Organic food production is growing by leaps and bounds in the United States. Many consumers are willing to pay premium prices for organic fruits, vegetables, and meats, convinced that they are helping the earth and eating healthier.
Swiss scientists at the Research Institute for Organic Agriculture have just published a 21-year study in Science comparing two types of organic farming with two types of conventional agriculture. The results initially seem to back up those consumer beliefs, and the press has described the research as showing that organic farms are "viable" (to quote the Los Angeles Times) and "more efficient" (to quote Reuters). But don't rush out just yet to Whole Foods to stock up on organic arugula or chard.
Organic farming boils down to essentially two principles: Soluble mineral inputs, such as artificial nitrogen fertilizer, are forbidden, and so is the use of synthetic herbicides and pesticides. Another of the organic systems tested by the Swiss scientists, called bio-dynamic, was dreamed up by the German "anthroposophist" mystic Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. Biodynamic farming uses such novel preparations as manure fermented in a cow's horn that is buried in the soil for six months through autumn and winter. To these original principles, organic farmers' organizations have recently proscribed growing genetically enhanced crops.
One of the most frequent criticisms of organic agriculture is that it is not as productive as conventional farming. The Swiss scientists confirmed this: Their organic plots were on average 20 percent less productive than conventional plots. For potatoes, organic production was about 40 percent lower. The researchers also point out that "cereal crop yields in Europe typically are 60 to 70% of those under conventional management." Furthermore, they dispelled the notion that organic crops are superior food by noting, "There were minor differences between the farming systems in food quality."
The Swiss scientists based their claims for greater organic "efficiency" chiefly on the differences in the amount of energy used to produce the crops. Since the same horticultural techniques were used on both conventional and organic plots, the difference in energy use was mostly the result of counting the energy used to produce inorganic fertilizers and pesticides. On this basis, the researchers claim in their Science article that organic farms use about 50 percent less energy. However, looking at the fine print, one discovers that "since crop yields were considerably higher in the conventional systems, the difference in energy needed to produce a crop unit was only 19 percent lower in the organic systems."
Secondly, the researchers declare that they found nutrients "in the organic systems to be 34 to 51% lower than in conventional systems, whereas mean crop yield was only 20% lower over a period of 21 years." But–to ask the organic advocates' own question–is organic agriculture sustainable over the long run? Again, the fine print says no. As their research confirms, organic farming is mining the soil of its vital minerals, particularly phosphorus and potassium. Eventually, as these minerals are used up, organic crop production will fall below its already low level. Conventional farming, on the other hand, restores mineral balances through fertilization.
"The Swiss researchers are not thinking globally, they're only acting locally," says Alex Avery, director of research for the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues. Avery points out that organic farming can supply food for niche markets of affluent consumers but cannot feed a hungry world. Other methods of food production can. In his new book Enriching the Earth, the University of Manitoba agronomist Vaclav Smil credits the Haber-Bosch method of producing nitrogen fertilizer, invented in 1909, with sustaining two billion people today.
Synthetic fertilizers now supply 40 percent of all the nitrogen used by crop plants. Without this artificially produced fertilizer, farmers would simply not be able to grow the crops necessary to feed the world's population. Organic sources of nitrogen, such as animal manure and leguminous plants, would supply only about a quarter of the nitrogen needed. (The remainder comes from rain and lightening.) Other inventions, such as high-yielding crop varieties and modern farm equipment, have also been vital to boosting food supplies. For example, when farm tractors arrived after the 1920s, they replaced draft animals that consumed a quarter of the crops grown in the United States.
Keep in mind that plants cannot tell the difference between "natural" sources of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium and "artificial" sources of those elements. The reason is that there is no difference, outside the minds of organic farmers.
The Swiss researchers did find some true benefits from organic farming, including greater water retention by the soil and a higher presence of beneficial insects. Unfortunately, they did not test their organic systems against the newest form of conventional agriculture, no-till farming combined with genetically enhanced crops. This uses much less energy and less pesticides than the old-fashioned systems examined by the Swiss scientists.
Since no-till farmers don't plow, their tractors use less fuel. Also, since weed control is achieved using environmentally benign herbicides instead of mechanical removal through plowing, even more fuel is saved. Finally, no-till farmers use less insecticide, since genetically enhanced crops can protect themselves against pests. Against all this, organic farming's 19 percent energy advantage would likely disappear.
No-till farming matches several other advantages of organic agriculture as well. Both methods offer improved soil structure, more water retention, greatly reduced soil erosion, less pesticide and fertilizer runoff, and a higher presence of beneficial insects. Although organic farmers refuse to see it, switching to genetically enhanced crops would go a long way toward accomplishing their avowed goals of restoring their land and helping the natural environment.
One final argument often offered by organic enthusiasts is that organic farming is more profitable. Of course, the reason organic foods command a premium at supermarkets is that so many consumers have been bamboozled into thinking that they are somehow superior. If organic farming became widespread, that premium would dissipate and take its higher profitability with it.
As the Cambridge chemist John Emsley recently concluded, "The greatest catastrophe that the human race could face this century is not global warming but a global conversion to 'organic farming'–an estimated 2 billion people would perish." News reports may hail the Swiss study as proving that organic farming is sustainable, but it actually did the opposite.