Carpe Diem

Here’s what’s not sustainable: organic farming

Dr. Henry Miller (physician and molecular biologist, founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology, and research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution) writing about the non-sustainability of organic farming in today’s WSJ (“Organic Farming Is Not Sustainable: More labor with lower yields is a luxury only rich populations can afford“):

The Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group, says that organic farming “has the potential to contribute to sustainable food security by improving nutrition intake and sustaining livelihoods in rural areas, while simultaneously reducing vulnerability to climate change and enhancing biodiversity.” The evidence argues otherwise.

Organic farming might work well for certain local environments on a small scale, but its farms produce far less food per unit of land and water than conventional ones. The low yields of organic agriculture—typically 20%-50% less than conventional agriculture—impose various stresses on farmland and especially on water consumption. A British meta-analysis published in the Journal of Environmental Management (2012) found that “ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching and nitrous oxide emissions per product unit were higher from organic systems” than conventional farming systems, as were “land use, eutrophication potential and acidification potential per product unit.”

Lower crop yields are inevitable given organic farming’s systematic rejection of many advanced methods and technologies. If the scale of organic production were significantly increased, the lower yields would increase the pressure for the conversion of more land to farming and more water for irrigation, both of which are serious environmental issues.

Perhaps the most illogical and least sustainable aspect of organic farming in the long term is the exclusion of “genetically modified organisms,” but only those that were modified with the most precise and predictable techniques such as gene splicing. Except for wild berries and wild mushrooms, virtually all the fruits, vegetables and grains in our diet have been genetically improved by one technique or another, often through what are called wide crosses, which move genes from one species or genus to another in ways that do not occur in nature. Therefore, the exclusion from organic agriculture of organisms simply because they were crafted with modern, superior techniques makes no sense. It also denies consumers of organic goods nutritionally improved foods, such as oils with enhanced levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

In recent decades, we have seen advances in agriculture that have been more environmentally friendly and sustainable than ever before. But they have resulted from science-based research and technological ingenuity by farmers, plant breeders and agribusiness companies, not from social elites opposed to modern insecticides, herbicides, genetic engineering and “industrial agriculture.”

15 thoughts on “Here’s what’s not sustainable: organic farming

  1. I’m convinced “sustainable” and “organic” are one of those words that don’t actually mean anything.

    Other examples:

    “Made with real cheese!”

    “Fancy ketchup!”

    “Gourmet mayonnaise!”

    • Made with 10% real fruit juice (don’t laugh. it sells).

      Sustainable and organic work as concepts because they ARE so loosely defined. Furthermore the “benefits” are much more about YOU feeling you’re doing the RIGHT THING rather than any substantive benefit to the actions themselves. Sort of like recycling, which we’ve discussed here before. Or avoiding consuming paper to “save trees”.

      Having said that, I’m not here to argue that fooling yourself in order to feel good has no value.

    • “Fancy ketchup!”

      I’ve always enjoyed that one. In all my long life and as hard as I’ve searched I’ve NEVER found any other kind. All ketchup is fancy.

  2. This from the same man who said small doses of radiation from Fukushima and arsenic are good for you. And he is a proponent of using DDT. I’ll get my science from someone who isn’t a shill for the ag biotech companies.

    • I’ll get my science from someone who isn’t a shill for the ag biotech companies.

      Wow! Nice ad hominem.

      But what about the excerpt above? Is Dr. Miller wrong? can you address it actual issues?

      • Production numbers between organic and conventional are about the same. After the first three years of transition from conventional to organic, the organic farm will produce as much and many times more than was possible with conventional methods. There is transition time. And it seems that most of these production numbers include those transitional farms in with all those out of the transition period.

  3. There is another issue. The organics are leaching off of the non-organic farmers.

    In the US, ideal crops are grown in bulk in areas. So you might get 100 square miles of tomatoes. Say you are an organic farmer right in the middle of those 100 square miles, and the others are conventional. Well the other farmers are spraying pesticides when insect levels get too high, being surrounded by spraying farmers, actually protects your organic farm as well.

