Possible Insight

Organic Farming Harms the Environment

with 23 comments

One of things I object to about mainstream environmentalists is that they act as if there are no tradeoffs.  For example, they simultaneously promote organic farming, argue for biodiversity , and lobby for more open space. Personally, I think the second and third are very important.  In my value system, they are are very close to terminal goals. Which is why I avoid organic foods.

Reason has a short interview with Norman Borlaug that nicely sums up the tradeoffs required by organic farming.  There is literally nobody who understands modern agriculture better. The bottom line is that if the US tried to produce today’s agriculture output with 1960s era technology, we would need on the order of 1 million square miles of additional farmland (assuming that the marginal productivity of the land decreases somewhat as you bring less productive ares into play).  That’s a swath 1000 miles by 1000 miles.  That’s about 1/3 the land area of the contiguous 48 states.

Replicate this calculation all over the world and you’d have massive deforestation and habitat destruction.  Remember the unintended slashing and burning rainforests to plant oil palms for subsidized biodiesel?  Now multiply that by 10.  No thanks.


Written by Kevin

March 26, 2009 at 10:33 am

23 Responses

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  1. Interesting analysis on organic farming posted March 26 2009 by kevindick . Flawed, misleading, but still interesting much like the thought processes of our last administration.

    Here is a quote from the interview with Norman Borlaug you posted:

    “If people want to believe that the organic food has better nutritive value, it’s up to them to make that foolish decision.”

    The USDA has made this foolish decision. Below are a couple of studies that show organic food has 25% more nutritional vale than the methods you advocate for the benefit of the planet, and the rain forest.

    Furthermore the University of Michigan study established that organic farming yields were equivalent to conventional farming methods.

    So here is a thought for you to ponder: What is the true nutritional value of a 99 cent hamburger, How many hamburgers do you need to consume to get your bodies true nutritional requirements.

    If you have to eat 25% more of something to get the same nutritional value does this increase your weight and possibility of future medical ailments?

    If food is grown locally do you need as much subsidized biodiesel to bring the product to market?

    Researchers studying cultivation practices for high-bush blueberries in New Jersey found that blueberry fruit grown organically yielded significantly higher fructose and glucose levels, malic acid, total phenolics, total anthocyanins and antioxidant activity than fruit grown using conventional methods. Scientists carrying out the study are based at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Genetic Improvement of Fruits and Vegetables Laboratory in Beltsville, MD, and at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
    Source: Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Vol. 56, pages 5,788-5794 (2008), published online on July 1, 2008.

    A report jointly produced by The Organic Center and professors from the University of Florida Department of Horticulture and Washington State University provides evidence that organic foods contain, on average, 25 percent higher concentration of 11 nutrients than their conventional counterparts. The report was based on estimated differences in nutrient levels across 236 comparisons of organically and conventionally grown foods.
    Source: “New Evidence Confirms the Nutritional Superiority of Plant-Based Organic Foods,” http://www.organic-center.org/reportfiles/5367_Nutrient_Content_SSR_FINAL_V2.pdf.

    Putting It to the Test
    The University of Michigan’s scientific team decided to put the argument to the test. The study was published in 2007 with the scientists concluding that organic agriculture’s yield is comparable to conventional farming.

    Two Models Used
    The scientists created two models for the study:

    Model 1 examined yield ratios based on studies done in developed countries and the entire agricultural land base of the planet.

    Results: Organic crop yield same as current food available

    Daily Caloric Yield: 2,641 (Average daily adult requirement – 2,200 – 2,500 calories) 94.8% of current conventional farming yield

    Model 2 examined yield ratios for developed and developing countries.

    Results: Organic crop yield gained 1.3 – 2.9

    Daily Caloric Yield: 4,381 157.3% of current conventional farming yield

    Both models had a gain: Reduction in fossil fuel and elimination of conventional agriculture chemical damage to the environment.

    The final conclusion of both models: Organic farming can sustain the world and the current population but more importantly; it can also supply a growing population’s needs. No additional agricultural land would be needed to make the switch from conventional farming to organic farming. The use of legume as a cover crop or green manure can supply all of the needed nitrogen to the crops.

    Jason McKinley

    March 26, 2009 at 12:25 pm

  2. The literature you cite is interesting, but not particularly conclusive. For example, the Organic Center report isn’t really a scholarly meta-analysis. First, it filters out all studies done on retail level nutritional content. This seems like it’s actually the data we want. Second, it finds that organic foods are higher in some nutrients and lower in others. It asserts that the differences are more significant for organic, but provides none of the standard statistical analysis one expects in a meta-analysis to argue significance. This does not change my Bayesian prior at all.

