The fruits of organic farming

Les Schaffer schaffer at
Wed Apr 18 17:40:03 MDT 2001

Carrol said:

> Ooops! This won't be a Plus for everyone. I've been buying Braeburn
> apples from New Zealand for years because they are not sickingly
> sweet as are most u.s. apples.

okay, okay, i better post the opposing view against organic
farming....  ;-)

from a couple weeks earlier:

Nature 410, 409 - 410 (2001) © Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 

Urban myths of organic farming


Anthony Trewavas is at the Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology,
University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH9 3JH, UK.

Organic agriculture began as an ideology, but can it meet today's

[ snip ]

Only two principles really distinguish organic farming from other
farming methods. Soluble mineral inputs are prohibited (Box 1) and
synthetic herbicides and pesticides are rejected in favour of natural
pesticides (Box 2). But agriculture based on these principles results
in a more costly product, mainly because of lower yields and
inefficient use of land.

[ snip ]

There is a widely held belief that organic farming is environmentally
superior. But although reduction in pesticide use (Box 2) leads to
higher reported levels of some insects and reported sightings of birds
on organic farms (pages 121 - 138 of ref. 1), current synthetic
pesticides are very unstable; only transient declines of most field
insects are reported even at full pesticide dosage[2]. Similarly, the
lower levels of aphids observed on organic farms could well reflect
lower nitrogen and protein content of organic crops, and lower
yield. Expressed as a ratio of crop yield/aphid population, the
difference is negligible[2]. It is also often overlooked that some
conventional mixed farming can maintain species diversity. For
example, conventional mixed farming in smaller plots (providing more
field margins) or farming based on the traditional ley system (for
example undersowing wheat with legumes) maintains conventional yields
and low costs[1]. The benefits for wildlife equal those provided by
organic farming but at far lower cost to the consumer[1].

Nor do organic farming practices necessarily conserve the
environment. Competitive organic farmers keep their fields clear of
weeds through frequent mechanical weeding -- a method that damages
nesting birds, worms and invertebrates -- and high use of fossil
fuels, which greatly increases pollution from nitrogen oxides[3]. A
single treatment with innocuous herbicide, coupled with no-till
conventional farming, avoids this damage and retains organic material
in the soil surface. Similarly, although use of manure means higher,
beneficial levels of earthworms in organic fields, there are numerous
problems with the use of manure (Box 3), including possible effects on
human health[4].

Use of soluble mineral salts prohibited by organic regulations is
another contentious issue. The minerals taken out of farmland as food
produce must balance those put back by some other means. Organic
farmers typically rely on legume nitrogen fixation, rain water or
mineral recycling in the farm. The few detailed accountings suggest
slow but accumulating mineral deficits, particularly of potassium and
phosphate[5, 6], in organic farmlands. Organic farms are required to
try to balance manure and straw production with use on the farm
itself. Excess organic manure or straw is thus usually not available
to provide for inevitable deficits with year-to-year climate and
agriculture variation. Ultimately, many organic farms can become
dependent on products that are conventionally produced with inorganic

Developments in the past 25 years have shown how conventional
agriculture can be much more sustainable and environmentally friendly
than organic farming[8]. A conventional farm can match organic yields
using only 50 - 70% of the farmland. Excess food is being produced in
Europe, so farmers are being encouraged by governments to set aside up
to half of their land for fast-growing willow plantations which are
then frequently coppiced and the wood used as fuel. With this novel
conventional approach, now in commercial operation throughout Europe,
total fossil-fuel use and carbon dioxide production are much lower
than in organic farming[9], and because of carbon recycling it is much
more sustainable[10]. The plantation of willow trees, with its
undercover of weeds, bird-nesting sites and mammal (including deer)
and insect refuge, outperforms organic farms on any biological measure
of environmental diversity[8]. But this practice crucially depends on
the most efficient use of land for food production.

[ snip ]


on the other hand, if "modern" agriculture -- in toto -- really is as
wonderful as this guy makes out, i'll eat my hat.

les schaffer

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