    Also your farm is creating a border where insects are not getting the full force of the pesticides, so your organic farm is helping to create resistance for any insects that do get through.

    • Umm…. I don’t think you know what you’re talking about. One of the purposes of “organic” is that the farms create the biological controls (pest predators, crop rotation, healthy soil, etc.) that help reduce pest stress while avoiding having to spray toxic chemicals on the land. I think that your hypothetical tomato farmer “leaching” off of the other farmers doesn’t really exist. Also, I think you can ask any conventional farmer who’s worth his or her salt and they’ll tell you that you wait till there’s no wind to spray so that you DON’T lose what you paid for to the blowing wind.

  4. I have to admit to buying organic milk. It tastes better than regular or “natural” milk.

    Also, I buy into the marketing of “natural” eggs, where growth hormones are not used and the hens are fed a vegetarian diet — and roam a “free range”.

    Organic vegetables? Not so much.

    The organic debate should be left to the marketplace. If someone wants to pay dearly for broccoli that have inordinate long stems, then let them smugly do so.

      • “I have to admit to buying organic milk. It tastes better than regular or “natural” milk.”

        I used to live in the farm adjacent to an organic dairy farm. I enjoyed the frequent odors of dead cows that were tossed into the fence-rows. (cows dead of easily treatable diseases that require antibiotics. Citric acid doesn’t work for mastitis).

        >>”Also, I buy into the marketing of “natural” eggs, where growth hormones are not used and the hens are fed a vegetarian diet — and roam a “free range”.”

        growth hormones aren’t used for poultry anyway. Through selective breeding, the breeds utilized today reach maturity in a very short time (@6months). Poultry are omnivores, they are require protein (from meat) and free -range mean the hawks and foxes eat well.

        It’s onerous regulation that is strangling the small farmer, giving more power to agribusiness. Those are the ones that utilize hormones, feed level antibiotics, cages and feedlots.

        But at least you can “feel” better about your food.

        Oh, and for anyone who buys “free range pork” because the pigs are happier, pigs that graze are more likely to be infected with roundworm, (trichinosis) so cook your meat well done.
        This is what happens when we run business by “feel good measures”.

    • Cit

      I have to admit to buying organic milk. It tastes better than regular or “natural” milk.

      Not sure what you mean by “natural” milk, but I frequently buy raw milk as a protest against regulation nazis, even though it costs much more, and it does taste much better than pasteurized milk IMHO.

      An obscene amount of Hershey’s chocolate syrup added to a glass of whole raw milk is better than sex. (well, maybe almost)

  5. Organic agriculture is the only kind of agriculture that pays for itself in that it is fully absorbed. There is no chemical pesticide run off into waterways or enter the water table There is also no chemical drift to other farms. The nitrogen sources are in the form of high organic matter and don’t off gas. Workers are paid a fair wage. 8 addition organic vegetable crops are not subsidized and federally funded crop insurance is not available. Also organic farms don’t contaminate the genetics of other farmers crops…corn..alfalfa…beets.. and make their crop unsaleable and threaten their certification. Conventional agriculture seems cost effective because part of the coat is packed up by the US taxpayer and some of the coat is forced onto damage to the environment. I am always fascinated to read comments from people that are so far removed from our food system that they argue from the view point of what they were told in a news report. Grow a turnip and then let’s talk. Witness the chemical contamination of a conventional farm and then let’s talk. The idea that organic systems can’t produce enough food is absurd and it is promoted by people that make money selling seed and chemicals….organic farmers buy much fewer inputs…Monsanto can’t get rich on organic farmers…get it?

  6. Starvation and malnutrition are caused by politics. GMO production is not sustainable because it is responsible for the obesity and diabetes epidemic which is financially crippling our country. Anyone here spending LESS on healthcare as the years go on?

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