A paper in this week’s issue of Nature and a commentary on Revkin’s DotEarth blog reinforces the argument that a hybrid path in agriculture — incorporating both conventional and organic production practices — gives the best chance of feeding some 9 billion people by midcentury in an ecologically-based manner.

The thoughtful and comprehensive study compares yields in organic and conventional systems and addresses the criticisms of an earlier study by Badgley et al (for problems with the earlier study, see the supplementary discussion in Seufert et al).

The organic agriculture movement has been important because it has brought consumer attention to the overuse of some pesticides and fertilizers. It has also raised awareness of the need to foster soil fertility. But organic farming practices are just part of a future sustainable agriculture. Just like conventional farmers, organic farmers face pests that are difficult to control or environmental stresses that can affect yield. For example, strawberries are highly susceptible to soil born diseases. Currently both conventional and organic growers purchase clonally propagated seedlings that were fumigated with methyl bromide, an insecticide known to increase the risk of prostrate cancer. Unlike conventional growers, organic growers do not use methyl bromide in the field. To reduce infection, they rotate strawberries with another crop, such as broccoli (a less valuable crop). The trade off to the grower is that yields of organic strawberries are lower. And the consumer pays higher prices for organic strawberries. Clearly, we need better methods to control strawberry diseases that will benefit both conventional and organic production.

Although the Seufert et al study shows that yields on organic farms are generally lower than most conventional farms (with important exceptions that the authors discuss), this yield differential will change with time. On the one hand, as Seufert et al point out, improvements in management techniques that address factors limiting yields in organic systems will enhance the yield of organic systems. On the other hand, because organic farmers are prohibited from using genetically engineered crops, they will not be able to reap the benefits of new crop varieties that assimilate nitrogen more efficiently, that are resistant to disease or tolerant of drought. For example, genetically engineered papaya in Hawaii yields 20x more than organic papaya (note, it appears that papaya was not included in the Suefert et al study). This is because there is no organic method to control a devastating viral disease that has infected papaya. At the other extreme, Suefert et al show that yields of other organic fruit and oilseed crops show very little yield differences with conventional crops. Clearly it is impossible to say which farming system is “better”. Each crop and faming system must be evaluated on a case by case basis.

The study points to the need to drop the ideologically charged “organic vs. conventional” debate and instead focus on what matters: the need to reduce the use of the most toxic insecticides, produce food more efficiently using less land and water and to enhance food security in the poorest regions of the world.

Comments

  1. #1 Gunnar Rundgren
    http://gardenearth.blogspot.se/
    August 9, 2012

    “genetically engineered papaya in Hawaii yields 20x more than organic papaya” is a rather nonsensical statement. NO farmer will grow a crop that yields so badly. And if they do, there are simply bad farmers. In the same way as there are plenty of non-organic farmers that are bad. There are many cases pointing to the other direction, especially with various wilts and other systemic diseases (coffee wilt in East Africa), where organic regularly outperforms non-organic.

  2. #2 sunny
    http://modeschuhe88.wordpress.com/
    May 31, 2012

    The self-congratulatory biotech hubris is nauseating. Industrial-scale agriculture only feeds the voracious hunger for profits of institutional investors, a wholly unsustainable construct based on limited energy resources and market scarcity.

    Moreover, the whole crop yield theme completely ignores the purpose of a food system: to nourish the planet. Bastardizing DNA to support a pesticide delivery system, the objective of genetic modification, does quite the opposite. Contaminated water, soil, air and foods are now a global problem.

    Sustainable & healthy food production is quite doable. The genetically, chemically & public relations-intensive variety advocated for by Ms. Ronald and the molecular breeder cabal is anything but sustainable, healthy or good for the planet.

  3. #3 Mikeb
    April 29, 2012

    Correction; I said:

    “Big problem, though: the nitrogen in the cow poop can be traced directly to the natural gas well.”

    Obviously, it’s the hydrogen in the nitrogen compound used as fertilizer that comes from the natural gas well, but the point stands.

