Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Six Reasons Organic is NOT The Most Environmentally Friendly Way To Farm

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.

There was one window during which the rules for organic might have been adjusted to reflect a more modern understanding.  In 1990 the US Congress charged the USDA with the task of setting a national standard for what products could be legally sold as Organic.  That agency was inclined to include more science in a definition of “what is safest for us and for the environment,” but the organic community of that day was adamant that the rule should only reflect the purely natural definition embraced by their existing customer base.  Long before the final Organic Standards were published in 2002, it was clear that the industry preference had prevailed and that the rules of organic would still reflect their pre-scientific origins.  That is why the following six environmental issues exist for organic farming. 

1. Less Than Optimal Fungicides

Copper Sulfate

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

The greatest original contribution of the early organic movement was its focus on building soil health.  One of the main ways that organic farmers do this is by physically incorporating tons of organic matter into the soil in the form of composts.  Unfortunately, during the process of composting a substantial amount of methane is emitted which means that broad use of this soil-building approach would be problematic from a climate change point of view.

3. Practical Barriers to Implementing No-till Farming
No-Till Field

The best approach to building soil quality is minimizing soil disturbance (e.g. no plowing or tilling) combined with the use of cover crops.  Such farming systems have multiple environmental advantages, particularly with respect to limiting erosion and nutrient movement into water. Organic growers frequently do plant cover crops, but without effective herbicides, they tend to rely on tillage for weed control. There are efforts underway to find a way to do organic no-till, but they are not really scalable.

4. Difficulties Implementing Optimized Fertilization

Fertilizers are associated with many of the biggest environmental issues for agriculture because of the challenges in supplying all a crop needs without leading to movement of those nutrients into surface or ground water or to emissions of the highly potent greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide.  The best practice is to “spoon feed” the nutrients through the irrigation system at levels designed to closely track the changing demands of the crop throughout the season.  
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 per-acre yields of organic crops are significantly lower than those for conventional.  This has been well documented both by meta-analysis of published research comparisons and by public data generated through USDA commercial production surveys.  

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

Finally, agriculture needs to change in ways that accomplish both productivity and environmental goals.  That optimal farming approach must become the dominant system over time. Even if organic had maintained its growth trend from 1995 to 2008, organic acreage in 2050 would still have represented less than 3% of US cropland. 
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

There are many consumers who are willing to spend more for organic food because they believe that they are making a positive difference for the environment.  While it is commendable that people are willing to do that, the pre-scientific basis for the organic rules means that the environmental superiority of organic cannot be assumed. While “only natural” is appealing as a marketing message, it is not the best guide for how to farm with minimal environmental impact. Between rigorous, science-based regulation, public and private investments in new technology development, and farmer innovation, modern agriculture has been making excellent environmental progress. That trend, not organic, is what we need to encourage.

You are encouraged to comment here and/or to email me at applied.mythology@gmail.com

Pennsylvania farm image from USDA Images.  Vineyard image Agne27.  Copper Sulfate image from Wikimedia commons.  Organic yield and acreage information from the USDA-NASS. 


  1. I was surprised by the +80% yield for organic apples, but then I realized that the figure probably comes from west coast orchards where the climate is drier, not from orchards here in New England, where the Fungi rule. A grower here in Maine, who raises both "conventional" and organic apples, says his organic trees yield only 25% of what his conventional trees yield, even though he sprays the organic trees almost twice as much as the conventional ones (and this is a large orchard, with over 300 acres of trees).

    This whole piece, by the way, has the potential to be seen as THE refutation of "organics." It's amazingly succinct and well-written.

  2. Thank you for a very informative article. I had not even considered organic farming issues from your enlightened macro and science based view point.

  3. I just reposted this on my FB and one comment claimed #2 and #4 were wrong or short sighted. They wrote: "Healthy soil absorbs are large amount of co2 and other "greenhouse gases" so any increase in methane by composting is more than offset by microbes found in healthy soil."

    Your thoughts?

