.

    I take issue with the idea that "large" must equal unsustainable. (And "large", as it applies to farming, would be "tiny" if applied to most manufacturing businesses in this country.) How can a company stay in business for several generations (my family has been doing this for six generations, and I know plenty of three and four generation farms) if what they are doing is unsustainable? Many farms fail every year. Some fail because they were doing something unsustainable, some because they were poorly run, some because they had bad luck. You could say the same about banks and restaurants.

  10. I agree with Jackie and Philip -- Subsidies DO distort farming decisions and the good farms don't need them.

    Readers of my blog will know that I support ZERO subsidies for farms -- and pretty much anything else.

    My only exception (that I can think of) is health care and education, but those "subsidies" go to everyone -- and provision should be private and competitive.

  11. Blowing off subsidies would be an awesome thing, and make my February tax time much easier, but can Moses move that mountain? Every time a sharp economist points this OBVIOUS waste out to the Senate, a hue and cry rises from the King Corn lobby that quashes all hope. And if the economy keeps going south we'll have lines forming up for the government cheese again...Sorry I'm so negative, but our government needs to shed its skin.


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