    The Michigan study seems more rigorous. However, they seem to be relying on a model that makes a lot of assumptions about the scalability of deploying the most advanced organic farming methodologies. I think that the switching costs here would be pretty high if possible to achieve on a widespread scale at all. It is encouraging though and I have bumped my Bayesian prior slightly towards organic farming being viable in the long term.

    As for the local growing movement, that’s a separate topic. All you have to do is tax fossil fuels appropriately and you get the “right” answer, which in many cases is to grow food far away where it grows well than close by where it doesn’t.


    March 26, 2009 at 1:33 pm

  3. Interesting that you are not moved by the literature presented, you find it is flawed yet you present no studies or analytical data to support your view. The Organic Center report identified all PEERR REVIEWED studies published since 1980, Each study was screened for scientific validity and the co-authors are from three separate universities, but your right it is probably flawed.

    Organics are traditionally grown more for a local market and so the retail level studies will actually show a higher percentage of nutritional value than modern farming. Storage, processing, transportation, time to table all have a significant impact on the quality of the food we eat.

    Once again I must say I did not see the RIGHT way until you expressed it so simply. Pineapple and sugar cane grow great in tropical climates so why don’t we use all the land in the state of Hawaii to grow these crops on cooperate farms instead of food for the people who live there. We can always ship the organic baby vegetables grown in Mexico to Hawaii and the mainland US market, then we can ship the inferior modern farmed low nutritional value food to these other markets.

    Sorry I sometimes get lost in my own head, it is my complete inability to type that usually keeps me from posting any thing online. Back to your original assertion, that you prefer biodiversity and open space that is why you do not support organics. I see that you are not convinced that organics can be produced in the quantity need to support our population (personally i think there is another approach to that problem).

    However are you aware that by not buying organics you or dooming the second most sacred thing to yourself – biodiversity.

    ORGANIC FARMS ARE BETTER FOR WILDLIFE THAN CONVENTIONAL FARMS. of course this is only from one study conducted over five yours at Oxford. the exclusion of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers was the fundamental difference.

    Jason McKinley

    March 26, 2009 at 7:01 pm

  4. As I said, I read the OC report. They specifically say that they dropped all the retail level studies. So we can’t conclude anything about retail level nutrients from the report. It’s funny, because they actually acknowledge the general measurement problem at the retail level on page 18:

    “To our knowledge, no team of scientists in the
    U.S., nor anywhere in the world, has been able to
    carry out a study large enough to support any
    general conclusions regarding differences in
    nutrient levels in a cross-section of organic and
    conventional fruits and vegetables obtained at the
    retail level.”

    Given that what we’re actually consuming is what we get at the retail level, this seems to be saying we have no real evidence one way or the other.

    As for “ever peer reviewed study” and “co-authors are from three separate universities”, this isn’t very moving. As I said before, they excluded a lot of studies (including the retail ones we care about) and don’t appear to have applied the standard statistical methods one expects to see in meta analyses. That makes this look more like cherry-picked propaganda than science. That’s probably why this article itself wasn’t published in a peer reviewed journal.

    Here is a peer reviewed survey article (as opposed to a meta analysis) that concludes there is no clear evidence that organic is more nutritious on average:

    Click to access Organic%20food%20-%20Nutritious%20food%20or%20food%20for%20thought%20-%20A%20review%20of%20the%20evidence.pdf

    Now, you can _assert_ that organic food is more nutritious. But the evidence isn’t very convincing. Shouting your opinion doesn’t make for a logical argument.

    As for your comments on food miles, I wasn’t aware that sarcasm is considered evidence either. The numbers aren’t very convincing. Only 4% of a food’s carbon footprint is producer to retailer transportation.


    So expending more energy trying to grow tropical fruit in a non tropical area is much worse than simply shipping it.


    March 26, 2009 at 8:24 pm

  5. First let me apologize or clear up a mistake. I know using caps in an email is considered yelling I did not know it applied to discussions. I tried to use bold font, to highlight the title of the article, but could not find a way to perform this task.

    I can agree that it may be impossible to ever do a retail study especially to your standards. So many variables come into play when you are working with a living organism. temperature, soil, water, sunlight, planting, harvest etc. Nonetheless even the study you reference gives a nod towards organics and even went so far as to say ” animal feeding experiments indicate that animal health and reproductive performance are slightly improved when they are organically fed.”

