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Monday, January 31, 2011

Rethinking Public Dollars To Promote Organic Adoption

This post originally appeared on "Red Green and Blue" on 1/31/11.  For a list of all my posts, click here

There was a news story this week about how there are $1.5 million of Federal funds available to help farmers in Nebraska convert to Organic.  This is part of an Obama administration initiative to promote the expansion of Organic agriculture.  Frankly, this is a token effort that will have little effect, but there is an absurd dimension of this that is worth considering.
In case you haven't noticed, we are well on our way back into the sort of food crisis that sparked riots back in the 2007/8 timeframe (see graph above).  Population growth, economic development in the Third World, Climate Change, increasing energy costs, and biofuel demand are all combining to strain food supplies and to raise food prices in ways that will severely hurt the poor around the world.  This is a time when "bread basket" nations like the US need to increase their output of food, but to do so in a land-use-efficient manner.  It is this context that makes the small time promotion of Organic so absurd.

What About Organic?

The USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service conducted a first-of-its-kind, detailed survey of Organic crop production in 2008.  The results were released in 2010 and I just finished an analysis of those data in comparison to data on all crops. I posted this analysis in downloadable form on SCRIBD.  What that study showed is that the Organic harvested area is extremely small (0.52% of US Cropland).  It also showed that Organic is much less productive on a per acre basis.  How much less productive? For 2008, to have produced what US agriculture produced all Organically, we would have needed 43% more harvested land.  That is more additional cropland than in the 6 biggest crop states combined.  This additional land demand represents a land mass the size of France or 77% the size of Texas!

The Husker Context

Since the article was about promoting Organic in Nebraska, lets take a look at what Organic means for the Husker state.  Organic makes up less than one quarter of one percent of the acres devoted to Nebraska's seven major crops (see graph above).  Organic yields range from 90% of the state average for the tiny, 176 acre Organic dry bean industry, to 29% of state average yield for the 5,174 acre Organic, Proso millet industry.  Overall, to have produced Nebraska's total crop output in 2008 at Organic yields, it would have required 8.5 million more acres - a 50% increase.  Obviously, $1.5MM isn't going to move Organic from <0.25% of Nebraska ag to 100%, but even the slightest change is in the wrong direction.

Bottom Line

So here is the problem.  The world is facing an increasingly daunting task of feeding itself in an age of climate change, peak oil, and growth.  Food shortages and high food prices drive not just human suffering but also political instability.  Organic farming is clearly a lower productivity option.  So, why exactly would we use dollars borrowed from future generations of Americans to encourage farmers in Nebraska (or anywhere) to do less than they could to help feed humanity today?
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Graphs by Steve Savage based on USDA data