Friday, October 31, 2014

The Unsustainability of Organic Farming

STANFORD – “Sustainable” has become one of the buzzwords of the twenty-first century. Increasing numbers of universities offer courses or even programs in “sustainability,” and many large companies boast substantial departments devoted to the subject. In April, many of the iconic multinational companies in the agriculture/food sector were represented at a three-day “Sustainable Product Expo,” convened by Wal-Mart – the largest retailer in the United States – at its Arkansas headquarters.

But, as with many vague, feel-good concepts, “sustainability” contains more than a little sophistry. For example, sustainability in agriculture is often linked to organic farming, whose advocates tout it as a “sustainable” way to feed the planet’s rapidly expanding population. But what does “sustainable” really mean, and how does it relate to organic methods of food production?

The organic movement’s claims about the sustainability of its methods are dubious. For example, a recent study found that the potential for groundwater contamination can be dramatically reduced if fertilizers are distributed through the irrigation system according to plant demand during the growing season; organic farming, however, depends on compost, the release of which is not matched to plant demand. Moreover, though composting receives good press as a “green” practice, it generates a significant amount of greenhouse gases (and is often a source of pathogenic bacteria in crops).

The study also found that “intensive organic agriculture relying on solid organic matter, such as composted manure that is mixed in to the soil prior to planting, resulted in significant down-leaching of nitrate” into groundwater. Increasing the nitrate levels in groundwater is hardly a hallmark of sustainability, especially with many of the world’s most fertile farming regions in the throes of drought.

A fundamental reason that organic food production is far less “sustainable” than many forms of conventional farming is that organic farms, though possibly well adapted for certain local environments on a small scale, produce far less food per unit of land and water. The low yields of organic agriculture – typically 20-50% below conventional agriculture – impose various stresses on farmland, especially on water consumption.

A British meta-analysis published in 2012 identified some of the stresses that were higher in organic agriculture. For example, it found that “ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching, and nitrous oxide emissions per product unit were higher from organic systems,” as were “land use, eutrophication potential, and acidification potential per product unit.”

Lower crop yields in organic farming are largely inevitable, owing to the arbitrary rejection of various advanced methods and technologies. Organic practices afford limited pesticide options, create difficulties in meeting peak fertilizer demand, and rule out access to genetically engineered varieties. If organic production were scaled up significantly, the lower yields would lead to greater pressure to convert land to agricultural use and produce more animals for manure, to say nothing of the tighter squeeze on water supplies – all of which are challenges to sustainability.

Another limitation of organic production is that it works against the best approach to enhancing soil quality – namely, the minimization of soil disturbance (such as that caused by plowing or tilling), combined with the use of cover crops. Such farming systems have many environmental advantages, particularly with respect to limiting erosion and the runoff of fertilizers and pesticides. Organic growers do frequently plant cover crops, but in the absence of effective herbicides, they often rely on tillage (or even labor-intensive hand weeding) for weed control.

At the same time, organic producers do use insecticides and fungicides to protect their crops, despite the green myth that they do not. More than 20 chemicals (mostly containing copper and sulfur) are commonly used in growing and processing organic crops – all acceptable under US rules for certifying organic products.

Perhaps the most illogical and least sustainable aspect of organic farming in the long term is the exclusion of “genetically engineered” (also known as “genetically modified,” or GM) plants – but only those that were modified with the most precise techniques and predictable results. Except for wild berries and wild mushrooms, virtually all the fruits, vegetables, and grains in European and North American diets have been genetically improved by one technique or another – often as a result of seeds being irradiated or undergoing hybridizations that move genes from one species or genus to another in ways that do not occur in nature.

The exclusion from organic agriculture of organisms simply because they were crafted with modern, superior techniques makes no sense. It not only denies farmers improved seeds, but also denies consumers of organic goods access to nutritionally improved foods, such as oils with enhanced levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

In recent decades, conventional agriculture has become more environmentally friendly and sustainable than ever before. But that reflects science-based research and old-fashioned technological ingenuity on the part of farmers, plant breeders, and agribusiness companies, not irrational opposition to modern insecticides, herbicides, genetic engineering, and “industrial agriculture.”

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  1. CommentedAndrei Sandberg

    Interesting discussion. The Empire strikes back? One can still not be without noticing a slight fanaticism on all sides. We've had these expert opinions for one side or another throughout our history. Big tobacco, big pharma, climate change sceptics - all have had their experts lobbying whatever. As a reader one would wish to hear more about the health factor. How healthy is mass-produced food in these times of malaise and obesity? Respectfully Yours.

