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spaghetti tree

Organic agriculture is a low-yield alternative to conventional agriculture, despite some claims to the contrary and counter to assertions that organic farming can “feed the world.” The inferiorities of organic techniques were described last week by Henry I. Miller and Richard Cornett:

The low yields of organic agriculture–typically 20%-50% percent lower than conventional agriculture–impose various stresses on farmland and especially on water consumption. A British meta-analysis published in the Journal of Environmental Management (2012) addressed the question whether organic farming reduces environmental impacts. It identified some of the stresses that were higher in organic, as opposed to conventional, agriculture: ‘ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching and nitrous oxide emissions per product unit were higher from organic systems,’ as were ‘land use, eutrophication potential and acidification potential per product unit.’

Organic production is also more soil disruptive, which leads to greater erosion and run-off, to say nothing of the pathogens introduced by heavy application of composted animal and sometimes human waste (the video on sewage treatment at this link is very interesting). Also, as the article notes, we have known for a couple of years that organics are not necessarily more nutritious than produce grown conventionally.

Organic food should always remain a viable choice for consumers should they insist on organic standards and are willing to pay the cost. However, the conceit that the world can be fed using organic agricultural techniques (like the trope that only organic farming is “sustainable”) is nothing less than cruel naivete. Given the low yields typical of organic farming, such an effort would imply a massive increase in land use, require major investment in the development of water supplies in many regions, and increase food costs to consumers. And it would fail to take advantage of biotechnology technology that can help crops withstand drought, reduce blight, reduce pesticide use, and bring important nutritional advantages. As the great Norman Borlaug would have insisted, to feed the world’s 9 billion mouths, organic farming cannot hope to compete with high-yield agriculture.