Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Organic Crop Production – Part I

Let me start by defining Organic Crops Production as I understand it. “Production using no synthetic fertilizer, no chemical control of weeds nor insects, and using seed that was also produced using organic production methods”.

I should strongly emphasize I have absolutely nothing against organic farmers or those that choose to purchase organic foods. Organic farmers are probably one of the hardest working groups of farmers anywhere. Personally I cannot imagine handling the weed pressure and insect control without using the products we have available. Organic foods have experienced tremendous growth over the last decade, and I expect that it will continue into the foreseeable future. As long as there are people willing to pay the price for organically produced foods I certainly can’t fault anyone for filling that market niche.

I also strongly support the “local” food initiatives-farmers markets, etc. which provide a community with fresher alternatives than any store chain can provide-and supports the local farmers. The benefits of consumers understanding where there food comes from is great. I think many people combine local/organic into one concept-but they are really two different issues.

There are three main issues I have with many in the organic food movement:
  1. World population has reached a level where we can no longer produce enough food to supply our needs using only organic methods.
  2. Many in the organic food industry are seeking through various methods to restrict production methods used by non organic farmers.
  3. Spreading of false information about food safety of GMO crops.

Food Requirements to feed the world
If you look at it objectively organic production is basically going back to the way we used to farm 80 years ago, before modern fertilizers and pest controls were developed. As expected, organic crop yields are similar to those 80 years ago as well. If all acres were to be farmed organically there would simply not be enough food to feed the world’s current population, let alone the population over the next 40 years as explained in last weeks blog entry.

Lets look at corn production in this country over the last 100 years.

As you can see we basically had little increase in yields between 1900 and 1940. The technological advancements in fertilizer and pesticides prohibited by organic production rules are exactly what have enabled yields go from 25 bushel per acre to a national average close to 160 bushel per acre. As you can see from the chart this has really accelerated since the genetic modifications have started to enter the market since the turn of the 21st century.

In 2008 U.S. Farmers grew just over 12 billion bushels of corn, on a national yield of 153 bushels per acre, with many farms now growing 200 bushel per acre plus. As we near the end of the 2008 crop year (before 2009 harvest begins) estimates are that we will carry over 1.3 to 1.4 billion bushels, close to the prior year carry. Meaning that in the last year we used and exported more than 12 billion bushels.

Corn is America's chief crop export, with total bushels exported exceeding total bushels used domestically for food, seed, and industrial purposes-and that includes ethanol. Corn not only provides the majority of calories in the feeds for beef, chicken, and pork in our diet but also feeds much of the world as well.
Being extremely generous and assuming that we could grow even 100 bushel per acre organic average (and it would not be close to that) would leave us more than 4 billion bushel short of the worlds needs.

Abandoning synthetic fertilizer that is required to produce the high yields we have today would do little more than result in farmers “mining” the soil and over the next few years yields would decrease even more as time passed. Back at the turn of the century there was a lot more livestock in crop production areas and much of the nutrient requirements of a 30 bushel corn crop could be fulfilled by manure. Now the livestock that used to be present on nearly every farm are few and far between, and even if they are located closely they cannot provide a fraction of the nutrients required to grow a 200 bushel corn crop.

This entry is getting a little too long so I am going to be splitting this topic up into three weeks, next week in Part 2 I will discuss falsehoods being spread about the safety of GMO crops and in Part 3 the benefits to the environment of GMO crops vs. Non-GMOs., and profitability of organic farming.

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