    1. There was a white paper from the Soil Association, a group that promotes organic in the UK, making the claim that organic was the solution to climate change because of carbon sequestration. They failed to consider the emissions during composting which substantially more than overcame their sequestration numbers. I wrote this to them and they could not refute it:


      No-till with cover crops can also sequester carbon and build healthy soil microbial populations. As I said, organic was right to focus on building soil quality - its just that we now have a better, more scalable way to do that

    2. This is a pretty silly debate. What happens to vegetable and other waste if you do not compost it and incorporate it into the soil? Sometimes it will be burnt and other times it will be dumped or just moulder away in a corner somewhere ... in all cases there will be less carbon sequestration than if the waste follows a more or less natural cycle.

  4. There are definitely some practices in (corporate) organic farming that are less than optimal for the environment, I agree with you. There are also numerous organic practices beneficial to the environment that overcome these negatives, especially when considering non-corporate organic farms.

    Your post does show the need to amend the USDA organic certifications to bring the standards towards the organic aim of environmental stewardship and conservation.

    To name a few:

    1. You gave the example of copper sulfate as a organic fungicide that could be better replaced with a synthetic fungicide. Yes, corporate organic apple orchards and some small-scale orchards use copper sulfate as a fungicide. I do not condone copper sulfate and I agree with you, somewhat, but this is an extreme example. Other than Rotenone, copper sulfate is one of the outliers in the allowed organic materials by the USDA.

    2. If we were to leave food wastes and other compostable materials in a landfill, they would be generating a significant amount of methane without the added benefit of adding carbon to the soil, increasing soil fertility, and disease prevention.

    3. There are numerous examples of conservation tillage in organic systems.

    To name one: Chinampas in Mexico
    Permanent seed beds with very little tillage in the Netherlands

    4. This is a very solid point. It is a challenge to pump compost teas and manure through irrigation channels. There is a definite need for alternatives.

    5. There are studies that say industrial > organic in yields and organic > industrial, it often depends on the source behind the research.

    Here is one with organic yielding higher over 30 years:

    6. This point could be discussed in an entire paper, let alone a blog post. It's a challenge to draw any conclusion from the 3 year sample with no growth. Considering the external costs of industrial agriculture that are not ready to be internalized by the public, organic agriculture needs to find a more successful model to find growth in the future.

    Lumping organic farming into one large category without distinguishing between smallholder or corporate gave less weight to the legitimate points that you brought up

    Thanks for the post Steve. Wish I could write more, but I have a couple of exams to study for and a 6000km bike tour of Europe to finish planning.

    Take care,

    1. Tom,
      I bring up copper because it (in various forms) is about all organic farmers can use for disease in wet areas except for some biologicals which mainly reduce the total amount of copper still needed. Food wastes don't belong in landfills, but their best fate is anaerobic digesters which turn them into zero carbon emissions energy. Actually the vast majority of organic sold in mainstream stores comes from the major produce growers who also supply conventional. They do a great job of both. I agree that just as with conventional, there is no one model for how its done.
      6,000 km! wow

    2. So if the owner of the farm incorporates suddenly it is a negative? How about a partnership does that change anything? Is only the sole proprietership good?

    3. In the US the vast majority of farms are family owned and operated. Some are incorporated strictly for making taxes and inheritance easier for an extended family. Most of the big produce farms on the West coast started off as family farms and many are still family run. At least for crop agriculture, the whole "corporate farm" objection is just wrong

    4. Another outlier? Antibiotics on organic fruit trees. http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/04/08/176606069/surprise-organic-apples-and-pears-aren-t-free-of-antibiotics

  5. Michael,
    You are right. The relative apple yields in wetter states are substantially lower.


  6. I don't care if it is "green" or not. I care not to consume pesticides produced by Monsanto and die of cancer. Thank you very much. I hope organic and local farming continues thrive.

    1. Anon,

      First of all, Monsanto is largely out of the chemical business since they made the major move to biotech in the 1990s. The main, off-patent chemical they sell is certainly not a carcinogen. Also, EPA and similar agencies around the world have long-ago banned any chemicals with serious health or environmental effects. If you want your local farms to thrive, they need access to safe and effective pest control methods.

