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?

More important, the growth of organic acreage is limited by the fact that organic farmers are less productive than conventional farmer, he says. Of course, that's also one reason why organic food costs more. Steve says:

Organic is technology-limited. It's built around an early 20th century concept that only things that are natural are good. A lot of people, on an emotional basis, still feel that way. But that means that only some of the technology advances that have occurred in agriculture in the 20th century are available to an organic farmer.

The claim that organic farmers are less productive is controversial, but USDA data analyzed by Steve seem to support it. To his credit, Steve notes that the organic-to-conventional comparisons aren't always, er, apples-to-apples. (Actually, sometimes they are, and in a couple of small apple-producing states, yield of organic apples outperform conventional varieties). Organic raspberries also perform well.

But, as this chart of vegetable yields shows, only organic sweet potatoes outperform their conventional equivalent.

figure 1

Yields of conventional crops are also significantly higher than organics when it comes to basic crops like wheat, corn, soy, rice and potatoes.

figure 2

What does this mean? On Sustainablog, where he's a regular contributor, Steve writes:

For 2008, for the US to have produced the same total crop output at the organic yield levels, it would have been necessary to have harvested from an additional 132 million acres -- a 43 percent increase. That would have represented more than the cropland equivalents of the 6 biggest farming states (IA, IL, ND, FL, KS and MN).... Obviously, this would be impossible because there simply isn't that much suitable land available.

This doesn't make Steve anti-organic, he says. In fact, he told me, he traces his interest in farming back to the work he did as a kid in his grandfather's organic garden. He praises organic farming for its insight into the importance of building soil quality, for its use of cover crops (which replenish the soil), for its advocacy of crop rotation and diversity and for its use of targeted, natural pesticides. Organic farming also tends to encourage long-term thinking, if only because a three-year transition period away from conventional agriculture is required before farmers can be certified organic.

This kind of long-term thinking, Steve argues, is a key to making agriculture more sustainable. Practices that he advocates -- cover cropping, minimum tillage, controlled wheel traffic, precision fertilization and integrated pest management -- all require investments of time, money or knowledge that may not pay off immediately.

One surprising obstacle to such long-term thinking is that fact that nearly 40 percent of farmland was rented, according to a 2007 USDA census [PDF]. Just as no one ever washed a rental car (as the saying goes), farmers who lease their land an annual cash basis don't have the incentive to make optimal long-term investments in soil health. Environmental groups or the government may have a role to play in promoting farm leases that reward responsible growing practices, Steve argues in this post.

None of this, alas, is simple.

But, while I'm persuaded by Steve that organic alone is not the answer, I'm going to keep buying organic produce (and avoiding meat) at my local farmer's market. The food's fresh and tasty. The shopping experience is fun. Chatting with the farmers is enjoyable.

And even if won't save the planet….well, it can't hurt either.

Photo CC-licensed by Natalie Maynor.