Friday, 4 May 2012

More on Organic vs. Conventional Farming

Another take on the Nature study of the productivity of organic vs. conventional farming.  I've never been a big fan of either/or solutions to anything (it used to drive my producer bosses at CBC crazy, because the media demands black and white) but this article (which quotes the actual researchers) gets closer to something  constructive.  It also speaks to the challenge of making a PEI a totally "organic" production area. It's not that I don't want that to happen, it's just that farmers have to live and market in the real world and some commodities (grains in particular) are much less productive grown organically. That could change with seed breeding and more research, or the development of an organic livestock industry that demands organic feedgrains (it really up to consumers to show a willingness to support this, something we don't see yet).  There are successful organic potato growers here as well (Fred Dollar for one), but with such a large percentage of the crop now going to processing the premium needed to grow organically just isn't there right now. (again if McDonalds starts selling organic french fries that could change, but that seems a long way off). 

I remember the first time I heard Dr. Stewart Hill speak in the 1970's. He was the head of ecological agriculture at MacDonald College near Montreal, and he continues to be  a leader in organic farming research at a university in Australia. He said farmers have to use their heads when it comes to fighting diseases and insects, and choose the approach that has the least impact on the environment. That wasn't necessarily  the organic choice. Sometimes one application of a synthetic pesticide will solve a problem that might require several applications of an organic one (and don't forget that organic pesticides are just as lethal, and in many cases less selective- they kill a wide number of pests not just the one you want to get-  than synthetic ones). Hill's mantra, try to deeply understand the problem and the solution will be self-evident. I think that's a sensible approach and why I want farmers to get the best advice and research available, not just suggestions from chemical company salespeople.

Study Points to Roles for Industry and Organics in Agriculture
by ANDREW C. REVKIN  •  April 25, 2012

A paper in this week’s issue of Nature reinforces the argument that a hybrid path in agriculture — incorporating both industrial-style production and organic practices where they make sense — gives the best chance of feeding some 9 billion people by midcentury with the fewest regrets.

The paper, “Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture,” is by a doctoral student, Verena Seufert, and the geography professor Navin Ramankutty, both of McGill University, and Jonathan Foley, the director of the Institute on the Environment of the University of Minnesota. They found that, over all, conventional farming methods produced 25 percent higher yields than organic techniques, but organic came close for certain crops in certain soils. The authors’ core conclusion?

    [T]here are no simple ways to determine a clear ‘winner’ for all possible farming situations. However, instead of continuing the ideologically charged ‘organic versus conventional’ debate, we should systematically evaluate the costs and benefits of different management options. In the end, to achieve sustainable food security we will probably need many different techniques — including organic, conventional, and possible ‘hybrid’ systems — to produce more food at affordable prices, ensure livelihoods for farmers, and reduce the environmental costs of agriculture….

    To establish organic agriculture as an important tool in sustainable food production, the factors limiting organic yields need to be more fully understood, alongside assessments of the many social, environmental and economic benefits of organic farming systems.

I caught up with Foley by e-mail, saying that the paper appeared to paint a picture in which cereals, particularly, benefit from fertilizer and the other inputs favored in large-scale farming, while specialty crops can offer smaller farming operations sustainable levels of income. Here’s his reaction:

    We really need new “hybrid” approaches, taking the best of the conventional and organic paradigms, and deploying them when and where they make the most sense.

    In this study we found that organic systems can compete very well with conventional farms when it comes to fruits and many kinds of vegetables. And they do very well (understandably) with legumes. That’s the good news for organic farming.

    Where organic has a lot of ground to make up is in the major grains, especially staples like wheat and rice. There we found that organic farms have significantly lower yields than their conventional counterparts.. And since most of the world’s bulk calories come from these cereals, this is a really big deal. Organic practices, as we know them today, just cannot produce the same volume of grain calories that conventional farms do on the same land base. That assumes, of course, that our goal is to grow calories — which is only one measure of food production and only one aspect of food security.

    The bottom line? Today’s organic farming practices are probably best deployed in fruit and vegetable farms, where growing nutrition (not just bulk calories) is the primary goal. But for delivering sheer calories, especially in our staple crops of wheat, rice, maize, soybeans and so on, conventional farms have the advantage right now.

    Looking forward, I think we will need to deploy different kinds of practices (especially new, mixed approaches that take the best of organic and conventional farming systems) where they are best suited — geographically, economically, socially, etc.

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