Michigan v. Michigan State: An Early Season Match-Up

This post written by guest blogger Jody Roberts.*

What, you say, how can this be? What could Michigan and Michigan St. possibly be battling over in the middle of summer? No, it's not preseason football; it's not even sport fishing. The battle today, my friends (as highlighted here in The Ann Arbor News and here on UM's website), is about organic farming.

So, in some sense we have a double header: organic farming vs. 'conventional' farming and Michigan vs. Michigan State. At issue: just how competitive is organic farming compared to petroleum-based farming? Well, according to a new study by some folks over at Michigan, it's pretty darn competitive. In fact, their study claims that it can actually out-produce our current petroleum-based methods.

The news article points out just how much more productive Catherine Badgley found organic farms to be:

For example, their research showed that yields of organic corn ranged from 84 percent of what conventionally grown corn yielded, all the way up to 130 percent.

"It even surprised us,'' Badgley said. "We expected we might find that it might be oh, 80 percent or something simply because that's the number that has been cited in the past.''

But not everyone is buying into her results. Juts over yonder, at one of the Michigan State Agricultural Extensions, is Mike Score, who said that in his experience farmer's just haven't been able to get those kind of numbers using organic methods.

"I don't think that's been attained,'' Score said. "The farmers I've worked with have not been able to equal yields (with organic methods) in all cases.''

Ivette Perfecto, one of the authors of the paper and a researcher at Michigan, addressed the concern that a switch to organic farming will create starving masses:

"Corporate interest in agriculture and the way agriculture research has been conducted in land grant institutions, with a lot of influence by the chemical companies and pesticide companies, as well as fertilizer companies - all have been playing an important role in convincing the public that you need to have these inputs to produce food,'' she said.

The article is part of a larger special issue in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems on the organic farming debate. And while there is still much to be debated, the important thing to note here is this: people are actually doing research on this topic. Will organic farming provide a viable alternative to petroleum-based farming? Who knows, but it's about time we started investigating it rather than simply using the 'starving masses' rhetoric as a way to draw funds for biotech as the exclusive answer.

*JR's bio can be found at the end of his first guest post, on the EPA and Endocrine Disrupters, here.

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Maize & Blue versus the Spartans whose color is green! It's rather a perfect metaphor. As the cost of petroleum products continues to rise the tilt has got to be more and more to organic farming practices. (Of course turning the maize into ethanol to fuel our cars is more than a bit crazy.)

The following has been submitted to the journal (RAFS) and the U of Michigan for potential research misconduct.

Organic Abundance Report:
Fatally Flawed

By Alex Avery
Hudson Institutes Center for Global Food Issues
Churchville, VA USA
September, 2007

Summary: Fatal flaws in the recent report from Badgley et al. claiming that organic agriculture could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base. Among the serious problems identified: Over 100 non-organic yield studies were claimed as organic; organic yields were misreported; false comparisons were made to unrepresentative low non-organic yields; high organic yields were counted 2, 3, even 5 times by citing different papers that referenced the same data; favorable and unverifiable studies from biased sources were given equal weight to rigorous university studies. This report is being submitted to the editor of the journal, Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, for publication and response. It is only being released in the interest of public debate and discussion during the much-touted organic fortnight.

The recent report from Catherine Badgley et al. at the University of Michigan (Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, July, 2007) claimed that organic agriculture has the potential to contribute quite substantially to the global food supply and said organic methods could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base.

This claim is simply not credible given the following internal fatal flaws:

1. Claiming yields from non-organic farming methods as organic;
2. Comparing organic yields to non-representative non-organic yields;
3. Double, triple, even quintuple counting of organic yields from the same few research projects;
4. Omitting non-favorable crop yields while using favorable yields from the same studies;
5. Misreporting yield results.