    2. Since when is glyphosate safe? As for the carbon footprint that logic would be relevant if it wasn't for the fact that co2 isn't an issue in our enviroment and is just being used to promote carbon taxes and a global control scheme under the guise of agenda 21. Seeing as they blamed co2 for global cooling in the 70's and now blame it for global warming, any well informed person knows the the "carbon footprint" meme is nothing but propaganda.

    3. "Also, EPA and similar agencies around the world have long-ago banned any chemicals with serious health or environmental effects."

      That is an incredibly dubious claim. I think you won't have to do a lot of research to find highly toxic farm and runoff environments throughout the US and worldwide.

      How you differentiate between "biotech" and "chemical" I am not sure, but so what? Biotech in conventional agriculture is near the very heart of the argument, with a significant part of the skepticism coming from what I would consider a fairly wise sense that genetic stuff needs many generations of testing to determine reasonably all the effects. Also, some of the modification is to incorporate the pesticide directly into the plant, or to immunize the plant from death by herbicide.

    4. Thomas,
      If you will look into it, the "pesticide" incorporated into Bt crops is the same protein we have sprayed on crops (and particularly organic crops) for decades. Biotech traits were carefully considered for a couple of decades before ever being commercialized. That is why there have not been any environmental or health issues even with their massive commercialization. Also, I do plenty of research on questions of toxic runoff etc. If you did some from actual science sources you would see that your dark images are seriously dated

    5. I like your piece in general, especially the focus on "what is actually environmentally the most benign" vs. "what aesthetic or philosophy should we choose". However on the particular point that Tom is talking about here, I have to agree that your reasoning seems rather naive. Our regulatory structure in the US relies on proof of toxicity before regulation. Everything that is currently banned or restricted was first used and then shown to be harmful (with much debate and argument from those who argued the benefits outweighed the costs) and then banned or restricted. This is an ongoing process that never ends as new chemicals, bio-engineered organisms, and other innovations are introduced into our system. I am not saying that this system is necessarily bad, but it is inherent in our system that what ever is banned now, or will be in the future, has at one point gone through a phase of being accepted as benign. One should always keep that in mind, and not fall prey to thinking that we have "the environment" figured out at any moment in history. As a scientist myself I am well aware that scientific understanding is "the best available understanding we have of our world GIVEN THE CURRENT OBSERVATIONS we have made up to this point in time".

      One of Monsanto's biggest sellers is the line of "round-up ready" crops. These are plants engineered to be resistant to higher levels of herbicides such that those herbicides can be applied more liberally. I believe I have read pieces describing how weeds have become more resistant on their own, and thus these crops are in a sense an arms race that goes in the direction of applying more and more indiscriminate herbicide to fields over time. This hardly fits with your coherent arguments regarding efficient and targeted application of nitrogen to crops to lessen nitrogen run off from fields.

    6. Andrew D,
      Roundup-ready crops are not engineered to take high doses of glyphosate, just the normal dose that has been used extensively since the 1970s for lots of non-crop or perennial ground weed control. The levels are not high (around 1 pound of active ingredient spread over 43,560 square feet). and the compound is low toxicity with a short half-life. Weeds have been becoming resistant to herbicides and even to tillage for a very long time - nothing novel in this case. The key is to rotate between methods and some growers didn't do that enough.

      The percentage of pesticides developed over the last 30 years that have since been banned for some undiscovered issue is extremely low. What examples can you even think of that are not older than that? I'm not saying it can't happen, but we scrutinize things pretty hard on a host of different levels.

  7. Another well-written & thought provoking article. I've been worried about organic issues like #1 for a while. "Natural" does not necessarily mean "good for you". There are, after all, many natural compounds which are highly toxic - as evidenced by the fact that some of them are used as pesticides!

    I'm curious about your point #2, though. "Annual" plant material is, in large part, carbon neutral. The carbon for the plant is taken in during the growing season, then released when the plant dies. There is a very clear annual cycle in the CO2 record, for example. From these composted plants, there is no net increase in carbon to the environment (c.f. digging up coal or pumping oil out of the ground). Am I missing something here?