    In your original post you advocate aginst buying organic to perserve biodiversity and open space. The increased nutritional value in organic food should not be the deciding factor for buying organics; in order to preserve biodiversity and open space. You use assumptions (1960 farm methods) that add no value to the discussion and then at the end toss in a dose of fear (massive deforestation) to make your point. Interesting approach but if you are a true proponent of biodiversity and open space then you should be an advocate of organic farming, they are not mutually exclusive, they are actually mutually beneficial. The production of organics increases biodiversity and you have shown no evidence that organic farming methods require additional land resources.

    Of course your post did pique my interest, mind and imagination so I am enriched by the experience. Thank you. Remember “half of what I say is meaningless but I say it so the other half may reach you”

    When asked to explain kaiseki ryo-ri, Murata simply replies that it is “eating the seasons.” The fall of the blossom petal, the chorus of the cicadas, the velvet of the red leaves, the soft glow of snow: These are intrinsic composites of the Japanese mind that, in turn, so crucially inspires the kaiseki cuisine.

    Jason McKinley

    March 27, 2009 at 12:14 am

  6. I read the article and the conversation that followed with great interest, and I have one observation to make.

    I will not refer to any peer reviewed or other articles. This observation is much more general and it is about most of the “sustainability issues” that are being debated and researched around the world.

    So, I always come across articles and researches that take the hypothesis that the technology under investigation (whether this technology is organic farming, or Photovoltaics, or Fishing methods, or whatever) will dominate and (in our case for example) USA or even the whole world will shift to organic farming. Then, after this hypothesis is made, the researcher will use current facts and data to predict or calculate the positive and negative effects of the global application of the technology.

    I personally believe that this “technique” is highly unreliable and certainly not scientific.

    Firstly, I challenge any scientist to give me one example where the use of one single global technology/solution did not have sever side-effects. I would argue that any technology has side-effects, and these side-effects will expand as the technology spreads.

    Furthermore when we hypothesize the substitution of an established and wide-spread technology, with another one, there is a long series of assumptions that we need to make and a huge number of related factors that will change.

    Finally this whole discussion about nutritional value is based on average values and I do not see how somebody can come to a conclusion about ALL the organic products.

    To conclude, the current scientific knowledge and research cannot support safe conclusions on the subject of organic farming. And this is not due to the number of researches or the available data. It is due to the fundamentally flawed approach of most of the studies and the huge number of assumptions that they (most of them silently) make.

    In any case, if the human history (which is also the history of technology) has taught as something, it is that no single solution is the best solution.


    March 27, 2009 at 7:06 am

  7. I don’t find the nutritional value arguments to be particularly compelling. I’m guessing that at the retail level, today, conventionally farmed frozen food is at least as good nutritionally as fresh organic.


    March 27, 2009 at 7:58 am

  8. Actually, a retail experiment to my standards wouldn’t be too hard to do at all. You go to randomly sampled grocery stores in a region, buy from both the organic and conventional bins, then test. That’s the choice that consumers actually face.

    As for the quote from the study I cited, one would expect from looking at lots of different studies to find some where organic does a little better. That’s randomness. So you can’t cherry pick. That’s the point of science. The key finding is that there is no _pattern_ pointing towards organics.

    Now you were the one that brought up nutritional content. This rhetorical tactic of bringing up lots of different topics tends to be one used often by organic proponents. Back to the original topic, I acknowledged that the study you cited was promising. The problem is that it relies on a model that appears to assume the best possible case for deploying organic technology.

    I’ve looked at the literature and it seems like there are a lot of different studies, with widely different results. In this case, I’ll defer to the world’s expert, Borlaug, to interpret the pattern. But I remain hopeful that organic techniques can be incorporated on a larger scale.

    If you’ve read any of my other posts, you’ll know that my typical solution to these problems is to tax things like pesticides and synthetic fertilizer. Then farmers have an incentive to adopt the optimal technology. If that includes some or even all of organic technology, great. But what I object to is an ideological approach with potentially severe side effects.


    March 27, 2009 at 8:17 am

  9. “Actually, a retail experiment to my standards wouldn’t be too hard to do at all. You go to randomly sampled grocery stores in a region, buy from both the organic and conventional bins, then test. That’s the choice that consumers actually face.”

    You have so many uncontrolled variables if you buy random samples at the grocery store. Let us use wheat as an example, the crop of your favorite expert. Wheat from the same farm harvested on a tuesday can have a 65 test weight and a 300 falling number , however now it rains and a two days latter the harvest shows a 52 test weight and a falling number less than 100. This has a significant impact on the quality of the product. So even a retail sample of the same product would show a scattering of results.

    “I’ve looked at the literature and it seems like there are a lot of different studies, with widely different results. In this case, I’ll defer to the world’s expert, Borlaug, to interpret the pattern.”

