Sunday, October 28, 2012

USDA Organic Crops: New Data Shows No Net Growth 2008-11

Organic is often described as the "fastest growing segment of the food supply." Recent data fails to support that claim.  The USDA recently released its second major survey of the US organic farming industry with data from 2011.  The obvious question was "what has changed in the three years since the last big survey in 2008?"  The answers are somewhat surprising (see graph above and description below):

Farms: The number of farms growing most organic crops has dropped by 20-30% for most crops (not graphed)

Acres: Although the crop mix has changed, the total acres of USDA organic crops is only slightly up for fruit and somewhat down for other categories (nuts, vegetables, row crops)

Yields: The average yields for organic crop categories other than nuts are slightly up

Production: The actual production of organic crops in pounds is down for all but fruits which are up slightly

Price: The price of organic crops has risen rather significantly for all but row crops
There was too much incomparable data between the two surveys for hay and silage crops, so the following analysis focuses on human-oriented crops like fruits, vegetables, nuts and row crops like cereals and oilseeds.

Why Fewer Farms?

The fact that farms and acres are down while yields are up for many crops suggests that there has been some shifting of production to the more successful operations.  I plan to look at the state-by-state detail on this in the future.

Acreage Changes

The table below lists some of the organic crops that have seen the largest absolute or relative acreage increases in the last three years:

Nearly 5,000 acres of organic table grapes were added which was an 18% increase.  The 1000+ acre increase in blueberries by 2011 was a 60% increase over the 2008 level.  Other crops with large increases included sweet corn, broccoli, squash walnuts, flaxseed, dry beans and sunflower seed.

While there were some increases, there were also many crops for which the acreage dropped significantly over this time span (see table below).

Apples, tomatoes, lettuce, peanuts and both spring and winter wheat were the organic crops with the largest acreage loss.  For fruit crops overall, the acreage change was a net zero.  For nuts, vegetables and row crops, the net change for the category was negative.  For all these crops combined, USDA Certified Organic Acreage declined by 68,000 acres over these three years.  This is in stark contrast to the historical trends.  Between 1995 and 2008 the average increase had been 144,000 acres/year.  Arguably this could be the result of the major recession, but as we will see later, price increases in the same time frame do not fit that hypothesis.

Production (actual pounds)

With changes in farms acres and average yields, the key question is what happened to the total production of organic crops that could then flow to consumers?  Once again this is a mixed story.  Some crops have seen significant increases in production (see table below).

Crops like grapes, oranges, peaches, sweet corn, carrots, squash, rice and winter wheat all saw increases of over 20 million pounds over the three years.  Many of these increases were dramatic on a percentage basis.  However, there were also many crops that saw dramatic decreases in production (see table below).

Organic apples declined by nearly 190 million pounds.  Tomatoes, Lettuce, and Corn also showed major declines.  Overall, for all the categories combined, there were 7.3 million less pounds of organic foods in 2011 than in 2008.

Imports, which were not captured in this survey, also contributed to the supply of organic foods available to US consumers from 2008 to 2011.   For some vegetables and fruits, there were likely major supplies from Mexico and other sources.  For grains, any increase in supply likely comes from much more distant origins.  These including countries for which many observers have doubts about the credibility of the certification system.

Prices: What Do These Crops Cost?

Moving from 2008 to 2011, the prices per pound that organic farmers received were higher, often significantly higher.  These changes do not correlate well with production changes, nor do they fit the scenario that recession-driven limits on consumer demand had much effect on prices for organic in market.  Most fruit crops saw price increases over these three years, and even more vegetable crops did as well (see table below)

All nut crops realized price increases including peanuts which saw a major overall production drop and almonds which saw a production gain (see table below).

The only real losing category for organic crop prices over these three years was row crops (see particularly spring and winter wheat in the table above).  Again, these crops are much more subject to long-distance competition from places like China and India.  During these three years, conventional row crop farmers in the US saw significant commodity price increases, but the organic producers did not.

Any Big Conclusions?

