By Christos Vasilikiotis, Ph.D.
University of California, Berkeley
Can we afford not to go Organic?
From the studies mentioned above and from an increasing body of case studies, it is becoming evident that organic farming does not result in neither catastrophic crop losses due to pests nor in dramatically reduced yields as many critics from agribusiness and in academia would have us believe. A report from UC Davis predicted a 36% reduction in tomato yields in California if conventional insecticides and fungicides were eliminated (Agricultural Issues Center 1988).
On the contrary, organic farming systems have proven that they can prevent crop loss to pests without any synthetic pesticides. They are able to maintain high yields, comparable to conventional agriculture without any of the associated external costs to society. Furthermore, organic and agroecological farming methods continually increase soil fertility and prevent loss of topsoil to erosion, while conventional methods have the opposite effect. In the end, only a conversion to organic farming will allow us to maintain and even increase current crop yields.
The ability of organic agriculture to produce comparable yields is particularly significant, considering that limited research has been conducted in land-grant universities to optimize cultural practices or select for suitable crop genetic traits in organic farming systems. It is becoming imperative that we move away from organic versus conventional systems comparisons, to research into ways of improving organic farming methods.
One of the criticisms of organic agriculture has been that there is not enough nitrogen available naturally, therefore only chemical fertilizers can provide adequate supplies to sustain current yields. This is clearly not the case as shown by both the Rothamsted and Rodale experiments, where manure-based systems can provide enough nitrogen not only to sustain high crop yields but also to build up the nitrogen storage in the soil. Animal manure is not in short supply by any means. EPA estimates indicate that US livestock operations generate one billion tons of manure per year; most of this is not utilized in agriculture, instead it leaches nitrogen and phosphorus into our waterways, thus threatening wetlands and river systems and in many cases drinking water supplies. Organic agriculture, and especially small diversified farms, could allow us to once again couple livestock production to crop production, thus cycling this valuable byproduct back into the soil and eliminating costly environmental degradation.
Another argument that critics are making is that organic food is more expensive, therefore, low-income families and people in the third world would not be able to afford it. While it is true that organic food has a price premium, this price difference is the result of higher demand for organic products, and does not necessarily reflect a higher cost of production. According to the Wallace Institute report mentioned earlier, organic production of grains and soybeans in the mid-west was more profitable than conventional in at least half the cases studied, even without factoring the higher prices that organic soybeans bring in the market (sometimes more than twice as much as conventional soybeans). There are still situations though in which organic systems appear to depend on price premiums to remain profitable, such as the case of high-value tomato crops in California. The higher cost of production that was found in the SFAS project is attributed mainly to the increased labor requirements for weed control in organic systems.
Even these studies overestimate the relative costs of organic production. Federal commodity programs and subsidies are geared towards large-scale chemically intensive agriculture and artificially inflate figures for industrial agriculture. Furthermore, this type of economic comparison ignores external costs that conventional agriculture creates. The World Resources Institute, anenvironmental policy think tank, reports that when measured with traditional cost analysis methods the average farm shows an $80/acre profit. After accounting for all the external costs of soil loss, water contamination and environmental degradation caused by farming practices however, the average farm shows a $29/acre loss instead!
A number of European nations have started to factor these expenses into their agricultural support programs. In several European countries, such as Denmark and Sweden, farmers get government support during their conversion to organic and continue to receive support for environmental services that they provide to their communities, such as wildlife corridors and the elimination of toxic runoffs which contaminate underground water sources. These programs helped foster an almost 100-fold increase in organically farmed land in Europe, from 29,000 acres in 1986 to 2.4 million acres in 1996. Similar programs in the U.S. could help the conversion of more farms to organic methods. These price supports do not have to be subsidies, rather a compensation to organic farmers for each of the ecological and social services that they provide.
Despite claims from the biotech industry and academic researches, there is no indication that biotechnology will solve the shortcomings of industrial agriculture. Compared to the novel and untested crop systems that biotech corporations are pushing as the only solution to food security problems, organic farming has many advantages. The majority of genetically engineered crops currently in cultivation do not appear to show higher yields. For example, contrary to claims by Monsanto, a recent study by Dr. Charles Bendrook, the former director of the Board on Agriculture at the National Academy of Sciences, indicates that genetically engineered Roundup Ready soybeans do not increase yields (Bendrook, 1999). The report reviewed over 8,200 university trials in 1998 and found that Roundup Ready soybeans yielded 7-10% less than similar natural varieties. In addition, the same study found that farmers used 5-10 times more herbicide (Roundup) on Roundup Ready soybeans than on conventional ones. The only reason farmers seem to prefer Roundup Ready soybeans is because they simplify management of large chemically-intensive farms, by allowing them, for example, to spray larger doses of herbicides from planes on crops, engineered to be resistant to the particular herbicide. Applications of biotechnology continue the legacy of industrial agricultural with monocultures and high energy and chemical inputs.
Our current world food production is more than sufficient to provide an adequate diet to all humans, yet more than 840 million people are suffering from hunger. Hunger is a problem of poverty, distribution, and access to food. The question then, is not "how to feed the world", but rather, how can we develop sustainable farming methods that have the potential to help the world feed and sustain itself. Organic management practices promote soil health, water conservation and can reverse environmental degradation. The emphasis on small-scale family farms has the potential to revitalize rural areas and their economies. Counter to the widely held belief that industrial agriculture is more efficient and productive, small farms produce far more per acre than large farms. Industrial agriculture relies heavily on monocultures, the planting of a single crop throughout the farm, because they simplify management and allow the use of heavy machinery. Larger farms in the third world also tend to grow export luxury crops instead of providing staple foods to their growing population. Small farmers, especially in the Third World have integrated farming systems where they plant a variety of crops maximizing the use of their land.
They are also more likely to have livestock on their farm, which provides a variety of animal products to the local economy and manure for improving soil fertility. In such farms, though the yield per acre of a single crop might be lower than a large farm, total production per acre of all the crops and various animal products is much higher than large conventional farms (Rosset, 1999). Figure 1 shows the relationship between total production per unit area to farm size in 15 countries. In all cases, the smaller farms are much more productive per unit area— 200 to 1000 percent higher — than larger ones (Rosset, 1999).
Even in the United States, the smallest farms, those 27 acres or less, have more than ten times greater dollar output per acre than larger farms (US Agricultural Census, 1992). Conversion to small organic farms therefore, would lead to sizeable increases of food production worldwide. Only organic methods can help small family farms survive, increase farm productivity, repair decades of environmental damage and knit communities into smaller, more sustainable distribution networks — all leading to improved food security around the world.