  2. CommentedJames Regal

    Please name these pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides that you claim I use as an organic farmer. I've been farming for 31 years and have 100% never used anything to kill bug life, our anything else environmentally besides with a piece of tillage equipment.

    Also, my yields are very comparable to those that farm conventionally around me, last year I did as good of yields if not better then my neighbors, so again your statements are filled with mistruths and hyperbole.

  3. Portrait of Ingmar Schumacher

    CommentedIngmar Schumacher

    The authors stress important and neglected points about potentially adverse effects on sustainability from organic farming. Nevertheless I have some comments here:

  4. CommentedSara Van Rooy

    Overall this was a fair criticism of the claims that Organic agriculture is more sustainable than other methods. I would add that Organic composted manure often comes from non-Organically raised animals and this really means that synthetic fertilizer is used (second-hand) in much of Organic farming.

    This article started with raising a question about what the term "sustainability" even means. I wish the author had attempted to define it.

  5. CommentedNico Uys

    I have been invited to partake in comment on this article publicly . I went and read a couple of Mr. Millers public domain broad brushstroke unsupported comments. I hold your training in high regard and maybe you should discuss with other biologists to the amazing work that is done by improving compost with Em . By getting consortia living in your soil . Where ever there has been the better and bigger and healthier crop it always had a better soil-life profile. Which only happened by the agricultural methodology the farmer applied. Whether organic,biological or conventional. Many very successful conventional farmers now see the need and requirement to get good biology going in order to reach better and healthier crops and in order to spray less chemicals -but that does not get rid of the wrong pesticide residue.
    Many organic farmers live in a farm environment of soup concoctions and do not really apply even good agricultural practices. It is however the top organic and biological producers that I stand up for that are producing fruit and vegetables with excellent brix levels that the society wants and needs. This article is purely there to boost agrochemicals and GMO farming. Record highs of agrochemical products have been used despite the so-called reduction. Another commentator said terrific article - My comment - atrocious article.

  6. CommentedClyde Israel

    Let us start, and your comment is expected.
    One - your reference to organic and composting: any good organic farmer analyses the soil, thus understands what nutrients are required, as such composting is regulated accordingly. Micro and macro nutrients are balanced and soil health is optimised.

  7. CommentedNate Walsh

    Terrific article! I find it is particularly difficult to understand the sustainability of seafood as well:

  8. CommentedDan Hinckley

    Hmm you want to explain to me what else you're going to do with that manure? And unless you can talk about the whole lifecycle of the materials that go into inorganic farming and their environmental effects your story is only half told and disingenuously at that.

  9. CommentedAlasdair MacLean

    In the Wikipedia entry related to the original green revolution it is stated that the benefits of the green revolution were missed in Africa because the environmental movement campaigned against it. The environmental movement then is just the organic movement now. Some organisations are more pragmatic and combine organic(compost and manure) with inorganic.
    One major objection to the organic movement is that their plans take no account of poverty reduction. The main objective is the environment even if that means continued poverty for small holder farmers due to poor levels of production. I think that is the bias, anyway.

  10. CommentedTom Nesler

    This is a typical rant about Organic farming by a conventional farmer. Organic farming is opposed to brutally "enhancing" nature by using artificial fertilizers and pesticides to create a wasteland where only the correct plants can grow. If they could find a way to grow food without soil entirely, they would do so. but they need something to plant the seeds in.

    Organic farming has its problems, but the alternative methods are a time bomb waiting to go off which will make the dustbowl look like a dust bunny.

    The study quoted by the author is one done in Israel where they do combine fertilizer with water to deliver nutrients to the plants. But Israeli desert farming has no similarity to prairie farming in the US where fertilizer is dumped on the ground with tractors.

    Finally, creating roundup ready GMO crops is not even close to the typical selection and cross breeding methods used to produce today's hybrids.

    Organic Farming requires a different mindset. It sacrifices efficiency on the altar of cooperation with the ecology of the land. Yes, it will require more land and more labor. But the alternative is the poisoning of the planet.