Considering the major, crop-to-crop differences, I'm reluctant to draw too many big conclusions at this point.  All that is clear is that there has not been much if any overall growth in the US, Certified Organic crop sector over the last three years except in terms of cost.  I will be sending this analysis to many contacts who are knowledgeable about the organic sector and I hope to get some perspective from them and from readers of this post on the various sites where this is posted.   There are almost surely crop-by-crop and region-by-region stories behind what can be seen from these data.  If you know some of those stories I hope you will either share them in the comments here or via email at

Comments on the Form of the Data
(This section is for data wonks.  Read on if you are interested in this detail)

There has been very little if any comprehensive coverage of this new survey in the mainstream press or even in the pro-organic blogosphere.  I'm guessing that this is because it is pretty hard to do the analysis.  I'm not saying that the USDA has intentionally made this difficult to do, but if they wanted to make it difficult, their presentation would have been a good strategy.

First of all, there was a big difference between the two surveys.  In 2008 it included both USDA Certified and USDA Exempt Organic farms.  The latter is a category for farms with less than $5,000 in annual sales which don't have to go through a formal certification process and which can only use the label "Organic" not "USDA Organic."  In 2011, only the USDA Certified Organic farms were included.  Fortunately, the 2008 data has tables breaking out the data that way (tables 23 to 26 at this link).

The data set is designed for PDF format, so even though there are CSV versions that can be opened in Excel, the set-up of the tables requires work to put it in a form that can be conveniently compared between the years.  Also there are unit changes for some crops between the years (e.g. hundred weights vs tons).  For this analysis I converted everything to pounds, but I'd like to have someone check the math.

Particularly at the state level, many data cells are marked "(D)" meaning that the number of farms is too small to show the data because it would give away too much detail about specific operations.  Thus, for instance, organic cotton production dropped by 60% between 2008 and 2011, but the data for value and number of farms was not given.   Similarly, barley production data was not published.

The ups and downs of the organic commodities do not seem to correlate with those for the total crop in these two years (2008 and 2011).

Monday, October 22, 2012

Can the Damage from Agenda-driven Junk Science be Undone?

Unfortunately, junk science can be generated by people with agendas, and the editorial process does not always prevent it from getting the undeserved legitimacy of publication.  In extreme cases the legitimate scientific community responds, but can it undo the damage?  Recently a group of scientists led by Gilles-Eric Seralini of the University of Caen published a feeding study which purported to find tumorigenic effects of GMO corn and glyphosate. It was so blatantly flawed in design and interpretation that it elicited a rapid and overwhelmingly negative response.  

The Scientific Community Responds

In an unprecedented move, the French academies of agriculture, medicine, pharmacy, science, technology and veterinary studies released a joint statement calling the Seralini paper a "scientific non-event" and the overall assessment that:  

"This work does not enable any reliable conclusion to be drawn."   

This follows a similar critique by the German, Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) which concluded:

"The study shows both shortcomings in study design and in the presentation of the collected data.  This means that the conclusions drawn by the authors are not supported by the available data."  

This sort of rapid rejection by such an agency was also unusual.  Today, ANSES, the French agency responsible for risk assessments with biotech crops, published an opinion that: 

"The study's central weakness lies in the fact that the conclusions advanced by the authors are not sufficiently supported by the data published."  

While these statements are in the civil and precise tone of scientific communication, they amount to as much of a "smack down" as is possible from the restrained, academic and regulatory communities.  The currency of respect in the scientific community is solid data from objective, well designed, well executed, and properly interpreted experiments.  The "Seralini study" met none of those standards and should rightly be ignored by the broader society unless someday confirmed by more objective research.  Unfortunately, that is not a likely scenario.  

