Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Reasons The Tiny Scale of US Organic Could Be A Good Thing

(Originally posted on Red Green and Blue 2/8/11.  For links to my other posts on various sites click here)
In 2008, the National Agricultural Statistics Service of the USDA (USDA-NASS) conducted a very detailed and comprehensive survey of Organic agriculture in the US.  It was published last year but got little notice.  It is interesting to study the data and to compare it to the equivalent statistics that are available for the rest of agriculture.
Considering all the buzz around Organic, perhaps the most striking thing in the data is how small Organic remains after decades of "rapid growth."  As of 2008, actual harvested Organic cropland represented only 0.52% of US cropland.  There were only a few specialty crops where the Organic sector represented more than 2% of the total.

Why would a small organic sector be a "Good Thing?"

For an extended period from the early eighties until around 2007, it seemed to many that we had all the farming productivity that we needed.  Farmers were being paid to remove their marginal fields from production and put them into the Conservation Reserve Program.  It was fashionable to promote "low input farming" and/or Organic because optimizing production didn't seem to be urgent.
Times have changed. Between growth in global population and economic status, climate change, rising energy prices, and biofuel demand -  high agricultural productivity is looking like something that is very important. In 2007/8 there were severe food price spikes that hurt poor countries significantly.  We are clearly back into such a cycle today (see FAO data below)

The other main take-home message from the 2008 USDA survey is that the yields of Organic crops are significantly below those of the rest of agriculture. People have long argued otherwise, but the data here is clear.  Now, if the yield of a specialty Organic vegetable crop like heirloom tomatoes or another niche product is low, that means very little in the greater scheme of things.  However, there are two categories of crops where producing any more than a small amount of Organic would be problematic:
  • The grain crops that make up the vast majority of our farmland
  • The high value specialty crops that are dependent on limited irrigation resources

High-acreage row crops

Fortunately, for decades, researchers and farmers have been working steadily to increase the land-use-efficiency of major crops.  That effort has largely masked the underlying food demand growth that is now starting to get to a critical stage.  It is interesting to put Organic row crop yields into the context of these historical trends.

In the graph above, the historical yield trend of US barley is plotted as the blue diamonds and a line is fit to show the trend.  The green square represents the US average yield for 2008 and the red circle represents the average US Organic yield for 2008 (moved to the left until it met the trend line.)  Organic production is 70% of average. That doesn't sound too bad.  But, when you see that such yields are like "time travel" to 1975, and that they are lower than all but one of the intervening 33 years, it does not sound so acceptable.  Particularly not in an era where food supplies are getting tight around the globe.
Barley is no exception.  Comparable "time-shifts" are as follows: Oats 25 years, Flaxseed 23 years, Dry Beans 32 years, Soybeans 29 years, Corn 21.5 years, Spring Wheat 57 years and Winter Wheat 58 years.  How much of our land resource should we want to have at this level of productivity?

Crops dependent on scarce and declining water supplies

The graph below shows the relative yields of Organic fruit crops.  Crops highlighted with a red star are grown in areas where water supplies are increasingly limited. Water requirements are similar for both Organic and non-Organic crops, so it is important to consider how this scarce resource should be allocated.

Graphs and Images by Steve Savage.  You are welcome to comment here or to email me at

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