Saturday, December 16, 2006

More discussion on whether organic agriculture leads to deforestation

Dan Mitchell's New York Times column, "What's Online," today reviews the lively commentary on the Economist article this month, which criticized organic agriculture and other consumer movements.

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.


Anonymous said...

In a recent seminar, Prof. Carlo Leifert, a researcher involved in a large multi-center EU parallel comparison of organc and conventional agriculture, was asked what yeild differences.

My recollection of his response is that for grain production systems they observed about a 20% reduction with organic compared to conventional with up to a 50% reduction during the initial transition phase. They observed less reduction associated with livestock systems but I don't recall the percentage.

He also remarked that because of the degree of reduction associated with organic production, considerably fewer EU grain farmers were converting to organic production than livestock farmers.

Anonymous said...

Parke, you said

"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."

To be charitable that statement is pretty misinformed and is actually dangerous to the environment.

Why do I say that? Because that suggestion completely ignores the root cause, and driver of most crop production, government subsidies and mandates. Subsidies and price supports for grain production, subsidies and mandates for ethanol production, and subsidies and mandates for biodiesel production are what drive grain production, not grain demand for animal agriculture.

The reason that statement is dangerous to the environment is it moves peoples attention from proposals that would protect the environment (modifying farm and fuel policy) to something that will have no impact on farming (eating vegetarian)

If we want to move to sustainable agriculture we must eliminate the subsidies that cause non sustainable farming practices.

Anonymous said...

Grist has had some interesting articles on the topic of what is driving destruction of the rain forests in tropical regions.

What About the Land?

Some quotes from the article are

"The hype over biofuels in the U.S. and Europe has had wide-ranging effects perhaps not envisioned by the environmental advocates who promote their use. Throughout tropical countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil, and Colombia, rainforests and grasslands are being cleared for soybean and oil-palm plantations to make biodiesel, a product that is then marketed halfway across the world as a "green" fuel."

"In Indonesia, rainforest loss for oil palms has contributed to the endangerment of 140 species of land animals, while in Malaysia animals like the Sumatran tiger and Bornean orangutan have been pushed to the brink of extinction. Fish kills have become common in waterways surrounding plantations and palm-oil mills, as soil erosion from the cleared land and mill effluents have left waterways clogged with sediment and unviable."

As I speak I know there are people who are eating vegatartian because they think it is helping preserve the rainforests. These same people are also pushing biofuels thinking that they are environmentally friendly.

If the rainforests are going to be preserved we have to make those people aware of the root cause of the destruction, and it certainly is not animal agriculture.

Nicholas said...

Why all this talk about organic agriculture requiring more farm land. Even if organic farming produces less yield than conventional farming, there are a myriad of other factors to consider. Take urban sprawl/population growth for instance.

But Parke, I really have to make a point about vegetarianism here. If by vegetarian, you mean someone who eats organic, local vegetables as the cornerstone of their diet (and never consumes meat), then I'd agree with you. But I would hazard a guess that such people constitute a minority of vegetarians. The reality of vegetarianism is that vegetarians have the same proclivities toward convenience food as the rest of us.

Vegetarian freezer or boxed food is usually every bit as culinarily, environmentally, and dietetically wrong as conventional convenience food options. They're likely to have been transported hundreds or thousands of miles, be full of salt and likely GMOs. Especially if you're talking about soy-based foods.

But I digress as the point you made was that a vegetarian diet reduces stress upon the world's rainforests.

I wonder how much food in the US comes from areas that once had rainforests. Moreover, could the food excess in north america be better distributed to provide for a lack of food in areas where subsistence farming leads to the destruction of rainforests?

The biggest obstacle that see is from a soil science perspective. When an area of rainforest is razed, the ash produced provides only a temporary boost in soil nutrients. Coupled with a lack of erosion controls, the nutrient poor soil causes people to move on to destroy more forest. It seems obvious that organic fertilizers would not be practical (or a concern for subsistence farmers) in such circumstances. Without a way to replenish the nutrients in the soil, farming in affected areas is not sustainable. Perhaps what is instead needed is a readily available supply of cheap, environmentally friendly/organic fertilizers.

Anonymous said...

Probably the best take I've seen to the organic yield controversy was an article by Brian Halweil of Worldwatch, Can Organic Farming Feed Us All? Here's online discussion Halweil had and a link to the full article:

Sam Fromartz

Sharing news in Montana . . . said...

I am amazed that in the discussions of organic vs. non-organic farming, and yields of the two methods, no one ever mentions the fact that conventional farming uses FOSSIL FUEL-base fertilizers to boost crop production.

With the eventual depletion of fossil fuels (perhaps sooner than later), large crop yields due to fossil fuel-based fertilizers has a limited life-span.

The end of today's fossil fuel fertilizer usage will reveal the depletion of soil nutrients and conditions. Crop yields will plummet.

We'd better be moving towards organic farming solutions if we are to survive the end of fossil fuel fertilizers. Why is no one discussion this?

Nicholas said...

Re: The Howling Wolf
While you have a point, I want to stress that the "active" part of fertilizers are not actually made from fossil fuels. The key step in the manufacture of fertilizers is the Haber-Bosch process, which captures nitrogen from the air and hydrogen (derived from natural gasses, mostly methane and LP) to produce ammonia. At high pressure and low temperature, a chemical reaction takes place that continually favors the production of NH3.

However, you are still correct in the molecular sense. It takes three molecules of hydrogen to produce two molecules of ammonia (the chemical reaction is 3H2 + N2 -> 2NH3).

We use fossil fuels to obtain hydrogen because it's the only economically feasible source. If there were another source, we'd all be cruising around in our hydrogen fuel cell cars right now!

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