Mitchell mentioned U.S. Food Policy's skepticism about whether organic agriculture is actually less efficient on a per acre basis (and this mention gave this weblog a record traffic day today). I was quite sure the Economist's use of 1950s production data to contrast with modern chemical agriculture was misleading, but I didn't offer any better data. For that, Mitchell turned to Samuel Fromartz, author of Organic, Inc., in the comment section at Gristmill:
As for the claim that organic will take more land, this is entirely based upon the assumption that organic yields less and thus needs more land to farm. But the longest running study comparing organic and conventional methods, published in Science, found that organic agriculture has about 10 percent deficit in yield in grains. Several universities in the U.S. have found that deficit in the range of 4 percent to nil. Other studies have shown organic outperforms conventional farming in years of drought. Finally, the problem with conventional farming has been soil depletion through overuse of chemicals - something that India is now experiencing and one reason they are looking beyond the Green Revolution to organic alternatives.These numbers sound far more plausible than the yield penalty implied by the Economist. Fromartz's statistics do make organic agriculture appear a tad less efficient per acre than conventional agriculture. When readers think about organic farming, they should not imagine a weed-ridden backwards plot off the grid. Instead, they should picture fairly modern information-intensive production, which uses high-quality conventionally bred seed stock in place of GMOs, and which refrains from using certain chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
Indeed, the very efficiency and recent modernization of organic agriculture has been so striking that it has become controversial within the movement. In addition to commenting, Fromartz also writes his own posts at Gristmill, recently linking to this interesting essay from Bob Scowcroft about long-term trends in organic agriculture.
Although a comment on my earlier post questioned the relevance, the discussion of a small yield penalty for organic agriculture naturally makes me wonder what change in the food system would more dramatically improve nutrients per acre sufficiently to alleviate the land pressure on the world's rainforests. The foremost answer is to eat less meat. If you are vegetarian, you're all set (although my colleagues at the nutrition school will remind you to take steps to ensure adequate micronutrients). If you are not vegetarian, you can easily to pick an amount of meat that exceeds your nutrition needs and is still far less than the average American consumption level.