Organic Food is Not the Answer

Sunday mornings, after my weekly long run, I enjoy visiting the Bethesda Central Farm Market. I'll buy some organic greens, tomatoes, peaches or whatever's in season from Bending Bridge Farm or Twin Springs Fruit Farm, enjoy coffee and a danish, maybe see friends or neighbors and look forward to some good, healthy eating. Sure, the food's pricey, but I feel good that I'm protecting farmworkers from chemical pesticides,supporting local growers (well, sort of local, since Twin Springs is 70 miles away) and -- most importantly -- helping the environment.

Steve Savage says I'm fooling myself.

Steve is a Stanford-trained biologist with a PhD in plant science from the University of California at Davis. He's a prominent critic of those who make big claims on behalf of organic agriculture. (See, for example, yesterday's blogpost, Maria Rodale: Why organic food is the answer) Organic agriculture won't save the planet, he says. What's more, and this is important, it won't feed the planet.

Steve Savage

A couple of things to know about Steve. He's a consultant for the agriculture industry, as well as for investors, so he's got a stake in what advocates like to call "modern agriculture," i.e., pesticides, chemical fertilizers and biotech crops. But he's by no means a defender of the status quo and, in fact, he's got his own interesting thoughts about how to make agriculture more sustainable. One problem, he notes, is that so much U.S. farmland is rented, and he suggests restructuring farmland leases to give farmers a long-term stake in building soil quality on the land they rent, about which more below.

But first, organics. Organic agriculture is small -- very small, when measured as a percentage of farmland in the U.S. As Steve writes here, despite the oft-repeated claim that organic is the fastest-growing segment of the food industry, only about 2.5 million acres of US cropland were certified as Organic in 2008, the year in which USDA did its most comprehensive survey of organic farmers. That's 0.7 percent of the 370 million acres of US cropland. At current growth rates, organic will cover less than 3 percent of U.S. cropland in 2050. So organic food is a niche, plain and simple, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, given the price premium that growers need to keep farming organically.

"I never have any problem with anybody farming, including organic farming," Steve says, "just as long as people aren't under the illusion that they're saving the planet that way."

"A less than 1 percent solution after 30 years isn't a big solution, and we do need a big solution," he adds.

Of course, organically acreage would grow faster if more people bought organic food. That's why Maria Rodale wrote her Organic Manifesto. So is that where we need to go as consumers?

No, says Steve, for a couple of reasons. First, organic food as a rule costs more. (See this pro-organic website, and this 2008 New York Times story and this USDA data set for specifics.) In recession-era America, asking mainstream shoppers to pay a premium for their food is asking a lot. "If the economics were more favorable to organic agriculture, you'd see more organic agriculture," he says. Or, as an NGO exec I know once put it: "Organic food is like private school -- nice if you can afford it."

Next page: Is organic agriculture less productive than conventional?