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 gapminder.org) 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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Should there be a new way of living for the top one billion? – iPat edition redux

Steven Earl Salmony of the AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, commented on Dot Earth’s, “Do the Top Billion Need New Goals?

Dear Timberati,

Do you think there is any chance at all that Paul Ehrlich, despite his poor showing as prognosticator and gambler, will be shown to be one of the greatest scientists of all time?

After all Paul Ehrlich is the forerunner for recent research by Russell Hopfenberg and David Pimentel that appears to indicate with remarkable simplicity that human population dynamics are essentially similar to, not different from, the population dynamics of other species.

Since many too many population experts remain silent about this research and blogmeisters associated with the mass media refuse to discuss the peer-reviewed evidence, perhaps you could take a look at it, make your comments, and encourage by your example others to do the same. You can find the article, Human Population Numbers as a Function of Food Supply, by Hopfenberg and Pimentel on the worldwide web or at the links below.
http://www.panearth.org/
http://sustainabilityscience.org…
http://sustainabilitysoutheast.org/

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Now I visited the panearth.org site and came away unconvinced and with a feeling that even if it’s well-meaning, it hates humans.

I replied:
Dear Steve,

No.

Paul Ehrlich will be no more right than Tertullian was 1810 years ago, no more right than was Malthus 212 years ago, no more right than was Forrester 38 years ago, no more right than was et. al.

Again, to quote Macauly, “On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”

This ain’t my first rodeo.

I am NOT saying that feeding the 9.2 billion people that will inhabit this earth in 2075 will be a snap. Certainly not, especially if governments and greens try to keep agriculture in the mid 20th century. Yet it can be done as Norman Borlaug wrote a year or two before his death [ed note: here I’m incorrect, the quote is from 2002 and Borlaug died in 2009], “While challenging, the prospects are good that the world’s farmers will be able to provide a better diet at lower prices to more people in the future.” By the way, after the population peak, the UN (and other demographers) projects world population to fall.

Here’s the human race‘s track record so far:

“The availability of almost everything a person could want or need has been going rapidly upwards for 200 years and erratically upwards for 10,000 years before that: years of lifespan, mouthfuls of clean water, lungfuls of clean air, hours of privacy, means of travelling faster than you can run, ways of communicating farther than you can shout. This generation of human beings has access to more calories, watts, lumen-hours, square feet, gigabytes, megahertz, light years, nanometres, bushels per acre, miles per gallon, food miles, air miles and, of course, cash than any that went before.” (The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley)

This, not despite free trade, but because of free trade.

However, according to the panearth.org slide show, food production increase = population growth, or put another way, “If you feed them, they will come.” I disagree. While true for most animals, as ecologists are wont to point out the boom/bust nature of animal populations and food supply, it’s not true for humans. The number of children per woman links much better to infant mortality (arguably, if you want to lower birth rate you would feed people better not feed them less). So, the healthier (and more urbanized and wealthier) we become, the fewer babies women produce. (See Gapminder.org graphs: http://bit.ly/bjGoVN http://bit.ly/clvx0p and http://bit.ly/9jcCDX Note Mauritius and Botswana) Panearth.org packages Malthus’s theory as Powerpoint. I fundamentally find the panearth.org solution morally repugnant. It’s wildly misanthropic in its neo-Malthusian demand that we not increase food production because that will fuel a population explosion.

And, as you well know, 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), birth rates are headed down. They reach replacement level and keep dropping.”

Again, I am not saying things will magically become better. I am saying that increasing the wealth of all and placing resources in the places where we (the top one billion) get the best bang for the buck makes sense to me.

What should we top one billion commit to? (List from the Copenhagen Consensus Center)

1 Micronutrient supplements for children (vitamin A and zinc) to combat malnutrition
2 Enact the Doha development agenda to promote free trade
3 Micronutrient fortification (iron and salt iodization) to combat malnutrition
4 Expand immunization coverage for children
5 Biofortification to combat malnutrition
6 Deworming and other nutrition programs at school to combat malnutrition and improve Education
7 Lowering the price of schooling
8 Increase and improve girl’s schooling
9 Community-based nutrition promotion to combat malnutrition
10 Provide support for women’s reproductive role

You and I may not be able to reach an understanding with this one. This may be a case of what Easterbrook terms, “The collective refusal to believe that life is getting better.” For me, not only is the glass half-full, there’s evidence that everyone will have more to drink soon.

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I doubt that I can change Dr Salmony’s mind. After all, he believes enough in the inevitability of the population implosion, (where humanity runs out of food and other resources causing a dramatic drop in numbers. Billions will perish) that he heads a campaign and now is in competition to get attention and funds.

I do hope to change the minds of some who visit Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth blog. Instead of contributing to, what to my mind is a misanthropic endeavor, that they consider one or all of these three charities: FARM-Africa, International Policy Network, AgBioWorld Foundation

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