Organic vs Industrial ag: lotta continua

You’ll have seen bits of the hoohah surrounding the meta-analysis of organic agriculture published in Nature. Having nothing to add, I’m very content to reblog this, from Big Picture Agriculture.

My biggest complaint with these Foley papers in the journal Nature is that they ignore the unsustainable energy inputs for industrial ag, and I’ve said so before. Today, the coverage of this new study is splashed across headlines everywhere, most of the headlines stating that organic production under-performs industrial production. While this is obviously a complex subject, the main point in the conclusion of this study is that the calorie-dense grains have higher yields using industrial production methods. I preferred the way the LAT presented the paper: Organic farming, carefully done, can be efficient. Organic agriculture produces smaller harvests than conventional methods, but the difference can be minimized by employing the right techniques, a study finds. (LATimes) Here is the Nature paper link.

14 Replies to “Organic vs Industrial ag: lotta continua”

  1. What about crop genetics?? I read the actual Nature piece and no mention of seed or breeding.
    Organic vs Conventional studies are often flawed in that they ignore that most organic farmers are using seed bred for conventional systems (Edith Lammert Van Burean from Lois Bolk estimates 95% of organic crop acreage world wide relies on seed that has not been adapted to organic), or seed that has not been improved at all (majority of US seed planted in organic systems is not organic).
    The first axiom of breeding is to breed in area of intended use, and organic environments are quite different than conventional. Research from Washington State University shows evidence that when organic farmers used wheat seed that had been selected in organic systems for multiple generations there is as much as 20% increase in wheat yields, compared to when they plant conventional seed.

      1. Kevin Murphy (who works a lot with Steve) was the lead:

        Also, the State of Organic Seed Report that I co-authored showed that over a 14 year period in US, less than $7 million was spent on breeding for organic systems in public sector…and the private conventional seed sector has been slow (to almost non-engaged) to invest in breeding for organic producers. It’s quite clear organic growers are using sub-optimal cultivars.

  2. The study was well-conducted but with an extremely limited data set, and the data itself are perhaps a bit suspect. A careful examination of the data show that organic/conventional yield ratios have been continually going down for the past 20 years. Something strange is going on here. Also, the figure they reported of 25% reduction in yield is misleading since they averaged the logarithms of the yield ratios and then exponentiated the average of the logs. If you just take the straight average from their data set, the figure is 19%. Furthermore, if you parse the data and look at only the same time frame that the Badgley study looked at, the average yield ratios are identical, which is to say, the Badgley study was right on the mark from the beginning.

  3. In terms of thing that are ignored, there missing debits on the organic side too. There is no obvious accounting in the Nature paper of the extra land (or fallow in rotations) need to produce (green) manure fertiliser, and even the various subsidies and even outright frauds where current organic systems use the recycled nitrogen from synthetic nitrogen fertilisers.

    As far as
    “Also, the State of Organic Seed Report that I co-authored showed that over a 14 year period in US, less than $7 million was spent on breeding for organic systems in public sector…and the private conventional seed sector has been slow (to almost non-engaged) to invest in breeding for organic producers. It’s quite clear organic growers are using sub-optimal cultivars.”

    Why not use the seed industry varieties already on the market? There plenty of money invested there. Why do you need to reinvent the wheel?

    1. David Tribe, plant breeders “breed in the area of intended use” – and one can give dozens of examples of how organic and conventional environments and practices differ (in how fertility enters and is held in the field, for two). Yes, some varieties bred in conventional systems do work in organic – I am not claiming that we need to start over from scratch – but there is an obvious paucity of research into characterization, adaptation, and breeding in organic systems.

      Please share more about this “fraud” that you suggest is rampant enough to need to be included in such a broad study. Any studies you can site?

      It’s also quite clear to me from reading your other blogging that you have a deep disdain for organic, so not sure that this can be an objective discussion for you (full disclosure – I work and consult in both organic and conventional systems, and am inspired by the work farmers and researchers do in BOTH systems).

      1. David and Matthew both bring up good points, both that there are still factors in the total environmental footprint that are not included (manure source) and that breeding can adapt varieties to particular growing conditions, including low-input organic conditions. However I fail to see how the low-input conditions would even come close to the yield of the conventional systems in all crops, despite adaptation. Is there evidence that this is the case?
        I, too, would like to see evidence that fraud in organics is rampant enough to be a big issue in the issue of yield. Of course, such a thing would be hard to find in principle, but there was a high-profile organic fertilizer company in California (I think) that was fraudulently selling conventional fertilizer as “organic.”
        I would be much more interested to hear, with Matthew’s attack on David, why he has not responded to the question about not accounting for the source of Nitrogen in those organic systems? He should know more about this than most people commenting here. It would be quite grand to hear him at one of the many farming conference shindigs featuring organic criticize the obviously flawed claims brought up by many a speaker, citing Badgley et al,* etc, and even Rodale, while ignoring the existing data that demonstrates that organic agriculture, in general, does not yield as much as “conventional.”** This should be a non-controversial claim. Yet, it gets some folks worked up and gearing for a thrashing. Yes, improvements can be made, and they will, and can we can talk about all the finer details until the cows come home, and I’d love to do that, too. But dialog needs a common grounding in reality and claims from either camp that require evidence should be supported, otherwise all we’re arguing about are our hypotheses.
        * I’m not just jumping on the anti-Badgley bandwagon – I do believe that the paper is awful – and all it took was one reading to realize that it should never be cited in any argument over agriculture, except as an example of what not to do. One of the “organic” systems cited in the study even used genetically engineered crops! (Or wait, maybe that’s what we ought to do.)
        ** I thoroughly dislike this term, because includes everything from non-certified organic production to diverse and interesting systems, to continuous corn in Iowa.

