Contrary to widespread consumer belief, organic farming is not the best way to farm from an environmental point if view. The guiding principal of organic is to rely exclusively on natural inputs. That was decided early in the 20th century, decades before before the scientific disciplines of toxicology, environmental studies and climate science emerged to inform our understanding of how farming practices impact the environment. As both farming and science have progressed, there are now several cutting edge agricultural practices which are good for the environment, but difficult or impossible for organic farmers to implement within the constraints of their pre-scientific rules.
1. Less Than Optimal Fungicides
Organic farmers use pesticides, but only those qualified as sufficiently natural. Thus, copper-based fungicides are among the few options available to an organic grower for the control of fungal plant diseases. These are high-use rate products that require frequent re-application and which are quite toxic to aquatic invertebrates. There are much more effective, and far less toxic, synthetic fungicide options without environmental issues, and which, unlike copper, break down into completely innocuous materials. Organic growers can't use those fungicides. Similarly there are many environmentally benign, synthetic insecticides and herbicides which cannot be used.
2. A Surprisingly High Carbon Footprint for Compost
3. Practical Barriers to Implementing No-till Farming
4. Difficulties Implementing Optimized Fertilization
|Drip Irrigated and Fertilized Grapes|
This requires water-soluble forms of the nutrients and that is very expensive to do for the natural fertilizer sources allowed in organic. Since the plants absorb those nutrients in exactly the same molecular forms regardless of source, this cost barrier is a non-scientific impediment to doing the best thing from an environmental point of view. Organic fertilizers like composts or manures are also much less practical for variable rate application, an environmentally beneficial option for rain-fed crops in which different amounts of fertilizer are applied to different parts of the field based on geo-referenced soil and yield mapping data. Finally, the organic avoidance of "synthetic fertilizers" would mean that these growers would not be able to use what appear to be promising small-scale, carbon-neutral, renewable energy-driven systems for making nitrogen fertilizers.
5. Lower Land-Use-Efficiency
The shortfall is driven by limited pesticide options, difficulties in meeting peak fertilizer demand, and in some cases by not being able to use biotech traits. If organic production were used for a significant proportion of crop production, these lower yields would increase the pressure for new land-use-conversion - a serious environmental issue because of the biodiversity and greenhouse gas ramifications.
6. Lack of an Economic Model to Move Beyond Niche Status
|Trend line for US organic cropland as of of 2008|
Then, between 2008 and 2011, USDA survey data showed no net gain in US organic acreage. Environmentally desirable "conventional" practices like no-till, cover cropping and a variety of other precision agriculture innovations are already practiced on a much broader scale and have the potential to be economically attractive for farmers without any price premium mechanisms. Innovations in farmland leases could greatly accelerate the conversion process if growers could be guaranteed long-term control of fields so that they could profit from their investments in building soil quality.
Consumers Who Want To Do The Right Thing
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Pennsylvania farm image from USDA Images. Vineyard image Agne27. Copper Sulfate image from Wikimedia commons. Organic yield and acreage information from the USDA-NASS.