The Farm Bureau – addressing “misconceptions” about organic farming

In the July 2007 issue of ‘Diversified Farmer’, which is the news letter published by the Lake County Farm Bureau (of which I am a member due to having insurance through Country) there is a section titled “Addressing Misconceptions about Agriculture” and the misconception they are supposedly addressing is “the only sustainable form of food production is organic”.

I quote:

If we were to convert to totally organic food production, yield would decline by 30 to 40 percent.

Now, before even addressing the flat-out falsehood of the claim of a 30 to 40 percent loss in yield I’d rather first ask the question: who exactly is talking about totally organic food production?    I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone make the claim that all agriculture should be organic.  “Organic” implies a very specific type of farming.  I think what more people are saying is that we need to figure out a better system than monoculture farming as practiced today.  Whether farming would be conventional in the sense of pesticide use, or organic, or something else is a completely different conversation.

The first paragraph of the article states:

A variety of studies demonstrate this yield
reduction. The Bichel Committee, appointed by
the Danish government as it considered a move to
only organic production, found even greater impacts
than this. They reported to the Danish government
that moving to a mandated, total organic production
system would result in 47 percent less human food.

I have read the Bichel Committee report and so can you.  It is located here.  The conclusions of the committee are here.  As stated in the mandate the point of this committee was to report on what the effect of lowering pesticide use would be on agricultural yields.  The study says that they would use experiences of the organic farming industry as extensively as possible.

To state that the report said a total organic production system would result in 47 percent less human food is oversimplifying the report itself and in fact nowhere in the report is the 47 percent figure mentioned.  What is mentioned are the figures of production being 30-40% of current (ie: 1999) assuming zero imports of animal feed.   More important is the figure of production being 71-93% of current assuming imports of animal feed of 15-25% (at that time the rule).

My reading of this report indicated to me that there were a lot of assumptions made but even so the figure given in the farm bureau article is fiction.

The next two paragraphs go on to talk about the use in organic farming of “green manure” for fixing nitrogen (never mind that in organic farming green manure isn’t a requirement):

One of the main issues that a totally organic
society would need to face would be the nitrogen
requirement of most crops. In order to produce the
necessary nitrogen a third of all crop acreage would
need to be converted into green manure production.

Green manure is a crop such as clover, alfalfa,
or trefoil that is grown to be plowed down back
into the soil. As these plants biodegrade they
release nitrogen in a form that other plants can
use. Green manure crops are usually legumes that
fix nitrogen from the air. The loss of acreage to
green manure crops would need to be added on top
of the previously mentioned 30 to 40 percent yield
reduction.

AGain the Bichel report mentions 30-40 percent of current yields but that means a 60-70 percent reduction, not 30-40 as stated above and in the opening paragraph of the article.  The statement by the Bichel report is actually worse than what the Farm Bureau is mentioning!

Just to make sure I’m being clear here.  I’m not arguing about organic versus conventional farming in this post.  I’m just discussing the “article” from the Farm Bureau.  If fully organic farming would reduce yields by 60-70 percent that’s a pretty bad thing but this article isn’t even good at getting the numbers right.  If they can’t do that I think the full article itself is suspect.  As always its easy to cherry pick data to fit any conclusion but they’re not even doing that well!

Now we get to the truly bizarre conclusion with the following two paragraphs:

Another option that could be used instead of
changing a third of all farming acres to green
manure production would be to increase the number
of cattle on the planet. Cattle. and more specifically
the manure they produce is another source of
nitrogen that is an organically approved fertilizer.
However, in order to produce enough manure, we
would need to increase the number of cattle on the
planet by 700 percent.

Vaclav Smil, professor of geography from
the University of Manitoba, made the following
calculation. The United States alone would need to
raise roughly one billion additional cattle to replace
nitrogen that we currently use from commercial
sources. Is this possible? We currently have 97
million head of cattle in the United States. (Globally
there are 1.3 billion head of cattle.) If every square
foot of private and public land (including all parks,
forests, wildlife refuges, golf courses, roadsides, and
lawns) was used to graze cattle there still would not
be enough land to graze one billion head of cattle in
the United States.

So we have gone from using green manure making sure there are enough cattle to provide nitrogen for plant use.  Why does it have to be one or the other? Never mind that any system would use a variety of methods to achieve the required inputs of nitrogen.  Why let small things like facts get in the way of a good smearing?

The final concluding sentence states:

Insisting on strictly organic production would
denude the earth.

Again I don’t think anyone is calling for strictly organic production but we can’t possibly do that because it would, <ominous music here>, denude the Earth.

Shoddy journalism pure and simple.  I think it’s pretty clear that monoculture form of agriculture in major practice today isn’t sustainable.   We simply can’t afford to keep creating fertilizers from petrochemicals.  All other issues aside it’s a simple supply issue.  I also think it’s pretty clear that agriculture needs to be a many-headed animal to be effective.    There isn’t just one answer but to attempt to make people think that the current way is the only way is deception pure and simple and the Farm Bureau should be ashamed of themselves for printing this piece.

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