1. Non-organic Yields Used to Inflate Organic Productivity

In perhaps the most brazen example of research misrepresentation in decades, 105 to 119 studies claimed as organic by the University of Michigan group were not organic. Only 11% to 21% of developing world yields cited were from studies actually using organic farming methods. Some organic examples even used GMO crops; many (if not most) used synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The researchers did not provide enough detail to determine the exact number of misrepresented studies, but their main source (Pretty and Hine, 2001) stated clearly in their reports that only 14 of 208 studies in their database are organic. The Michigan group relied on 70 of these for their paper. They also labeled as organic 49 yield ratios from the System of Rice Intensification which is not organic. Combined, these represent 79% to 89% of the 133 developing world yield ratios included in the study.

As an example, Badgley et al. claim organic methods increased Argentine maize yields by 37%. (Source: Roberto Pieretti in Pretty and Hine, 2001) In fact, this statistic comes from Argentine farmers using herbicides to kill weeds, growing GMO herbicide-tolerant soy (~98%) and GMO insect resistant maize (~25%), and extensively using synthetic fertilizers and organic-prohibited herbicides and pesticides. To label these yield gains as organic is absurd. (Source: Mr. Roberto Peiretti, past president of the Argentinean No-Till Farmers Association: sdrob@idi.com.ar)

Another misrepresentation is China maize yield increase of 38%, reported from the East Gansu project run by the Chinese government. The primary source (Pretty and Hine, 2001) reports that Grain output and food per capita [in the project area] have increased greatly because of improved crops varieties, runoff harvesting and water-saving irrigation, and fertilizers and pesticide use. [emphasis added]

These facts are made clear in the research reports used in the Badgley et al report, so their ignoring the non-organic reality of these projects is hard to explain. It is especially hard to explain given supervising author Ivette Perfectos clear statement in a press release issued by the University of Michigan that My hope is that we can finally put a nail in the coffin of the idea that you cant produce enough food through organic agriculture.

2. False Comparisons with low non-organic yields

The amazingly high yield increases reported in the developing world should have been a red flag that the non-organic yields used in the comparisons were uncommonly low.

For example, Badgley et al. report one study where Peruvian organic potato yields were 340 percent higher than non-organic (yield ratio of 4.40). Yet the higher organic potato yields (reported as 8,000 to 14,000 kg/ha, or 11,000 average) are below the year-2000 average potato yield for Peru, reported by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization at 11,221 kg/ha in the year 2000. Many farmers in developing countries using non-organic methods report potato yields well above 15,000 kg/ha and non-organic potato yields in developed countries are routinely above 40,000 kg/ha each considerably higher than the high organic potato yields.

3. Double, Triple, even Quintuple Counting of Yields from the Same Research Projects

The paper claims to analyze a global dataset of 293 examples, yet there are numerous instances of repeated counting of yields from the same long-term studies.

For example, the maize yields from the long-term Farming Systems Trial project conducted by the pro-organic Rodale Institute (Kutztown, Pennsylvania, USA) are reported 4 times: once in a case study in a 1989 report from the National Research Council, twice in a report from Pimentel et al., and once in a 2001 newsletter article by Bill Liebhardt.

Soy yields from the same Rodale FST project are reported five times: once by the 1989 NRC report, once by Liebhardt, once by Hanson et al., and twice by Pimentel, et al.

4. Omitting Non-Favorable Crop Yields and Cherry-Picking Data

The paper reports the favorable yields of specific organic crops from research, while omitting the unfavorable yields of other crops reported in the same research. In addition, non-favorable study results from organic research groups were entirely omitted.

Four different favorable potato yield ratios are cited from one research project in Germany (90-106% of non-organic yields), while unfavorable organic potato yield data (75% of non-organic potato yields) published in the very same journal in which the Badgley paper appeared was omitted! (Gallandt, et al. American J of Alt Agriculture, 1998 which is now Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems)

The paper cites four separate favorable yield ratios for wheat from the first three years of a long-term California research project (McGuire et al., 1998), but they omit the drastically lower organic maize yields from the same project reported in 2004. The non-organic maize yields were 52% higher than the organic from 1996 to 2004. This result in particular calls into question one of the Michigan groups major claims: That organic farming can obtain ample nitrogen by growing off-season green-manure crops to replace the inorganic synthetic nitrogen fertilizer that currently underpins roughly half of global crop production. In this case, the legume crop cost half the ensuing corn crop. Thus, the green-manure strategy, implemented worldwide, threatens a major cropland expansion due to lower per acre yields and the ensuing loss of wildlife habitat and biodiversity.