  4. Jeremy/David: The link you give takes us to Steve’s point about the need for varieties specifically for organic production. But Steve says: “That is, conventional and biotech seed breeders are producing varieties that are designed to work with soluble chemical fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and other pesticides.” This is too general and certainly not true of CGIAR plant breeding for developing countries, where there has been massive breeding for fertilizer use efficiency, pest and disease resistance, and Striga control. And where is the evidence that plants can distinguish between the solubility or not of plant nutrients: they have to be soluble to get into the plant?

    On John’s point on the Badgley data – she uses SRI – which is not [now] organic; she uses lots of data from Pretty – this is not strictly organic but variously agroecological or `sustainable’, and, for a large part, for developing countries, shows the effect of project versus non-project, rather than organic versus non-organic. Rice shows up poorly and large (50ha) mixed farms in South America are over-represented.

    In general I couldn’t give a monkey’s about organic versus `industrial’ farming in the US and the EU but I do care about recommendations from people in developed countries being transposed to Africa. If people want organic in Africa, then go and live there and research the issue (and produce new varieties) on the spot.

  5. According to US regulations, organic farmers can use non-approved inputs where there is no other option on the market. So they can use GM seed if there is no other seed available which is adapted to local conditions.

  6. I’m on a phone at airport, but a quick response to Karl. I didn’t respond to the fertility issue of green manures because I do not have adequate knowledge of this issue.

    I did not attack David, any more than someone attacks another by pointing out “I see you like to wear blue” – David’s opinions on organic are quite clear and obvious. As our yours and Eric’s (and Eric, you are incorrect, organic growers can use conventional untreated seed, but not GE seed). I brought the bias he holds up as it is difficult to discuss the merits of breeding for organic (the only point I was making about the study) with someone who has this bias. We all hold bias, so I don’t mean that as an insult. David, if I was incorrect in this deduction that you are anti organic – I apologize.

    Karl, I would think that “the finer details” such as plant genetic improvement would indeed be an appropriate topic on this blog, and to someone getting a PhD in such details. No?

    1. “I did not attack David, any more than someone attacks another by pointing out “I see you like to wear blue”’
      What an odd thing to say. David brought up criticisms of the issue, and you brought up criticisms of David’s beliefs and motivations. That is called an ad hominem attack.
      I really don’t know what to say.

      “Karl, I would think that “the finer details” such as plant genetic improvement would indeed be an appropriate topic on this blog, and to someone getting a PhD in such details. No?”
      I don’t know where you get the idea that I’m not interested in discussing that topic. As I said, I would LOVE to. It is interesting to think about selection for different environments, and what genes and traits would be important, etc. My point was, however, that even with adaptation from breeding, I don’t think it would do as well as “conventional.” And if you want to go into those details, as I know you have mentioned in other discussions having grain plants with longer stems again to suppress weeds, you could run into the problem of lodging, for instance. I still fail to understand how again and again the fact that I’m studying plant genetics is used as some sort of way to attack me personally. How odd.
      There are a lot of things to like about the Rodale research, however, my main criticism is that it does not investigate what are the important variables, and stereotypes the two systems. The drought tolerance experienced is also seen in conventional “conservation tillage”, I’ve even seen some plots used to research this issue at CIMMYT last year. It was not organic. A better long-term experiment would start from an exploratory standpoint with a matrix of the different variables, at more than one location. Naturally, that would be expensive and involved – but don’t you think that would have the potential to discover good things that don’t fit pre-existing narratives?

    1. Jeremy: The Rodale results depend on their definition of contrasting systems. Their `Conventional Synthetic’ is not applicable over most of Britain, where `conventional’ farmers use lots of organic manure on arable crops – far more in total that the organic sector – but also synthetic fertilizer. This to me seems a `best bet’ if the inputs are available at an economic cost. Also, animal manure alone has a huge ecological footprint, as the feed would include South American soya which, as we are repeatedly told, is grown in `The Amazon’. It is very easy under organic to report huge yields (viz. the Tigray project) if you leave out the large area needed to grow the inputs.

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