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).

Post to Twitter

Is Africa turning its back on a green revolution?

The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) says that West African farmers do not like what Kofi Annan’s AGRA (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa) is selling. What AGRA is selling is principally the tenets of Dr. Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution: hybridized seeds, irrigation, and chemical pesticides and fertilizers for farmers. The West African farmers cannot and should not be forced by anyone to use fertilizer or genetically enhanced seeds or any other modern farming method. Yet, the Green Revolution transformed Asia. Why would they want to turn their backs on proven techniques?

“Food and agriculture policy and research tend to ignore the values, needs, knowledge and concerns of the very people who provide the food we all eat — and often serve instead powerful commercial interests such as multinational seed and food retailing companies,” says project leader Dr Michel Pimbert of IIED. “There is a clear vision from these small farmers. They are rejecting the approach of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.”

Farmers, pastoralists, food processors and consumers from Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Benin listened to experts and then, according to IIED, called for “direct involvement in the design and implementation of agricultural research. Among other things, they said research should focus on improving the productivity of local crop varieties and farming practices such as seed sharing instead of moving towards more intensive farming that relies on hybrid seeds and expensive external inputs,” said Pimbert.

“We are choosing to invest in what we believe will work,” said Sylvia Mathews Burwell, a member of the AGRA board. According to the article in, “AGRA is putting its funding in the development of new seed varieties such as drought-tolerant maize, improving soil fertility and market access and farmer education.”

I guess I should not be surprised that West African farmers wish to use local seed, apply little or no chemical fertilizer (because chemicals are expensive), and have research show them how to achieve greater yields using local seed and little fertilization. Many Americans believe that we can pay less in taxes and exceed the present benefits provided by the government (Medicare and Social Security come to mind).

Governments and farmers have objected before to modified exotic seeds and nontraditional cultivation methods on ideological grounds. As Matt Ridley documents in his book The Rational Optimist, “Between 1963 and 1966, Borlaug and his Mexican dwarf wheat faced innumerable hurdles to acceptance in Pakistan and India. Jealous local researchers deliberately under-fertilised the experimental plots…The Indian state grain monopolies lobbied against the seeds, spreading rumours that they were susceptible to disease…But gradually, thanks to Borlaug’s persistence, the Mexican dwarf wheat prevailed. The Pakistani agriculture minister took to the radio extolling the new varieties. The Indian agriculture minister ploughed and planted his cricket pitch.”

Yet in 1968, Ridley writes, “there were not enough people, bullock carts, trucks or storage facilities to cope with the crop. In some towns grain was stored in schools.” While the seed was pivotal–Borlaug’s Mexican dwarf wheat didn’t fall over and ‘lodge’ when well fertilized–the real key was nitrogen provided by fertilizer. And the key to the nitrogen was fossil fuel. The nitrogen in the fertilizer came from the air and was combined with water gas to make ammonia–the Haber-Bosch process–the cheapest method of nitrogen fixation.

“Since 1900,” Ridley writes, “the world has increased its population by 400 per cent; its cropland area by 30 per cent; its average yields by 400 per cent and its total crop harvest by 600 per cent. So per capita food production has risen by 50 per cent. Great news – thanks to fossil fuels.”

Borlaug had little use for elitism, “If they [academics, theorists, environmental lobbyists] lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.”

The IIED process has the whiff of neo-Lysenkoism, don’t you think?



About increasing farm yields, Ronald Bailey notes (on the topic of overpopulation) on the site:

Applying modern agricultural technologies more widely would go a long way toward boosting yields. For example, University of Minnesota biologist Ronald Phillips points out that India produces 31 bushels of corn per acre now which is at the same point U.S. yields were in the 1930s. Similarly, South Africa produces 40 bushels (U.S. 1940s yields); Brazil 58 bushels (U.S. 1950s yields); China 85 bushels (U.S. 1960s yields). Today’s modern biotech hybrids regularly produce more than 160 bushels of corn per acre in the Midwest. For what it’s worth, the corporate agriculture giant Monsanto is aiming to double yields on corn, soybeans, and cotton by 2030. Whether or not specific countries will be able to feed themselves has less to do with their population growth than it does with whether they adopt policies that retard their economic growth.

Post to Twitter