Moreover, while there were no significant difference in tomato yields among [the different systems] during those 8 years, conventional irrigated wheat yields were nearly 30% higher than irrigated organic wheat over the same period.

Many of the studies cited by Badgley et al. are from organic activists with a clear agenda in reporting only high organic yields. The Michigan researchers call these sources grey literature, but a more accurate term would be biased observers with a clear economic and reputational stake in the outcome.

For example, there are numerous yield ratios gleaned from reports from biodynamic societies such as the Anthroposophic Society, the Institute for Biodynamic Research, and anti-GM/anti-conventional agriculture pressure groups such as Food First.

This clearly skews the results. A recurrent source for developed country yield ratios is an article written by Bill Liebhardt, published in the quarterly newsletter of an organic promotion organization. Liebhardt cites a 0.95 yield ratio for organic maize following a legume soybean rotation in comparison to continuous maize yields despite the fact that the same research Liebhardt cites shows that non-organic maize following soybeans out-yields organic by 10 to 30 percent. This is a clear case of favoring the organic perspective.

More egregiously, Liebhardt combines tomato yields from two separate projects to claim equal organic tomato yields when the studies he cites found organic tomato yields were significantly lower yielding. In the first three years of one project, non-organic tomatoes out-yielded organic by 66 percent. So in the fourth year, the researchers started giving the organic tomatoes a literal head start by transplanting tomato plants started weeks earlier in a greenhouse while still using tomato seeds in the non-organic plots. Yet the non-organic tomatoes continued to out-yield the organic by an average of 20% in the following four years. So in year seven of the project, the researchers tripled the amount of poultry manure applied to the organic plots, giving the organic tomatoes 3 to 4 times more nitrogen than the non-organic. Only after all these changes did the organic tomato yields surpass the non-organic by 9%. Even then, organic fruit quality was lower, used more irrigation water, had far greater weed problems, and cost hundreds of dollars more per acre to grow losing money without a high price premium.

5. Misreporting of yields

The authors simply misreport organic yields compared to conventional in at least one instance. Badgley et al. report that organic apples achieve 100% equal yields (ratio of 1.00) in a study published in Nature (vol. 410, pages 926-930, 2001). The study actually reported organic apples achieved only 93% of non-organic yields (ratio of 0.93).

By Alex Avery (not verified) on 11 Sep 2007 #permalink

I'd like to add that the entire set of "petroleum-based" terminology (PB fertilizer, or PB ag paradigm) is a massive misnomer. The only petroleum products used widely are pesticides, and even organic farmers use relatively large amounts of petroleum-based "insecticidal oils" as insecticides on fruit crops, etc.

Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is "fossil fuel" based, currently, via methane AKA "natural gas." The methane (CH4) is used to generate heat/pressure and as a source fo hydrogen (H) to "fix" atmospheric di-nitrogen (N2) into ammonia (NH4) for such fertilizers as ammonium nitrate.

The Haber-Bosch nitrogen fixation process to make ammonia for fertilizer(invented in 1909 and what ultimately spawned the organic farming movement in the 1920s) can be fueled entirely with non-fossil fuels, such as solar, wind, hydro, or whatever. It's entirely sustainable because our atmosphere is 78% dinitrogen, providing an effectively limitless supply of nitrogen.

Energy is the issue and so far, methane is the most economical energy source because it also provides hydrogen, killing two nitrogen fixation birds with one input.


By Alex Avery (not verified) on 14 Sep 2007 #permalink

"Ivette Perfecto... addressed the concern that a switch to organic farming will create starving masses"

The quote from Perfecto that followed did not 'address' the concern; instead she just alleges that critics are biased if they are based at land-grant colleges. If that is going to be typical of the responses to critics, we might be entitled to conclude that there is less to the authors case than meets the eye.