      CommentedSteve Teade

      I am curious Mr. Nesler, what is artificial fertilizer? If you are referring to the fertilizer used by production agriculture, if I'm not mistaken, nitrogen is nitrogen, and sulfer is sulfer. So I am curious on teh artifical part??? The only difference is the carrier for said nutrients. Anhydrous ammonia is the most common carrier for nitrogen for production ag, manure seems to be the most common for organic. You do know manure has ammonia in it I assume? You also know that there is no consistent way to monitor the amount of nitrogen is manure unless you check every lb of it. Hence, you could be over fertilizing or under with no real way to tell allowing the leaching of nitrogen into groundwater more readily. over or under fertilizing your crop, and of course you know where e coli lurks don't you? There are so many more holes in organic farming I tire in trying to explain it to the crusaders that think everyone should be organic farmers. Most people by organic thinking it is safe and pure, but in reality the get neither, just a lesser product (kinda like the pet rock, slick sales based on what???). If you (or anyone) wants to be an organic farmer, great, but don't advertise false information and scare tactics to try and enhance your product when there is no documentation proving otherwise, and let the farmers do what they do best, feed the world with SAFE, nutritious, and inexpensive food while preserving our land.

      CommentedBenjamin Hunter

      -Tom Nesler: " If they could find a way to grow food without soil entirely, they would do so." They kinda have, Tom. It's called H-y-d-r-o-p-o-n-i-c-s... and "Organic Farming requires a different mindset." Yes it does. It's a mindset that cannot, will not, see past it's own sense of self-righteousness. I haven't met a single successful farmer who thought that he had it all figured out. Just hopefully, figured out enough. The same cannot be said about the organic fanatics willing to shill for "natural foods" growers. And btw, we don't "dump fertilizer on the ground with tractors". It's dangerous, stupid, and unsustainable. ;)

      Portrait of Henry I. Miller

      CommentedHenry I. Miller

      You are clueless. Two examples:
      (1) "Organic farming has its problems, but the alternative methods are a time bomb waiting to go off which will make the dustbowl look like a dust bunny." Rubbish. In fact, because of its low yields per input of water, it is organic agriculture that encourages desertification. An important contribution to agricultural sustainability are drought-tolerant crops crafted with genetic engineering techniques. See,, and
      (2) "Creating roundup ready GMO crops is not even close to the typical selection and cross breeding methods used to produce today's hybrids." You're wrong in two respects. First, genetic improvement is a seamless continuum which includes selection and hybridization, mutagenesis, and wide crosses (which move genes from one species or genus to another). All of these are permitted in organic farming. (As an example, look up the Clearfield family of herbicide-resistant seeds produced by BASF,

  11. CommentedStock Soup

    1) It is true that GMO has been unfairly demonized when the jury is still out on how to safely and effectively employ GMO.

    But consider this: The tobacco industry successfully obfuscated the fact that smoking caused cancer for more than twenty years at a cost of hundreds of thousand lives. Can we trust Big Ag to keep our food safe? No.

    As always, the answer is transparency, regulation and labeling.

    2) The Organic Food industry –
    a. Does not claim it is sustainable on a global scale,
    b. Is a work in progress. Like GMO there is good and bad and it all has to be worked out over time,
    c. So far has yielded better tasting vegetables and fruits,
    d. Uses no antibiotics in meat and poultry, the use of which has terrible consequences. (Pray you never get a staph infection in a hospital),

    As with GMO, organics should not be brush stoked as all good or bad.

      CommentedMartin Milkov

      1) "GMO has been unfairly demonized" agree, "the jury is still out on how to safely and effectively employ GMO" not quite sure what you mean exactly by "employ", GMOs have been around for about 15-20-ish years and the "scientific" jury is all For GMOs.
      Then you go about that "we can't trust Big Ag.", because of the cover-up of smoking causing cancer. I guessing that you are implying that there are not enough or no regulation? If yes you should do some research on the process of a GMO getting an approval for mass production.
      "transparency, regulation and labeling" - Transparency - completly agree, regulation - in my oppinion it is quite enough, labeling - why? because there is a difference between a regular corn and a GMO corn ? Well there is not, there is no stastical significant difference between them therefore there is no need for a label. Not to forget that there are already organic food stores popping out everywhere.
      Instead of labeling I would suggest "getting the message" to the public. Transparency alone is not enough, people have to be informed of the ongoing scientific advances of technology.
      2) a. In a way it does say exactly that. The organic food industry is against the coventional way of farming coming form this what are we left with ? You gest it - organic
      b. you say "work in progress" but don't really know about any inovation in the organic food industry. If there are any, please, do share. In the meantime I want to say that OFI is in a way in regression not progression, where GMOs are the prime exampe of progress in technology, biology and etc.
      c. let me share a video I watched yesterday it was quite amusing (strong language used !!!)
      d. I am not familiarized with this issue so I would abstain form commenting.
      I do agree with your end statement