Comparing organic farming to conventional. Is one better for the environment?

Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, estimated we could feed four billion people if we used organic farming. The earth now is home to seven billion people and will probably go to nine billion before leveling off and declining, according to the United Nations. Organic farming means 50% of our world population would die horrible deaths. Who should decide who lives?

Alternatively, we could double our farmland and cultivate over 80% of our earth’s land. Goodbye, rainforests.

Yes, there is another alternative, to lower population growth, but that is already occurring. The answer is not less food but more food and wealth to have that trend continue. (See this animated chart at Population growth is plummeting. Not one country has a higher birth rate now than it had in 1960. “Most environmentalists still haven’t gotten the word,” writes Stewart Brand (of Whole Earth Catalog fame), “On every part of every continent and in every culture (even Mormon [his words]), birth rates are headed down. They reach replacement level and keep dropping.”

Why is it that organic farming cannot support as many people that conventional farming can? It turns out that pesticides and fertilizers both cut down on losses to pests and boost growth of the plants. Fossil fuels allow conventional farming to use less land than organic methods. “By spending not much energy to make fertilizer and run machinery — and trivial amounts of energy to ship the stuff we grow from the places it grows best,” writes Stephen Budiansky, a former editor of the scientific journal, Nature.

Organic farming is less efficient than conventional farming; as a result, the earth suffers. Without pesticides and fertilizers boosting yields, we have to press more land into production, land that was forested before being pressed into agricultural use.

Converting land to agricultural use is the prime cause of deforestation, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) . Let me repeat that because it bears repeating.

Converting land to agricultural use is the prime cause of deforestation.

Conventional farming needs fewer acres. There is real environmental degradation in organic agriculture because it requires an average of 30% more than conventional agriculture.

“We have spared and conserved hundreds of millions of acres of land that otherwise would have had to be brought into agricultural production. That’s land that protects wildlife, that adds scenic beauty.- Stephen Budiansky

That means we spare wetlands, grasslands, forests, and rainforests from being cleared for agriculture.English: Organic farming

The earth cannot afford organic. We cannot afford organic. The ineluctable tradeoff comes down to land for agriculture versus land for wildlife. We should always pick nature and habitat over ‘natural’ food and terroir. Agriculture, whether organic or conventional fragments and diminishes habitat, displaces wildlife, and uses toxic pesticides (yes, organic farmers use “natural” pesticides).

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Deforestation: causes and cures

Cute, clever, incorrect.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations’s Forest Resource Assessment for 2005 uses the word “alarming” 20 times to describe the trend lines for deforestation. And, a commonplace inference is that forests are rapidly disappearing due to logging.

Yet deforestation is not necessarily the result of logging (illegal or otherwise). About half of the wood consumed in the world is for heating or cooking [Global Forest Resource Assessment 2010 – Key Findings] with much greater fire and fuelwood consumption rates in Africa and Asia. The culprit is primarily conversion to agriculture followed by wood for heating and cooking. Fires, slash and burn agriculture, mining, and hydro-electric projects also cause deforestation


It’s often done by people trying to eke livings from the land. A 1996 report by the Consultative Group on International Research (CGIAR) report states that:

[T]he main threat to tropical forests comes from poor farmers who have no other option to feeding their families other than slashing and burning a patch of forest and growing food crops until the soil is exhausted after a few harvests, which then forces them to move on to a new patch of forest land. Slash-and-burn agriculture results in the loss or degradation of some 25 million acres of land per year (10 million hectares).

“Some 350 million people in tropical countries are forest dwellers who derive half or more of their income from the forest. Forests provide directly 10 percent of the employment in developing countries,” says Jeffrey Sayer, Director General of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), based in Bogor, Indonesia, which researches better ways to manage and preserve existing forests. CIFOR is one of two CGIAR research institutes that specialize in tropical forestry.

Once the primary causes of deforestation are obvious, it becomes equally obvious that lowering the demand for wood (by using less wood or substitutes) will not make a difference in lessening world deforestation. It’s not the demand for lumber or paper that drives the cutting. It’s the demand for farm or pasture land, or the demand for heat from burning.

What’s the answer? More efficient stoves will help those using wood for heating and cooking to lower demand. As I’ve noted before, fuel-efficient Patsari stoves use 70% less firewood than open fireplaces, according to the Ecolife Foundation. (In Mexico, Ecolife installs $120 stoves and works with locals to help maintain the forest for the winter grounds of the monarch butterflies). Stopping slash and burn farming means finding better opportunities for employment. This may mean microloans to these subsistence farmers.


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How much deforestation is there?

I mentioned the other day in “What Killed the environmental Movement, that generally environmental organizations tell you how bad things are but will never say anything improved? Check this out:

[Illegal logging and unsustainable forest practices] lead to the loss of nearly 36 million acres of natural forests each year, an area roughly the size of New York state. The world’s poorest people often bear the brunt… – World Wildlife Fund

Now I crosschecked with the 2005 Global Forest Resources Assessment compiled by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO):

Deforestation, mainly due to conversion of forests to agricultural land, continues at an alarmingly high rate – some 13 million hectares [32.1 million acres] per year. – 2005 FAO report

Now, that’s close enough that I wouldn’t quibble, but the FAO adds that due to reforestation the number is less.

At the same time, forest planting, landscape restoration and natural expansion of forests have significantly reduced the net loss of forest area.

And is the culprit illegal logging and poor forest management? Sometimes. From this FAO graphic it looks like it fuelwood gathering.

In fact, it’s an improvement. An improvement of over a million and a half hectares (4 million acres) per year:

Net global change in forest area in the period 2000–2005 is estimated at -7.3 million hectares per year (an area about the size of Panama or Sierra Leone), down from -8.9 million hectares per year in the period 1990–2000.

I know, I know, we’re still losing acreage and I agree with the WWF that “The world’s poorest people often bear the brunt…” but much of that is due to the United States desire not to harvest in its own forests.

Consider California ability to grow trees and its demand for wood. It has 40 million acres of forest with 313 billion board feet (BBF) of timber In 2000, 2 BBF were harvested.

California has 40 million acres of forest with 313 billion board feet (BBF) of timber. In 2000, 2 BBF were harvested from California and we consumed 8.5 BBF, a difference of 6.5 Billion board feet had to be imported from somewhere else.
(Source: McKillop, William. “Forestry, Forest Industry, and Forest Products Consumption in California.”)

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