Friday, July 17, 2009

Organic Crop Production – Part 3 of 3

I will be glad to conclude this topic of organic production myths. I really started this blog to share what we are doing on our farm-but as I said in earlier posts I just felt I needed to correct these myths, primarily because many of my non-farming background friends were asking me why I was not organic and repeating many of these myths to me.

The final two myths I have to cover are that conventionally grown food hurts the environment and organically grown food is better for the environment and the myth that organic production is more profitable.

I could give example after example of how organic food production is not as friendly to the environment, but for the sake of brevity I will just give three examples.

1) Land required produce the food.

A recent study concludes that organic potatoes use less energy in terms of fertilizer production, but need more fossil fuel for tillage. An acre of conventionally farmed land produces 2.5 times more potatoes than an organic one. Similar numbers are found in corn and other crops. We simply do not have enough land to grow everything organic, and even if we did the fossil fuel and labor required would be prohibitive.

2) Erosion loss, increased fuel usage due to increased tillage.

Without the tool of chemical control of weeds the only reasonable method of control is mechanical. On my farm we practice what is called “no-till farming”. This means that I seed my crops directly into the residue of the previous crop. If I did not have the chemicals to control weeds I would be forced to work the ground to control weeds. It is not uncommon for organic farms to be fall plowed, disked, and field cultivated once or twice to get a good seedbed. Then after planting crops may have to be cultivated as many as three times just to control weeds.
All of this tillage requires tremendous amounts of time and fuel. Additionally the benefits of carbon sequestration from no-till farming is lost and the soil structure is highly compromised and much more venerable to wind and water erosion.

Ironically many of the people who support organic production are many of the same ones pushing no-till farming methods.

3) Increased Pesticide Use

By using crops that have insect resistance built into them we do not need to use pesticides to control yield robbing pests such as corn rootworm beetle and European corn borer. Without these traits we would have to spray pesticides-these pesticides also kill beneficial insects (such as honeybees and lady beetles) and in concentrated doses can be harmful to the farmers who apply them.

The independent had an excellent article on environmental impact of non-GMO crops which can be accessed at the following links:

Genetically-modified crops have benefited the environment, says IL entomologist Mike Gray, quoting .

1) Since 1996 global farm income improved $21.8 bil. from beans & $7.2 bil. from corn.
2) In 2007, 12 mil. farmers used GMO technology, 90% of them in developing countries.
3) Pesticide use has dropped 8.8% (359 mil. KG of active ingredient) since 1996.
4) Herbicide and insecticide use has dropped a total of 17.2% since 1996.
5) Because of less pesticide use, 2007 tractor fuel savings totaled about 100 mil. ga

Final Myth: Organic Agriculture is more profitable

Farming is a very low profit margin business, and when I say business I mean that in every aspect. Even my very small farm must spend over $200,000 to produce a crop that I hope will make yield $220,000 in grain in a good year. I know the farmer image for many involves overalls, a hoe, and slopping pigs, but that just hasn't been accurate for more almost 1/2 a century. Many average sized family farms invest well over a million or two million dollars or more every year.

If organic production offered even a 1% increase in overall profitability every farmer I know would jump on it, I know I would. It is profitable precisely because it is a niche market with dramatically higher labor costs. This niche is the reason that stores like Whole Foods and various others that sell organically grown crops must charge so much more than regular stores, often as much as 500% more for comparable products. But if every farm somehow began to grow organic production I would say the niche would disappear-but in reality the food shortages would be so dramatic that no-one would notice because all food would have to be selling at the levels now only seen in the organic stores.

Some groups have been honest and acknowledged these facts, but insist that we should move to organic production-or more often the codeword “sustainable agriculture”. While many in the U.S. would be able to absorb a large increase in food prices I believe the impact on those elsewhere in the world just make it not acceptable for mass food production, and that organic should be left to those who choose to produce and consume it rather than being forced on all.

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