On December 12th 2018 an article was published in the journal Nature which concludes that due to the poor productivity of organic agriculture more land is required to grow food when compared to conventional methods. According to this article, and Stefan Wersenius of Chalmers University in Sweden who held a related press release, organic farming is responsible for global deforestation rates accelerating because of this inefficient use of agricultural land. Looking at Swedish farms they found that pea production was 50% higher on conventional farms compared to organic farms. They extrapolate this to organic meat production, which requires organic grain, which compounds the impact on climate change for the worse.
The following day, on December 13th 2018, another article was published. In the British Journal of Medicine (BJM) a group of Harvard University researchers published their results that show, conclusively, that parachutes are inconsequential to saving lives when jumping out of airplanes. That is to say, that when the research was conducted the control group and the treatment group had the same likelihood of surviving the fall from an airplane whether or not they were wearing a parachute. The fact that this sounds absurd is wholly the point. When an aircraft is parked on a grassy runway and the deck is only 2 feet from the ground it comes as no surprise that your chance of survival doesn’t depend on having a parachute strapped to your back. Cardiologist Robert Yew, associate professor from Harvard who worked on this project, points out that “of course this is a ludicrous result. The real answer is that the trial did not show a benefit because of the types of patients who were enrolled.”
Most of what people believe about organic farming can be categorically disproved depending on what your sample looks like. For instance, many people understand the term organic to mean, at it’s core, an abstention from pesticide use. This is true for many successful organic farms. It is also not true for many organic farms. The same is true for nutritional values, fertilizer utilization, and carbon sequestration. Studies have shown that organic produce has no benefit in nutritional value when compared to conventional produce. This would not come as a surprise to many of us who see large scale organic production as being nearly indistinguishable from conventional ag. The more similar an organic operation looks to a conventional operation the more likely they are to use pesticides and be nutritionally poor. But within this large tent of organic agriculture (where many, many natural growers no longer feel comfortable) we find hiding in the corners the promises that organic farming has been making made good.
When enrolling the farms for this study in Sweden, did the researchers choose two paradigms of agriculture to compare? According to the press release the striking difference between the two systems (organic vs. conventional) was that the organic farm did not use fertilizer. Considering that these farms almost certainly both employ tillage, and one farm is not using any supplemental fertilizer, organic or not, are we surprised that their yield was 50% lower than the conventional method? No, the comparison is uninteresting because it represents two sides of a conventional paradigm, one conventional and one conventional-organic. Conventional organic being a farming system that employs tillage, minimal soil building techniques, and will often include NOP (organic) approved pesticides and fertilizers. What needs to be demonstrated are the results achieved through harnessing soil buildings programs. The research study I’m interested in reading compares the farms observed in the Nature article next to Gabe Brown’s farm in North Dakota. Or Singing Frog’s farm in California. Or Polyface farm in Virginia. Or Scratch Farm in Rhode Island. Or Tobacco Road Farm in Connecticut. I want to see the metrics applied to people working under David Johnson from NMSU’s consultation. Or Elaine Ingham’s consultation. These people and farms are on the cutting edge of what is possible in production as well as climate change mitigation through carbon sequestration.
Gabe Brown is a rancher from North Dakota. Brown transitioned his farm from a conventional approach that incorporated tillage and synthetic fertilizers to a method people refer to as “biological farming”. Biological farming falls within paradigms of what people might consider to be organic farming. That is to say some organic farmers are biological farmers, some organic farmers are not and vice versa. This digression becomes complicated because the term organic is today both a very technical term as well as a figurative term. For the sake of convenience let’s refer to Gabe Brown’s farm as biorganic. Brown’s system now incorporates no till cover cropping and row-cropping methods with mob grazing methods for beef cows. In a telling by Brown of a corn crop he grew in 2009 in his biorganic system he refers to a soil test that showed he had 10 units of nitrogen available in his field. Corn needs approximately 150 pounds of nitrogen per acre (according to Knott’s Handbook). If Brown’s units of nitrogen are ppm (parts per million) than he is seven and one half times deficient in nitrogen. If his units are lbs/acre than he is fifteen times deficient in this field to grow corn. Despite these supposed deficiencies reported in his soil test Brown was able to grow corn in this field that beat his county average. That average was, according to Brown, “just under one hundred bushels per acre.” On this biorganic field Brown was able to grow 142 bushels/acre. That is without conventional or organic fertilizers “of any kind”.
I’d like to know why methods like Gabe Brown’s are not documented and analyzed by researchers who, and I don’t doubt their sincerity, want to explore the ways in which different farming methods effect the environment. Such a striking difference in the example of Brown’s ranch to both the conventional and the organic practices studied in the Nature article demonstrate that we are looking at something different. These are the models that need to be measured against the current conventional and conventional-organic models. Within these systems are all the promises that organic farming has not been able to keep: farms that are water efficient, soil building, carbon sequestering, and just as important: beautiful places that stir imagination, provide nourishing food, provide livable incomes, and can bring us food security in the here and now.