How This Controversy Will Play in the Anti-Science World

It is far more probable that this "cancer link" will become another permanent entry in the lexicon of anti-GMO "evidence."   It will join toxic lectins-in-potatoes, Monarch butterfly toxicity, and Indian farmer suicides as endlessly repeated, mythic narratives in the echo-chambers of groups and publications which oppose crop biotechnology.  It matters little how much good, respectable research has been published to document the safety of biotech crops, such as review of 12, independent, long-term feeding studiespublished in the same Journal as the Seralini study just this April.  It matters little how many major scientific bodies conclude that biotech crops are safe.  To those who have bought into the conspiracy thinking, this will stand as irrefutable evidence that they have always been right to oppose this technology.  All criticism of the Seralini study will be written off as part of the grand, profit-driven conspiracy to kill everyone with GMO crops.

The Real Fallout From Fear-Mongering

It would be bad enough if something like the Seralini study simply contributed to the unnecessary angst amongst consumers around the world.  It also has very real political, economic and practical effects.  For instance brand conscious food companies have used their leverage to prevent the development of GMO versions of potatoes, bananas, coffee and other crops because they fear controversey.  Apple growers worried about the market response are opposing the introduction of a non-browning apple even though it was developed by one of their own fruit companies.  French activists destroyed a government-run field trial of a virus-resistant root stock which could have made it possible to produce good wine on sites that have become useless because of contamination with sting nematodes and the virus they vector.  California voters have the potential to pass a seriously flawed "GMO labeling" initiative next month that could only serve the purposes of the lawyers and "natural products" marketers who created it.  More importantly, European and Japanese importers of wheat essentially blackmailed the North American wheat producers into blocking biotech wheat development because those companies were nervous about consumer response in countries where GMO angst is so high.  This has delayed by decades not only specific desirable trait development, but also what might have been an enormous private investment in a crop that is critically important for feeding a lot more people than just those in those rich countries.  There is a huge cost of "precaution" based on poor science.

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Trash can image from Montgomery Cty Division of Solid Waste Services

Monday, October 8, 2012

When Increased Pesticide Use Is A Good Thing

recent study published in Environmental Sciences Europe has attracted attention because it documents a net increase in pesticide use on genetically engineered crops in the US.  The author, Chuck Benbrook, is certainly qualified to consider pesticide issues, and I have had positive interactions with him over the years; however as an organic advocate he has a very different perspective on pesticides than I do.  Chuck is certainly not alone in his assumption that pesticide use is,  by definition, something undesirable.  That is an assumption that deserves to be challenged.  There are some patterns of pesticide use that are problematic, but there are many more in which the pesticide serves a positive purpose that far outweighs any associated risks.

Why Even Bt Crops Were About Alternative Pesticide Use, Not "Reduced" Pesticide Use

Throughout the history of biotechnology in agriculture, I have been uncomfortable with the way that many of its advocates claim that "reduced pesticide use" is one of the primary arguments for the use of the technology.  First of all, even the Bt crops which even Benbrook credits for reduced foliar sprays (Bt cotton and European Corn Borer resistant corn) were not actually about eliminating pesticide uses - they were about delivering a different kind of pesticide efficiently via the plant itself.  In fact in the Western Corn Belt, the introduction of Bt corn lead to yield increases because much of this new "pesticide use" via the seed was on acres which were normally untreated in the past.  The various caterpillar pests of corn and cotton are real challenges for crop production and they are not going to go away.  Pesticides, whether delivered via chemical applications or plant expression, are good and useful tools because they preserve yield and thus increase the efficiency of all the other inputs to the crop (land, water, fuel, fertilizer, labor...).  

Some Perspective On Scary Sounding Big Numbers

It is an unfortunate reality that most people don't know how to think about very large or very small numbers.  The gleeful interpreters of Benbrook's study from the Food Movement (e.g. Tom Laskawy at Grist) leap on evidence of an impressive sounding number of increased pounds of pesticides used on biotech crops. 404 million pounds sounds like something huge, but not when put into the perspective of the area involved.   This 404 million pound figure is Benbrook's overall estimated increase on the hundreds of millions of acres of biotech crops over the 15 year period between 1996 and 2011.  That works out to something like four ounces per crop acre per year. Even if it were four times that value, it would represent 0.00002 pounds per square foot.  Just for additional perspective, an organic vegetable crop might easily be treated with several copper fungicide applications at the rate of six pounds/acre each season.  

