Organic can be the right choice for fruit, sometimes

This “Green Chain”column will be published in the Lake County Record-Bee on Tuesday.

The National Organic Program administers the O...

The National Organic Program administers the Organic Seal to products that meet the requirements. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” – John Maynard Keynes.

Forgive me please for starting this month’s column with the same John Maynard Keynes’ quote as last month’s. But new facts have been brought to light.

I have long maintained that it is wrong-headed to always choose organically-produced foods over foods produced using synthetic chemicals and fossil fuels. I have previously pointed out the use of fossil fuels to produce pesticides and fertilizers and run machinery allows conventional farming to use less land than organic methods. And, when taken in aggregate worldwide, we spare wetlands, grasslands, forests, and sundry open spaces from being cleared for agriculture. Had farmers continued to use organic farming methods, they would have needed to exponentially increase the acreage under cultivation in order to increase production to meet demand. And since agriculture is the number one cause of deforestation, more acres under cultivation means a loss of biodiversity, which is the last thing proponents of organic agriculture want.

A newly published report in the journal Nature shows that I am incorrect, if only slightly. This new paper forces me to revise my statement. The new statement: it is generally wrong-headed to always choose organically-produced foods over foods produced using synthetic chemicals and fossil fuels.

The report is titled, “Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture.” While I have admittedly only been able to access the abstract, the authors find that organic farming methods are indeed less efficient than conventional ones: anywhere from 5 percent to 34 percent less efficient. But they also state, “Under certain conditions—that is, with good management practices, particular crop types and growing conditions—organic systems can thus nearly match conventional yields.”

Those “nearly match” crop types they refer to are not, sadly, vegetable and grain crops, which provide most of the calories for the world’s populations. Organic yields for vegetable and grains generally fall one-third below the yields of conventionally grown crops. On the Nature website Melissa Gilbert paraphrases lead author Verena Seufert, “Cereals and vegetables need lots of nitrogen to grow, suggesting that the yield differences are in large part attributable to nitrogen deficiencies in organic systems.”

Some fruits, on the other hand, under ideal circumstances can produce up to 97 percent of the amount of conventional yields if they are planted in rotation with nitrogen-fixing legumes to replace the critical nitrogen in the soil. Still, this 97 percent only counts the yield of the fruit crop. It ignores the need to harvest a legume instead of fruit every other rotation. There is no such need with conventional methods, which can bring double the yield since farmers would not necessarily need to rotate to a legume.

We often wax nostalgic for the good old days. Somehow, those days were better and technology, on the whole, has been bad. We downplay the benefits. Stephen Budiansky, a former editor of Nature, writes that due to the use of technology “…the total land area of American farms remains almost unchanged from a century ago, at a little under a billion acres, even though those farms now feed three times as many Americans and export more than 10 times as much as they did in 1910.”

So, if you are concerned about preserving forests, wetlands, and open space, it is usually, but not always, wrong-headed to always choose organically produced foods over foods produced using synthetic chemicals and fossil fuels—if we’re talking about certain fruits, that is.

Sources:
Biello, David. ”Will Organic Food Fail to Feed the World?” Scientific American. April 25, 2012. (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=organic-farming-yields-and-feeding-the-world-under-climate-change accessed 04/25/2012)

Budiansky, Stephen. “Math Lessons for Locavores.” NYTimes.com. Published: August 19, 2010. (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/20/opinion/20budiansky.html?_r=2 accessed 07/31/2011)

Gilbert, Melissa. “Organic farming is rarely enough: Conventional agriculture gives higher yields under most conditions.” Nature News & Comment. (http://www.nature.com/news/organic-farming-is-rarely-enough-1.10519 accessed 06/13/2012)

Seufert, Verena, Navin Ramankutty, and Jonathan A. Foley. abstract for “Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture.” Nature (2012) doi:10.1038/nature11069 (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature11069.html accessed 06/13/2012)

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Green Games

Cover of "The Skeptical Environmentalist:...

Cover of “The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World” Cover via Amazon

 

Here is today’s Green Chain column for the Lake County Record-Bee.

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” – John Maynard Keynes.

It appears we are witnessing the crumbling of the green movement, as we know it. Dr. James Lovelock, who postulated the ‘Gaia hypothesis’ of earth operating as a self-regulating organism, is the latest to stray, if not exactly leave the faith. The list non-orthodox greens grows continually and now includes Mark Lynas, the author of The God Species and Stewart Brand, the author of the iconic Whole Earth Catalog.