    Here is a quote from the article and your expert, personally I don’t put much stock in calling someone an expert. We are all just trying to do the best we can and make choice based on our experiences.

    “Environmentalists say agricultural biotech will harm biodiversity.”

    Borlaug: ” I don’t believe that. If we grow our food and fiber on the land best suited to farming with the technology that we have and what’s coming, including proper use of genetic engineering and biotechnology, we will leave untouched vast tracts of land,”

    Of course he does not believe that this is his field and life. It would be hard to adjust to the reality that something you were so passionate about might actually be doing harm. That statement is much like your original post based on personal experience, assumptions and is just one mans opinion. Using an opinion not backed by any substance does not make an argument stronger.

    Click to access Contamination%20episodes%20fact%20sheet.pdf

    “The following are just a few of the dozens of episodes in which pollen or seeds from genetically engineered (GE) crops have contaminated conventional crops, often causing seed or product recalls, and other problems for farmers and consumers.”

    “September 2004 — In the longest “gene flow” incident on record, genetically engineered bentgrass (see above) was found by EPA scientists to have cross-pollinated conventional grass up to 13 miles away in Oregon. The Forest Service and Nature Conservancy report that bentgrass can displace natural grass species in forest and native prairie settings. Herbicide-resistant bentgrass weeds created by such cross-pollination could also endanger the grass seed industry.”

    I too remain hopeful that organic farming and sustainable community farming will grow especially in other communities that need a reliable source of food.

    “But what I object to is an ideological approach with potentially severe side effects.”

    DITTO (screaming in support of your statement not yelling to make a point.)

    Jason McKinley

    March 27, 2009 at 10:40 am

  10. Your comment about experts is not my view of the world. It’s a basic question of specialization. I don’t have the time to stay completely up to date on every topic in every field. When someone of Borlaug’s experience and accomplishment makes a statement on the overall state of the art, I incorporate that into my Bayesian priors.

    Everything you say about Borlaug’s beliefs tainting his thinking applies to people on the other side of the debate. Organic proponents seem very committed to their views too. The difference is that Borlaug has done a lot more to feed a lot more people over a lot longer period of time. So I trust him more. Not completely, just more.

    BTW, I notice that you changed the topic again to GMOs. I classify this as ideological behavior and Bayesian update to demote the relevance of your other arguments.

    Also, your comments about variables at the retail level sound like dissembling. This is the actual choice people have to make. We can do lots of samples if you like. Then if organics came out superior, I would change my buying habits. The question is whether the opposite is true.


    March 27, 2009 at 11:31 am

  11. “BTW, I notice that you changed the topic again to GMOs. I classify this as ideological behavior and Bayesian update to demote the relevance of your other arguments.”

    You missed the point on GMO’s this was not a change of subject, or some ideological behavior. It was just another avenue to shine some light. Your premise of not supporting organics in favor of modern farming techniques clash with your two terminal beliefs-open space and bio diversity.

    Modern farming techniques run the risk of substantially depleting biodiversity. So if you are a true supporter of open space and biodiversity you need to get on the band wagon and start shouting “don’t panic it’s organic”. The interview with “your expert” and now “the worlds expert” is what you used to base your theory. He devoted his life to modern farming techniques and is a big supporter of GMO’s. Both views are in opposition to your support of biodiversity and open space.

    In modern farming up to 60% of the carbon emission can be attributed to nitrogen fertilizer. Moving into an organic market can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25-75%. So I think a more appropriate discussion is how do you scale up organic production, if you want to support biodiversity and open space.

    “Also, your comments about variables at the retail level sound like dissembling. This is the actual choice people have to make.”

    No it is actually an observation from real life. Once you have experience with that kind of a variable in a product from the same field sometimes from the same lot number, but with large variances in quality you will know that a retail level study does not allow for enough controls to establish any concrete information.

    Who has the time to stay up on every subject, but you need to be aware of your source of data. When you only allow yourself input from one source and hold that source out to be some sort of expert or savior you run the risk of only allowing yourself to interpret data that supports your conclusion.

    Your statement that “Borlaug has done a lot more to feed a lot more people over a lot longer period of time.” highlights your lack of understanding of farming and farm techniques. Modern farming or industrial farming or manufacture farming has only been around for a short period of time, with the most significant increases coming after WWII. Whereas traditional farming, used to support soil development and biodiversity has been around much much longer.

    Best of luck with the concept that Organic Farming Harms the Environment. Long Live DDT.

    Jason McKinley

    March 27, 2009 at 4:19 pm

  12. I take in lots of sources on lots of topics. As regular readers of this blog know. But like I explained, I discount “evidence” from people that exhibit ideologue behaviors, which is what you’ve been doing.