    Also: reading the comments, I notice an acolyte of the peak oil catastrophist group posting here. I recognize his name from The Oil Drum, that font of doom I used to subscribe to a few years ago.

    “Peak oil” is a real phenomenon, but the peak oil movement is essentially a secular apocalyptic sect. It fits hand-in-glove with the organic/permaculture segment in that by casting the oil problem in a apocalyptic light it allows the organics crowd to view itself as a salvationist movement.

    Now, I have no idea when oil will peak, when the decline will set it, and at what rate, but it’s clear the un-ending calls for “collapse” have failed.

    Civilization will probably do what it’s always done–evolve. I see genetic engineering as just one aspect of this evolutionary process.

  4. #4 Mikeb
    April 29, 2012

    This article uses the term “conventional farms.” There are no such entities except in the minds of “organic” true believers, so the term should be dropped altogether from discussions of farming.

    The “Organic” movement, contrary to its own propaganda, is not so much a set of practices as a set of beliefs. There is nothing inherently “organic” about anything organic farmers do: Cover-cropping and rotations, etc. were around long before there was an National Organics Program, there are plenty non-“certified” farmers who use such practices (i.e. me), and they’ll be around long after the “organic” movement has gone the way of Neil Ludd’s wrecking crew.

    The “organic” belief system is summarized this way:

    1. “Natural” is good, “synthetic” is bad.

    “As a general rule, all natural (non-synthetic) substances are allowed in organic production and all synthetic substances are prohibited. The National List of Allowed Synthetic and Prohibited Non-Synthetic Substances, a section in the regulations, contains the specific exceptions to the rule.”

    http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELDEV3004443

    This is plainly a stupid rule which organic farmers don’t even follow. It’s the Naturalistic Fallacy enshrined as a principle. The quoted passage basically says that “natural” substances are OK, unless they’re not OK, and that “synthetic” substances are not OK, unless they are OK. The “National List of Allowed Synthetic and Prohibited Non-Synthetic Substances” is a gas. You should read it sometime.

    The “allowed synthetics” does not even include those synthetic substances most found on “organic” farms: and by “most found” I’m talking by orders of magnitude:

    –Gasoline

    –Diesel

    –No. 2 heating oil (greenhouses)

    –polyvinyl chloride, polyethylene (HDPE, LDPE), etc. (irrigation tubing, greenhouse covers, pots, drip tape, etc.)

    2. “Pesticides” are evil.

    “Organic” acolytes have no use for the principles of toxicology: modes of action, routes of exposure, and dose. If it’s a “pesticide” then it kills and it’s evil.

    Never mind that when I worked at an organic farm I had to be trained as a pesticides applicator.

    ???

    Yes, because “organic” farmers have their own suite of “toxic substances” that they spray on plants to kill insects and ward off fungi (and usually not very effectively).

    Speaking to an orchardist recently, he told me that the farm he works on has 300 acres of “conventional” apples (his words, not mine) and 100 acres of “organic” apples. Yearly, the regular apples receive about 12 passes of spray.

    The “organic” apples receive 22 sprays!

    Not only that, but the sulfur they use to control scab weakens the trees and they produce only 25% of what the other apple trees produce.

    Clearly, marketing strategies are involved here: This orchard sells the “organic” apples at a premium to elite customers all up and down the East Coast, people who have been primed by the egregious “Environmental Working Group” to believe that non-“organic” apples are poisonous.

    We have our own little orchard. It’s small enough that I can spend a couple of weeks in the spring raking up all the infected leaves, burn them all along with prunings and drops, and keep diseases to a minimum. But I also spray Captan fungicide at times that our local extension service recommends, and I spray two or three times for insects as they arise. This is called Integrated Pest Management.

    Pesticides are our friends.

    3. Poop, greensand, and rock phosphate aren’t chemicals.

    All “inputs,” as they are called, must come from certified sources. “Chemical fertilizers” (a phrase usually spat out in contempt by members of the organic set) are verboten.