When It Comes To Pesticides, There Are Pounds And There Are Pounds

To his credit, Chuck Benbrook points out that "in light of its generally favorable environmental and toxicological properties, especially compared to some of the herbicides displaced by glyphosate, the dramatic increase in glyphosate use has likely not markedly increased human health risk."  Benbrook knows what many people do not, which is that pesticides differ from one and other by orders of magnitude in terms of their various toxic properties to us and to non-target organisms.  Thus, any time that one hears about an increase or decrease in pesticide use, it is crucial to ask what chemistries are involved.  For instance, the biotech corn hybrids that have been introduced with resistance to Corn root worm (actually a beetle) have been a plant-delivered pesticide alternative that reduced the need for some older organophosphate chemicals which are more problematic than most modern insecticides.  For resistance management purposes and for secondary pests, there is actually the need for increased use some alternative soil insecticides or seed treatments.  Once again, the constant goal is to adequately control economically important pests, and over time to do so with lower and lower risk options.

Why Increased Herbicide Use Can Be A Very Good Thing

When it comes to herbicides, increased "pesticide use" can be a very good thing from an environmental perspective.  In the early eighteenth century, an English agronomist named Jethro Tull began promoting "horse hoe husbandry" which was essentially the innovation of planting crops in neat rows and using mechanical devices like plows and harrows to control the weeds growing in between.  It revolutionized agriculture, but also put farming on a track towards serious environmental impact.  Plowed soils are susceptible to erosion which leads to declining soil quality, sedimentation of waterways, and ultimately to movement of soil-associated fertilizer and pesticide residues into surface water.  In later, mechanized agriculture, plowing was also associated with significant fuel usage. Probably the single most important advance for sustainable farming has been the elimination of plowing and other soil disturbances which is achieved through methods such as "no-till farming."  The introduction of herbicides in the 1960s, farmers, equipment companies and chemical companies began to develop ways to grow crops without tillage (no-till).   Herbicide tolerant crops greatly enhanced farmer's ability to adopt these methods since the mid 1990s.  This is clearly a case where "more pesticides" means a better environmental outcome.  This is exactly what is going on as an result of the increase that Benbrook documents.  It is a good thing and a positive result of biotechnology.

Benbrook Is Almost Certainly Underestimating The Increased Pesticide Use On US Row Crops

The USDA pesticide use reporting, on which Benbrook relied for much of his analysis, ended during the Bush administration around 2006.  This is unfortunate because it failed to capture a substantial increase in pesticide use that has occurred in response to the unprecedented increase in agricultural commodity prices since 2007/8.  US row crop agriculture has always been a relatively low-use chemical market from an agricultural chemical perspective.  For the big US crops like corn and soybeans, there have historically been very few sprays of insecticides or fungicides.  US and Canadian wheat production involved even fewer.  In Europe, between high yield potential, crop subsidies, and wet weather, pesticide use is vastly higher on wheat and other crops than in the dominant US row crops.  However, in recent years as corn, soy and wheat prices have risen to levels several times higher than in the past, American farmers have been able to economically justify in-season sprays of fungicides and insecticides to prevent pest-related losses that would have simply been tolerated in the past.  The chemicals that they are using for these sprays are in the "not scary" category, and thus their usage is a good thing for the critical role that the US and Canada play in the global food supply.

To reiterate, pesticide use or its increase are not automatically undesirable things.  It depends on what is the alternative and what is the nature of the particular pesticide in question.  Plant biotechnology is just one important tool in the bigger tool box of agriculture.  Sometimes it allows farmers to use a more attractive pesticide option (Bt Sweet Corn would the be best example of this).  Sometimes it helps them with the adoption of sustainable practices that depend on relatively low risk herbicides.  For farmers, biotechnology and pesticides are not an either/or.  They are often partners.

Sprayer image from the USDA
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