Research and bias / by Simmon Li

I've been reading up on reports and reports about organic, low-input farming. I read that yields could be as low as 50%, and I wanted to check for myself. It was a little staggering reading the OECD report on sustainable agriculture. There's discussion on how to measure productivity efficiency, and almost all the current research concludes that yield per land area per time is the best measurement. And then it hit me. It's a little bit of a measurement bias, isn't it? The assumption is that more land use is bad for the environment. While, supposedly, the environmental benefits of organic farming are not proven (improved soil quality, less petrochemical inputs, and increased biodiversity), organic farming actually restores health to the land. Don't get me wrong, total yield is important as a measure, but the current way most reports measures productivity and efficiency strike me as a half finished painting. Conventional farming does have increased yields (20% more on average) ((Myers, Adrian. Organic Futures, p194 (2005) )), but at what cost? A lot of the reports trumpet the fact that conventional farming produces cheaper goods, and every time, I had to ask myself, "At what cost?" The whole idea of living on natural interest, as opposed to natural capital. There isn't a lot of research on comparative yields, and the majority of that research is pretty old (pre-2005). I'm no agricultural expert, but I would love to do a study on comparative yields these days. I think it's something that we should be taking more seriously. I have this grand idea in my head that low-input farming is the way of the future. The OECD doesn't seem to think that it's the way to go, predicting food security issues down the road, but I'm not so sure I trust all their sources. The language in all the research was very deprecating of organic farming while drawing up (imo) questionable conclusions that conventional farming is better.

The benefit of organic inputs extends beyond their nutritional value, for example, by contributing to improved soil physical conditions. But organic materials are not sufficient to replenish nutrients removed by crop harvests. ((OECD. Organic Agriculture: Sustainability, Markets, and Policies, p97 (2003) ))

If organic farming is defined only as that which is done with a restricted list of inputs, its ability to meet the challenge will be less than that of integrated farming systems. Lower input use equates to lower quantity and quality of food produced, with greater detrimental impact on the environment. ((Ibid, p98))

That is the kind of assertion that I find questionable. Part of the problem is the industrial definition of "organic". Not all "organic" farms are the same, and that's the sad truth. A lot of "organic" farms really are just commercial farming operations using different inputs (and thus, this quote would be correct, and a combination of fertilizers would have to be used to maintain soil quality). The word "organic" has so many realizations in OECD countries that it's very easy for the reports to focus on the very inefficient kind of "organic" and paint the whole system as faulty. And well, as the second quote shows, that's pretty much the situation. They're right. In North America, the word "organic" can be used by companies that meet certain requirements. As an example, the term "free-range" can be put on packages of chicken if the chickens have access to a patch of land. What they don't tell you is that these chickens are grown in CAFOs and about a week before they are slaughtered, move into an area that has a flap that they can move through to access the small lawn. Basically, these chickens are fed organically grown feed, and run through the system. They don't actually have a free-range in which to roam. ((Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore's Dilemma))

Organic Futures was fairly optimistic on the subject, and had a section on organic farming without animal husbandry, which I thought was interesting. I didn't read the book in detail, I just picked out the section on productivity, but it was enough that I may be renewing the book and reading it all the way through. I realize that the book has a bias for organic farming, but it all just sounds so good.

The reality is, organic farming has many different levels. From holistic to industrial organic, not everything is created equal. I believe that the holistic approach is the way of the future, and I'd be interested in seeing a study done on truly organic production vs conventional production, measured in yield per hectare per pound of outside input per time. The foundation of modern industrial farming is petrochemicals, and that's something that is increasingly becoming more expensive. So you have to ask yourself, why is food so cheap when we rely on depleting our natural wealth to subsidize it?