    Never mind that all this N, P, and K ultimately come from the same sources: mines and natural gas wells.

    The nitrogen question is a gas all by itself. “Synthetic” nitrogen (there’s that silly term again) is made by combining hydrogen molecules from natural gas with nitrogen molecules from the atmosphere. Since this is forbidden, “organic” farmers use either legume covers (which takes land out of production) or cow poop.

    Big problem, though: the nitrogen in the cow poop can be traced directly to the natural gas well.

    You see, “synthetic” nitrogen is A-OK–as long as it’s been laundered through cows. Organic farmers buy manure from cow farmers who have no truck with the “organic” movement: They feed their cows non-organic grains and hay that has been fertilized with bagged NPK. This allows “organic” farmers to use synthetic inputs while assuaging their own consciences.

    And synthetic N, P, K and the rest of the elements can also be secretly harvested from composted vegetable scraps coming from cafeterias, restaurants and kitchens. At least 99% of this vegetable matter comes from conventional sources, and therefore represents embodied synthetic inputs.

    Now, I, too, engage every one of these practices, so how can I criticize “organic” farmers for doing so?

    Because I do not go around flapping my jaws about how my food is “safer, better-tasting and more nutritious” than the food produced by all those other, evil farmers, which is essential what the organic movement does.

    In short: the claims of the organic movement are false. As the saying goes: It’s not what goes into their mouths that defiles them, it’s what comes out of their mouths that defiles them.

  5. #5 Douglas Kennedy DC
    April 28, 2012

    Using scientific investigation to decrease the amount of energy inputs needed to successfully feed large populations seems like a good course to pursue. We need more technocrats involved!

  6. #6 RJB
    April 28, 2012

    It’s true. Many argue about what’s better natural or artificial, but that’s not what they should focus on. The problem is, we need food and we need cheap, and quick because our population isn’t decreasing.

  7. #7 Fred Magyar
    April 27, 2012

    Michelle Beissel @6

    “Drastic reduction of the human population? Will you volunteer you and your close ones for this drastic reduction?”

    To be clear I’m neither suggesting that the existing population be actively exterminated nor that mass suicide might be the answer to our dilemma. Though if we continue on our current path then resource wars, pestilence and famine may indeed be part of a future scenario.

    To answer your personal question… Yes, first I only had one son, second I and my family strive daily to reduce our ecological footprints. BTW, haven’t watched any TV since 2005, It’s amazing how much stuff you can do without when you aren’t constantly brainwashed with manufactured needs. I refuse to be counted as a consumer.

    “When their kids don’t die from starvation right in front of their eyes, one after the other, parents reduced their offspring all by their little selves.”

    Actually that is not necessarily supported by the data:
    http://www.populationpress.org/essays/essay-myths4.html

  8. #8 becca
    April 27, 2012

    I recently saw Jonathon Foley give a talk and it was fabulous.

    As far as the population issue- we’ve already got 7 billion people. What’s 2 billion more? We are not expanding our population *nearly* as quickly as we were. This is a challenge, but not insurmountable.
    At some point, more may need to be done to address population growth per se. However, unintuitively, some of the most effective methods of population control are things like vaccinating kids and educating women- not exactly dire death panels. And yes, food security might actually make people have fewer kids (if the chances of famine are high enough, having 9 in the hopes 1 will make it to adulthood is not such an insane strategy)- though really, food security probably has to go hand-in-hand with conflict reduction; most of the most egregious places where kids starve it’s because we can’t get them food because of a war. Those are thorny problems.