Perhaps the first to change his mind and leave the Greens was Dr. Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace. He felt those in the environmental movement had made their point,

“[W]hen a majority of people decide they agree with you it is probably time to stop hitting them over the head with a stick and sit down and talk to them about finding solutions to our environmental problems,” Patrick Moore says.

Greens have always been fractious, and similar to the Tea Party on the right, they hate compromise. Former Greenpeace director Paul Watson berated Patrick Moore in an email: “you’re a corporate whore, Pat, an eco-Judas, a lowlife bottom-sucking parasite…” And, Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist took a pie in the face from then true believer, Mark Lynas.

At the heart of the disagreement sits the use of technology. “There is a battle underway for the soul of environmentalism,” writes freelance journalist Keith Kloor, “It is a battle between traditionalists and modernists. Who prevails is likely to be determined by whose vision for the future is chosen by a new generation of environmentalists.”

Traditionalist Greens say, “Stop!” Technology is the Problem. The Worldwatch Institute says we should not simply stop growing our economies, but we must actually contract: “The rapidly warming Earth and the collapse of ecosystem services show that economic ‘degrowth’ in overdeveloped countries is essential and urgent…. Degrowth can be achieved through policies to discourage overconsumption, raising taxes, shortening work hours, and ‘informalizing’ certain sectors of the economy.” The goal, Rik Scarce writes in his book “Eco-Warriors,” is to arrive at “a steady-state relationship with all of nature’s creations, wherein human attitudes and actions dominate no one and no one thing. Their alternative seeks to guarantee life, liberty, evolution, and happiness for humans and non-humans alike.”

Modernist Greens say that technology has a role in making the world greener and more livable for all creatures, including humans. Stewart Brand says “If Greens don’t embrace science and technology” they risk becoming irrelevant.

The modernists are in favor of cities, people, and technology (including genetically engineered food).

Cities, people, and technology are…good? What is happening? Has the world gone crazy?

Perhaps the world is crazy. (Not exactly a news flash now, is it?)

As you know, I have argued on these pages that people, cities, technology, and economic growth have not only improved our lives here in the United States, but have improved the environment. Economic growth using non-renewables has overall been beneficial. The author of “The Rational Optimist,” Matt Ridley notes that technology takes less land and uses materials other species do not want:

“[E]conomic development leads to a switch to using resources that no other species needs or wants…. Contrast Haiti, which relies on biomass (wood) for cooking and industry, with its much (literally) greener neighbour the Dominican Republic, which subsidises propane for cooking to save forest…. [E]conomic growth leads to a more sparing use of the most important of all resources – land.”

Is economic growth and technology a wonder cure? A panacea that works with no side effects? No. But, then everything has its upsides and downsides.

If we humans continue to move from rural to urban (cities are denser), drill and mine for our energy rather than grow it, continue to wring more food and fiber from each acre, and develop incentives for conserving water and our fisheries, we will yet leave a better place for our (and Nature’s) children and grandchildren.

Matt Ridley sums it up well:

“Seven billion people going back to nature would be a disaster for nature.”

Notes/Sources:

  • Johnston, Ian. ‘Gaia’ scientist James Lovelock: I was ‘alarmist’ about climate change. msnbc.com. http://worldnews.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/04/23/11144098-gaia-scientist-james-lovelock-i-was-alarmist-about-climate-change
  • “If Greens don’t embrace science and technology and jump ahead to a leading role in both, they may follow the Reds into oblivion.” Brand, Stewart. Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering Are Necessary · “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/John_Maynard_Keynes
  • Kloor, Keith. “The Limits to Environmentalism” Discover.com http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/crux/2012/04/27/the-limits-to-environmentalism/
  • Assadourian, Erik. “The Path to Degrowth in Overdeveloped Countries.” Worldwatch Institute, STATE OF THE WORLD 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity
  • Moore, Patrick. “Confessions of a Greenpeace founder.” 2011. Vancouver Sun. http://www.vancouversun.com/opinion/Confessions+Greenpeace+founder/4073767/story.html#ixzz1BErUqcWL
  • Scarce, Rik. Eco-Warriors: understanding the radical environmental movement. 1990. Noble Press, Chicago, IL
  • “Seven billion people going back to nature would be a disaster for nature.” Comment by Matt Ridley. Hickman, Leo. Does consumption need tackling before population? http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2012/apr/26/royal-society-report-consumption-population#block-17

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