Time to switch to organic agriculture

The record-high staple food prices, the near-catastrophic drought in China and a looming energy crisis have put one of the very basic things in focus again: food. People in Western countries often overlook how important food is – it seems abundant and there’s therefore no reason to worry. Yet one must not forget the saying that civilization is only three meals away from chaos. Now, not long ago even mentioning “food security” was thought of as a bit daft, but it’s soon going to become a very important topic.

In this post, I will make the argument that the world should organize for a large-scale switch to organic agriculture – as much and as soon as possible. This is somewhat at odds with how many think the food production problems should be approached, and also with the excellent recent Economist special report on food production that argued that GM crops and other sophisticated methods are necessary to feed the increasing world population.

If there’s one country ahead of others in the transformation, it’s Australia – it has a disproportionately large share of organic food production. Measured in terms of acreage, Australia has as much as 38% of the entire worlds’ organic agricultural production. Even compared to Europe – a very health-conscious continent in terms of food, and the only one having banned GM crops – this is a 57 times more organic production per capita. Quite amazing, really.

Of course globally organic agriculture accounts for only a tiny fraction of total production. And that needs to change.

Why go organic?

There are several reasons why organically grown food products are better than “traditional”, or conventional, methods. First there’s the consumer-side of the equation; while scientifically proven results on organic foods being healthier than non-organic foods are still relatively few, some organic foods (such as tomatoes and milk) have already been proven to be better in their nutritional values. Organic milk, for example, has more anti-oxidants, omega 3, CLA, and vitamins than non-organic milk.

Then there’s also the taste-factor; it has for example been shown that the use of hormonal growth promotants have “a negative influence on the tenderness and eating quality of beef”, i.e. organic beef tastes better.

Then there’s the production-side of things, with organic farming resulting in at least 50% lower expenditure on fertilizer and energy and 97%-100% less pesticide usage. With many modern fertilizers being produced from petrochemicals, inevitably increasing oil prices will affect conventional agriculture more – and not only from the fertilizer-perspective, but also because the transportation distances involved in the industrial agricultural production tend to be far longer than with organic products. With organic methods, the soil also remains healthier and has less erosion compared to conventional methods.

What about yields?

On a global scale, all talk about health benefits, improved soil conditions, better taste or reduced pesticide/fertilizer use is eclipsed by yield – if organic agriculture cannot achieve sufficient yields to feed the world, it’s clear the world can never entirely transition to it.

This – low yields – is precisely the claim that is often made; that industrial agriculture is needed to feed the world because organic farming cannot achieve similar yields. If organic agriculture produced much lower yields than other methods, that would indeed be a big problem given that most of the productive land is already cultivated and deforestation is a major problem globally. But does it?

Luckily, a number of scientific studies have investigated this very issue. A Cambridge University meta-study of 293 data sets concluded that:

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

It has been shown that organic systems on average produce 92% of the yield produced by conventional agriculture in developed countries. While this represents a modest yield reduction, organic methods have also been shown to produce 80%-300% more than conventional farms in developing countries. Globally, therefore, the effect of shifting to organic production would mean significantly increased yields. This is also important in the sense that many Western countries have no problems producing enough – indeed, more than enough – calories for their needs, whereas many developing countries are struggling to produce sufficient amount of calories for their population.

Resilience

Even in developed countries, the equation may not be so simple. Climate change is expected to make extreme weather events such as droughts and hurricanes more frequent and more severe, so it is worth asking whether the organic and conventional systems differ under stressful situations.

Interestingly, the difference between organic and non-organic production under such adverse conditions is quite dramatic; organic farms are far more resilient to adverse weather conditions, yielding up to 70-100% more than conventional farms during drought conditions. Furthermore, a study after Hurricane Mitch showed that organic farms retained 20-40% more topsoil after the hurricane than conventional farms, enabling them to recover much faster. So with advancing climate change, it can be expected that the yields-scale will tip in favor of organic farming.

Win-win?

Taking into account all the points above, it should be fairly clear that organic agriculture should have a bright future – and the growth is rapid, but more needs to be done to ramp up organic production. One challenge is that where traditional industrial agriculture is pesticide- and fertilizer-intensive, organic farming is knowledge-intensive – and training farmers in organic farming practices takes longer than shipping them a bag of fertilizers or a barrel of pesticides along with instructions on how much to spread.

As a consumer, I have been ramping up our organic purchases continuously, and will continue to do so. Luckily, thanks to the relatively huge organic production, it’s easy here in Australia with plenty of availability of pretty much organic anything – there are even services such as Organic Empire, Organic Direct, Organicfood.com.au and Organic Meat Supply that will bring all that organic goodness straight to your home. Couldn’t be easier.

** Update April 2nd, 2011 **

Late March 2011 saw the latest results from the Pennsylvania-based Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial (FST), which Rodale calls “America’s longest running, side-by-side comparison of conventional and organic agriculture.”. Rodale has been comparing crop yields and taking soil samples on these test plots for 27 years. Their latest findings? The three systems have produced equivalent corn yields over the years, while “soybean yields were the same for the manure and conventional system and only slightly lower for the legume system.” Further, the drought resistence was confirmed again, as “In 4 out of 5 years of moderate drought, the organic systems had significantly higher corn yields (31 percent higher) than the conventional system.”

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2 Responses to Time to switch to organic agriculture

  1. Andrew says:

    Very interesting!

    One claim I’ve heard, which you haven’t addressed directly, is that organic costs more than conventional (for similar yield). Assuming this is true, then your point about resiliency is akin to purchasing insurance. Is it worth spending the extra on organic to cover the risk of extreme events etc.? Or is it cheaper to purchase such insurance directly? We might even see insurance companies start to push for more organic-oriented agriculture policies.

  2. sim says:

    If production externalities (such as waterway pollution etc) were taken into account, organic farming would probably cost less than conventional.

    Of course, that’s not very likely to happen anytime soon. But organic costs more than conventional primarily because it has higher labor costs. This means that higher costs are really only a “problem” for developed countries where, of course, they are not so such a big problem as people have more money to spare on food – or reduce intake as after all, on average, the caloric intake in most developed countries exceeds healthy limits. Therefore spending the same amount of money for a lower amount of higher-quality food would actually be a good thing.

    What’s more, as energy prices rise, the cost of conventional farming rises far faster than organic (due to high fertilizer usage etc), bringing the two closer in terms of production costs.

    As far as insurance goes, I wonder if insurance companies have thought of this aspect. I have no idea, but it will indeed be interesting to see if the production method will at some point be taken into account on insurance policies.

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