    That said, much of the increased demand for food actually comes not from the sheer number of people but from a global switch from vegetarian subsistence diets to more balanced diets that are more meat (and therefore ecologically) intensive. 9 billion is far too many people for everyone to eat like a typical American- but it’s not even approaching what the planet can handle if we take care of the ‘low hanging fruit’… This is what Foley suggested:
    1) stop deforestation (it’s not worth loosing the carbon sink for a couple of seasons of cash crops)
    2) increase yield in places we know it can be done (e.g. Eastern Europe, which used to be the ‘breadbasket of the USSR’ and has yields/acre dwindle due to lack of infrastructure). We also need to bring fertilizer to Africa.
    3) efficiency (e.g. NO irrigation in terribly inefficient places; if we brought Israeli methods of irrigation to India it would go a long way). Stop wasting food. This is mostly pre-harvest in developing world- I know a company who is working with preventing the evening milk from spoiling in Kenya. On the other hand, it is mostly post-harvest in the developed world. We waste 30-40% of our food by throwing it away, essentially.

  9. #9 Mary
    April 27, 2012

    Scott (and his clone Mobious) are apparently not on board, remaining “ideologically charged” despite the evidence.

    The particularly sad part is that I have never seen anyone in this conspiracy-theory laden claim of Scott/Mobious’ “molecular breeder cabal” suggest that they would ban any organic or other strategy that farmers wish to employ.

    It’s the likes of Scott/Mobious who want to demand that farmers stop using appropriate tools.

  10. #10 Michelle Beissel
    April 27, 2012

    Drastic reduction of the human population? Will you volunteer you and your close ones for this drastic reduction?

    When their kids don’t die from starvation right in front of their eyes, one after the other, parents reduced their offspring all by their little selves.

    Intelligently focused article, many at the various social media with whom I shared your post agree wholeheartedly.

  11. #11 Mobious
    April 27, 2012

    The self-congratulatory biotech hubris is nauseating. Industrial-scale agriculture only feeds the voracious hunger for profits of institutional investors, a wholly unsustainable construct based on limited energy resources and market scarcity.

    Moreover, the whole crop yield theme completely ignores the purpose of a food system: to nourish the planet. Bastardizing DNA to support a pesticide delivery system, the objective of genetic modification, does quite the opposite. Contaminated water, soil, air and foods are now a global problem.

    Sustainable & healthy food production is quite doable. The genetically, chemically & public relations-intensive variety advocated for by Ms. Ronald and the molecular breeder cabal is anything but sustainable, healthy or good for the planet.

  12. #12 Scott
    April 27, 2012

    The self-congratulatory biotech hubris is nauseating. Industrial-scale agriculture only feeds the voracious hunger for profits of institutional investors, a wholly unsustainable construct based on limited energy resources and market scarcity.

    Moreover, the whole crop yield theme completely ignores the purpose of a food system: to nourish the planet. Bastardizing DNA to support a pesticide delivery system, the objective of genetic modification, does quite the opposite. Contaminated water, soil, air and foods are now a global problem.

    Sustainable & healthy food production is quite doable. The genetically, chemically & public relations-intensive variety advocated for by Ms. Ronald and the molecular breeder cabal is anything but sustainable, healthy or good for the planet.

  13. #13 Fred Magyar
    April 27, 2012

    For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.
    Richard P. Feynman

    Humanity can not continue to ignore natural laws and limits forever.

    “The greatest shortcoming
    of the human race is our
    inability to understand
    the exponential
    function.” – Prof.
    Al Bartlett

  14. #14 Anja
    April 27, 2012

    We see more and more technology coming into aggriculture…

  15. #15 Fred Magyar
    April 26, 2012

    9 billion people?!

    Anyone who suggests that we are going to feed that many people has not seriously considered the consequences. The last thing we need is to attempt such a foolhardy mission.

    We are already in deep ecological overshoot, we are faced with catastrophic climate change, peak fossil fuels, and the quasi inevitable collapse of our complex civilization.

    The only sane pathway forward is a drastic reduction of the human population, coupled with an end to the current unsustainable model of consumption and the infinite economic growth paradigm.

    Apparently Humans are not much smarter than yeast. If you give yeast more sugar they expand their population faster and kill themselves more quickly with their own toxic waste!

    Please stop pretending that more food will solve the problem! It will only compound it. It will just make the inevitable die off that much worse.