    1. David,
      If plant residues are metabolized and released as CO2 they are indeed "carbon neutral," but if they are decomposed under anaerobic conditions, methanogenic microbes generate that greenhouse gas with is 21-24 times as potent as CO2 as a greenhouse gas.

      In no-till, the crop residues decompose slowly on the surface of the soil with plenty of oxygen. That process can build soil quality just as it does in nature.

    2. This is a very interesting point that I really like. I am curious about the whole idea of where the organic material would be going if it were not being made into compost for organic fields. That is, I understand what you are saying that the no-till surface decomposition (leaf litter in a forest vs peat in a bog) is better since it isn't producing CH4 and the like, but is it currently being diverted from landfills where it would equally be producing methane without offsetting petroleum based fertilizers? I.E. no-till > compost > miracle grow doesn't mean moving from miracle grow to compost isn't a good thing, even if it is only a half measure.

    3. Andrew,
      organic waste that goes into a landfill is certainly a bad idea, but not much of that should really be diverted to composting for food crops because people put all sorts of stuff into those streams that they shouldn't. In our area they collect yard waste separately and turn it into mulch (mostly grinding and drying). Its ok for landscape use, but I've used it on volunteer projects and strange stuff shows up in it. Outside of urban areas, landfill wastes are not what gets composted and used on crops. That is mostly from animal feeding centers and it would be best put through an anaerobic digester, not composting which wastes the energy content. I've been tracking a technology that does digesting but also has a way to recover the nitrogen as ammonium sulfate at usefully high concentrations. That is really a good idea. They are looking or money by the way to get this rolling

  8. The organic rules were selected by marketing people to exploit common fears (toxic pesticides, hormones) and misconceptions (natural=good, synthetic=bad), and augmented by psuedoscience re-enforcing those fears. The rules exist to allow producers to charge more money for 'less scary' food - not to improve the environment, health or food quality.

    Unfortunately, what the world needs to feed a growing population in the face of uncertain weather is scaleable, sustainable food - not boogeyman-free food.

    1. I think that the organic industry is a mix of very well intentioned folks and some opportunists, but I certainly agree with your summation

  9. Nice to see the arguments normally applied by the organic people being thrown back in their faces!
    The organic movement is a byproduct of the success of conventional farming, and the plenty full and cheap food it gives us. Where there is surplus people have the luxury to pick and choose.

  10. Read your fascinating open letter to the Soil Association. Without questioning any of the numbers related to composting and manure, what I am curious about is whether the manure would contribute those numbers by their mere existence, regardless of whether they were subsequently engaged in agriculture or not. In other words, the manure is going to be around anyway as long as there is livestock. If it is not composted or otherwise applied to agricultural land, would it have the same greenhouse gas impact?

    1. anonymous,
      The GHG emissions and/or nutrient pollution issues with manure depend on a host of issues. Depending on the way it is managed it can be a relatively minor issue or a major one. The optimal solution is for animals to be "finished" in a CAFO from which their manure is put into an anaerobic digester so that the remaining carbon in their manure is converted to methane and burned for energy. The next best option is for it to be spread quickly after generation on crops not for direct human consumption to avoid the disease issues. There is a huge trade-off with ruminant animals. They give us energy/food access to the most abundant source of potential food energy - cellulose. The bacterial mixture in their ruminant guts generates lots of methane as does their manure. We need solutions to this, but regular composting isn't a good one.

  11. I will go with the scientific version of events as they stand now with the belief that it is the BEST.

  12. This is the most inacurate and deceiving piece of "science" i ever came across with. The stupidity has no limits...

  13. Hi, Nice blog. Thank you for sharing a very informative article.

  14. Read your amazing open correspondence to the Ground Organization. Without asking any of the figures relevant to compost and fertilizer, what I am inquisitive about is whether the fertilizer would play a role those figures by their simple lifestyle, rs to gold


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