    Your resistance to retail level testing is telling. I am quite familiar with the concept of sample variability. That’s why you take lots of samples and do statistical tests. You see, there’s this rather large part of science called “Hypothesis Testing” devoted to drawing conclusions from such samples. If you don’t think your assertions about organic produce can’t withstand scrutiny at this level, I don’t give them much credence.

    Oh, and your last snark is pretty revealing about your lack of understanding of tradeoffs. The banning of DDT was probably one of the worst cost-benefit decisions ever. It basically consigned millions in the third world to suffering from malaria.


    March 27, 2009 at 5:00 pm

  13. I’m not sure why this is an either/or all/none debate. It’s tautological in complex systems that too much of anything has pathological consequences. It’s vacuous to make a statement like “Organic Farming Harms the Environment”, except that it’s good flame bait 🙂

    I would like to see discussion of the diversity of proposed and being-implemented solutions such as vertical farming, cooperative urban farms, integrated sustainable planned urban agriculture, etc.

    Imagine the potential with information technology and individual vegetable gardens to have dynamically organized local trade networks in urban environments. You could almost treat home growing like a utility in which you can buy from the grid and sell back to the grid as your personal supply/demand dictates.


    March 31, 2009 at 8:15 am

  14. I’m not all or nothing from a policy perspective. Like I said, go ahead and tax chemical fertilizer and GMOs to account for their externalities (GMOs are a terrific case study of externalities BTW). Then the market will use the efficient amount of organic, conventional, and future technology.

    Sounds like you have a new entrepreneurial project to delegate Rafe. If you can generate food that the market will buy using that approach, awesome! But just do it with no subsidies or scare mongering.


    March 31, 2009 at 9:29 am

  15. @kevin, what sort of credence do you give to claims like these about pesticide residue?


    March 31, 2009 at 9:57 am

  16. I give a lot of credence to the claim that such pesticide residues exists. I give very little credence to claims about their health effects without end-to-end evidence.

    The “natural” pesticides used in organic agriculture are also toxic. There are paradoxical (hormetic) effects at low dosages of many toxins. So it is perfectly plausible for residues to be _better_ for you.

    The EPA and FDA regulates pesticides with an eye toward the total tradeoff. I trust them to usually do good science (though they will obviously mess up from time to time).

    Now, toxin sensitivity varies a lot from person to person. So if you have a known high sensitivity, organic may well be worth it. But you should still wash your organic produce thoroughly.


    March 31, 2009 at 10:48 am

  17. One theory of organics and nutrition suggests that the extra stress of having to combat natural enemies makes organic more nutritious (and tasty):



    April 13, 2009 at 1:36 pm

  18. Hey, if you believe it and can afford it, buy it. I’m all for personal choice. Just don’t use my tax money to promote your tastes.


    April 13, 2009 at 1:47 pm

  19. Rafe and Kim. I’m not sure what all the fuss is about. The FSA sponsored a large peer reviewed meta study. Just like the Greek study I cited earlier, it found no substantial systematic nutritional benefit to organics. Note that neither of these studies say there are no differences. Organics are better for a few nutrients and conventional are better for a few others. The key point is no _systematic_ benefit.

    The two articles you refer to do not provide any substantive argument against this point. The Telegraph article provides absolutely no evidence. In fact, it says that organic proponents should not argue on the basis of nutrition. Fine with me. Of course, it then goes on to insinuate underhanded political motives to the FSA. Please.

    The Huffington Post article refers to (but does not properly reference) a few studies that show organics to be higher in antioxidants. In fact, the FSA sponsored study acknowledges this difference. But that wasn’t the metric used in the study. Remember, _systematic_ benefit was what the FSA was after. The HP then goes on to rail against the FSA for not acknowledging the environmental benefits. So what? That wasn’t the question the study was asking.

    This is pretty typical ideologically driven press. Don’t like the evidence? Try to change the subject or engage in ad hominem.

    I would love to see a well constructed retail level study on the nutritional content of organic versus conventional foods. If there was a statistically significant and clinically relevant finding for organics, I would increase my demand for them. Of course, I’m motivated by evidence. The question is whether organic proponents would reduce their demand in the face of a contrary result.


    August 2, 2009 at 9:18 pm

  20. […] 4, 2009 by kevindick Some of you may recall my post Organic Farming Harms the Environment. As I wrote, one of the things that bugs me about organic proponents is that they act as if there […]

  21. […] of you may recall my post Organic Farming Harms the Environment. As I wrote, one of the things that bugs me about organic proponents is that they act as if there […]

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