Angry Toxicologist

A study done at the University of Michigan found that organic crops produced yields no different than conventional farming in developed countries and may actually increase the yields in developing countries. This could be for a couple of reasons including “narrow row spacings, environmentally friendly soil conservation practices and natural insect control” but also the general fact that organic farmers give a lot of though on how to get the most out of their land (possibly because the CW is that organic yields are less?). An MSU extension guy says that this doesn’t jive with his experience, but when it comes to anecdote vs data, I’ll go with the data unless there is a compelling reason in the anecdote why the data may be wrong. I’d like to know more about why developing countries could actually increase their yield. Any ideas?

Also, I’m tired of news agents giving opposing views equal voice when it’s clear they are coming from a weak position. The whole “give both sides of the story” is BS and a disservice to readers when one side is wrong (or can’t make a compelling case). It also leads to stupid he said, she said stories. This isn’t a very bad case but they should at least put a flag in there, like “Joe doesn’t agree but admits he hasn’t collected any data on the subject”.


  1. #1 Lepht
    July 24, 2007

    whoa, where the fuck did the dude with the shovel get all those M&Ms?

    i wonder how many it takes to poison yourself, or if they’d make you hurl before they became toxic. hm. sometimes i wish i could have children.


  2. #2 Dunc
    July 24, 2007

    I’d like to know more about why developing countries could actually increase their yield. Any ideas?

    Well, the obvious first guess would be that they’re using different varieties, more suited to the local conditions. Second guess would be that they can’t afford enough synthetic fertiliser to maximise their yeild that way. Third guess would be improved soil structure from less use of heavy machinery, but without knowing the exactly details of their cultivation approach, who knows?

    An MSU extension guy says that this doesn’t jive with his experience

    Well, crop growing is a remarkably complex business with many, many variables. That’s why you need to do proper trials. One person’s experience does not necessarily translate to their next-door neighbour, never mind a completely different country.

  3. #3 apy
    July 24, 2007

    “farmers give a lot of though on how”

    I think you should change this to the Angry Speller. Most types in a blog ever!

  4. #4 Emily
    July 24, 2007

    This study sounds very interesting. I would be really interested to see relative yields broken down by crop and by area. One possible explanation that comes to mind is that organic farmers are using more labor-intensive methods to duplicate the functions of chemical pesticides and fertilizers (or vice versa, if you prefer). The blurb in the story mentioned that the study authors visited a 1.5 acre farm that produced 27 tons of produce. The average farm size in the US is over 400 acres, so that’s a substantial concentration of labor. They might also be using manure fertilizers and complementary crops (which the extension guy mentioned).

    As far as the extension guy’s opinion being based more on anecdote than data, he probably does have very good data on crop yields in his state by county, crop and year.

  5. #5 Will
    July 24, 2007

    I thought those were skittles!

  6. #6 angrytoxicologist
    July 25, 2007

    I was thinking about this on the way home yesterday. It hit me that oganics are a lot more expensive. If the yields are the same then why are they more expensive? I’d wager it’s because they are more labor intensive as you note. Therefore, if you define yield as amount produced/farmer vs amount produced/acre, organics would probably be much lower. That’s good news for family farmers but not so much good news for heavy hitters of agribusiness.

    What’s the distribution of the avg farm size? (median, geometric mean, ETC). I would suspect that the median is well below 400 acres but I don’t know.

    I don’t doubt that the extension guy has some data, I’d like to know what it is or whether he looked at it. The story give no indication that he does or did.

    Apy, There is nothing I can say other than, yes, I’m a terrible speller and I type fast and MT doesn’t have a spell checker that I’m aware of. I’m sure to mess up again. I’ll rely on you. ­čśë

  7. #7 Mike
    July 25, 2007

    As with most things, it usually depends. The crop, the location, the previous use of the land, the weather and a variety of other factors can impact this. Usually, but not always, organic is more labor intensive. For example, some friends of ours used to farm wheat, soybeans and corn but now only farm organic soybeans and organic wheat. For the soybeans, the conventional no till practice required 1 pass over the field for fertilizer/lime, 1 pass for drilling the seed and 1 pass for a pre-emergent herbicide. The organic soybeans require 1 pass for manure fertilization, 2-3 disking passes pre-drilling to kill weeds, 1 pass for drilling seeds, 6-10 passes after emergence for tilling between the rows to kill the weeds. It is a lot more labor intensive. However, the added value of the organic soybeans more than makes up for the increased labor and fuel to grow organic soybeans.

  8. #8 Emily
    July 25, 2007

    I tried to get the paper, but I guess I’m not $20 interested in it. There is an interesting forum/commentary by the authors at this site:

    It seems they looked at 293 yield ratios (a survey of many studies) from across the globe. The data includes comparisons of test plots, farms before and after changing practices and paired-farm comparisons that control for region/climate/soil properties.

    I found this quote particularly interesting:

    In general, we recognize that the high yield ratios from
    developing countries likely result from the fact that many
    existing farming practices do not involve optimal amounts
    of synthetic fertilizer, and may not be managed optimally in
    numerous other ways. The adoption of organic methods in
    these settings is a huge improvement. However, our aim is
    not to demonstrate the superiority of organic farming over
    conventional agriculture. Our aim is simply to investigate
    whether organic agriculture can produce enough food to
    feed the world´┐Żs population´┐Żours is a sufficiency argument.
    It is appropriate to use yields from suboptimal
    existing systems in developing countries, because these
    systems are representative of much of the developing world
    and most of the world´┐Żs farmers.

    This quote makes me very curious as to the yield ratios in developed countries and relative to farm size.

    As far as the question of farm size, this site has some interesting distribution data (scroll down):
    In short, 51% of farms are smaller than 100 acres, and 59% of farms earn less than $10,000 per year. There’s gotta be some overlap there.

  9. #9 angrytoxicologist
    July 25, 2007

    So from the perspective of arable land, organic agriculture can produce enough food. What I’d really like to see is a study that looked at how much extra work (labor hours) is required by crop/acre like Mike notes above for soybeans. I don’t think that exists anywhere, though.

  10. #10 Dunc
    July 26, 2007

    While organic farming is more labour intensive, it tends to be less energy intensive. When you consider that a barrel of oil (currently about $75) can do work approximately equivalent to 10 years of hard human labour, it’s not suprising that it’s more expensive.

    Much of the change in agricultural practice over the last 200 years has been replacing human and animal energy with fossil fuels. There are many reasons to believe that this is not sustainable.

  11. #11 Dunc
    July 26, 2007

    Coincidentally, there’s a very interesting post on The Oil Drum today looking at (amongst other things) the trade-offs between using fossil fuels and human labour:

    The Energy Return on Time

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