The organic farming debate is about more than just yields

Yields from organic farming may not match those produced by farmers who use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, but there are other good reasons to buy and support organic -- its health benefits, the good that it does for farm workers, even its animal-welfare rules.

So, at least, say executives of the Organic Trade Association, a Washington-based group that represents about 6,500 organic farmers, producers, retailers and suppliers.

"Yield is only one window into organic farming," says Laura Batcha, executive vice president of the trade group. Organic farming is "good for the environment. It's good for local economies. It's good for the farmer incomes." A 2008 USDA survey of organic production found that organic farms had average annual sales of $217,675, compared to the $134,807 average for U.S. farms overall. Overall, the U.S. organic industry, including fiber as well as food, generated about $31 billion in 2011, up from just $1 billion in 1990. Despite the U.S.'s sluggish economy, organic food and farming remain growth businesses.

I went to see Laura and Christine Bushway, who is CEO of the organic trade group, at their offices on Capitol Hill to talk about several issues, including the push to require labels on food containing genetically modified organisms, the Farm Bill and food safety, including a recent incident of mad cow disease in California. But we talked a lot about yields because it's in the news: A recent survey of 66 research studies published in Nature, which found that organic yields lag those of conventional farming, has stirred up a bit of a brouhaha. [See my blog post Organic food is not as green as you think, and the comments.]

Yield is an environmental issue, of course. As demand for food increases on a planet with limited resources, we'll want to use of land, water and other inputs efficiently. But, as Laura Batcha notes, maximizing yield is not the only way to feed today's global population of 7 billion, which is expected to grow to 9 billion. "Poverty drives hunger. War drives poverty," she said. "It's a lot more complicated that bushels per acre out of Iowa." We can also eat lower on the food chain (more vegetables, less meat), reduce food waste, stop growing corn for ethanol, etc.

Still, Laura says, yields are important. Agricultural research can help drive them higher. One goal of the OTA is to secure a bigger share of the USDA's research budget for organic growers. Right now, a version of the Farm Bill approved by a Senate committee sets aside $16 million for research into organic farming; that's less, proportionately, that organic's share of the retail food market, which is about 4 percent.

Less than 2 percent of the acreage in the U.S. is farmed organically. Laura is herself an organic farmer; she and her husband have been growing vegetables and berries in southern Vermont for about 20 years. So I asked her why, if organic methods are more profitable for farmers, so few farmers choose to use them?

It's partly a matter of habit and tradition, she said, and partly the fact that most ag schools teach conventional methods. Because it takes three years of harvests for a farm to be certified as organic, making the transition is a challenge. "Organic farming is hard," she said. "You have to learn a new way to farm. You have to manage pests and weeds without chemicals. It's easier said than done."

As for the other benefits of organic, some seem clear, while others are unproven or a matter of debate. Soils managed organically have less runoff, Laura says, reducing water pollution in places like the Chesapeake Bay. Organic methods clearly reduce the use of pesticides, which have been shown to harm farm workers.

When it comes to health and nutrition -- the main reason most people buy organic -- the OTA's website cites a number of studies showing nutrition benefits, and Laura and Christine noted that a 2010 report from the National Cancer Institute's President's Cancer Panel said that Americans face "grievous harm" from unregulated chemicals in their food, water and air. "People are much more attuned today to the connections between health and longevity and their personal lifestyle," said Christine. But a survey of research, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, concluded that "evidence is lacking for nutrition-related health effects that result from the consumption of organically produced foodstuffs."

Still, I learned some things about organic agriculture during my visit to the OTA that made me feel better about buying organic food (particularly milk and produce) and paying a premium for doing so. Animal-welfare standards for cows, pigs and chickens are all higher under the organic standards than they are for conventional livestock and poultry. The organic rules also say that cows can't be fed "mammalian byproducts," that is, parts of other cows, a practice that is otherwise permitted and a potential cause of mad cow disease.

On the controversial issue of GMOs, the OTA supports the petition asking the FDA to require labels on foods containing genetically engineered ingredients. "If GMOs are going to be used, consumers have a right to know," Christine says. To those who argue that there's no reason for labels because there's no meaningful difference between genetically engineered plants and those developed by conventional breeding, she says: "Apparently, they are different enough so that (genetically engineered methods) can be patented."

For more on the benefits of organic ag, take a look at the websites of the Organic Farming Research Foundation and the Organic Center (HT to Melissa Schweisguth).

Tom Philpott of Mother Jones put the Nature study in a broader context here.

Finally, here's a comment from Navin Ramankutty, an author of the Nature study.

First, all of the authors of the study were/are biased toward organic. My family buys produce from a CSA each summer, because we like our farmer and like buying food from someone we know, love visiting the farm with our 2.5 year old, etc. We buy a lot of organic food.
Our reasons for doing so are partly for health, but mostly for environmental reasons. The main reason my co-authors and I have chosen to work in the area of agriculture is because we recognize the huge environmental degradation wrought by agriculture. In fact, 99% of what I have written about or talked about in the past is related to this. If you don't believe me, here's a profile McGill did about my work recently (http://publications.mcgill.ca/reporter/2011/04/navin-ramankutty-feeding-the-world-without-destroying-the-planet/).
So, I still strongly "believe" (although not sure about the evidence) that organic farming has environmental benefits. But one of the biggest criticisms of organic has been that it will take up more land because of its lower yields, thereby needing the clearing of forests, release of carbon dioxide, and loss of biodiversity.
To test this argument, looking at yields is important. In research, we often focus on one particular issue in order to do a thorough analysis. But we haven't forgotten the other dimensions, especially the environmental dimension, where organic may well strongly outmatch conventional, but also the livelihood dimensions (i.e., what's good for farmers?).
We do plan to look at these other issues. Unfortunately, there wasn't room in our paper (Nature restricts us to ~1500 words) to provide a lot of context, and especially the personal context.

I applaud Navin, Jonathan Foley and Verena Seufert for their work. When it comes to sustainability, there should be no sacred cows -- organic or conventional.

Organic farm photo via Shutterstock.