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Can Organics Feed The Earth?

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, September 11, 2007

A hat tip to Lauri Raymond, Chief Visionary Office at Sisters & Brothers, Inc., which sells products that can be used as sauces, marinades and dressings. Back in June, we ran a piece that focused on a letter she sent us regarding organics. You can read the exchange here.

A little while ago, she sent along an article based on this press release from the University of Michigan. The headline: Organic Farming Can Feed the World, U-M Study Shows. The study was shocking because the conventional wisdom is that organic growing techniques generally produce lower yields than conventional growing techniques. But these researchers said that wasn’t true — at least in developing countries:

Organic farming can yield up to three times as much food on individual farms in developing countries, as low-intensive methods on the same land — according to new findings which refute the long-standing claim that organic farming methods cannot produce enough food to feed the global population.

Researchers from the University of Michigan found that in developed countries, yields were almost equal on organic and conventional farms. In developing countries, food production could double or triple using organic methods, said Ivette Perfecto, professor at U-M’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, and one the study’s principal investigators. Catherine Badgley, research scientist in the Museum of Paleontology, is a co-author of the paper along with several current and former graduate and undergraduate students from U-M.

“My hope is that we can finally put a nail in the coffin of the idea that you can’t produce enough food through organic agriculture,” Perfecto said.

In addition to equal or greater yields, the authors found that those yields could be accomplished using existing quantities of organic fertilizers, without putting more farmland into production….

This was really startling and important news. The lynchpin argument against organic has always been that lower yields will require more farmland. If that is not true, then organics might offer a much more compelling option — both economically and environmentally.

Yet something about this study was troubling. We were particularly concerned by this sentence in the press release:

For their analysis, researchers defined the term organic as: practices referred to as sustainable or ecological; that utilize non-synthetic nutrient cycling processes; that exclude or rarely use synthetic pesticides; and sustain or regenerate the soil quality.

What disturbed us is that the term organic is already defined and shouldn’t require the researchers to say anything other than that they defined it as grown in accordance with the organic standards acceptable in the U.S., the European community or Japan or Australia, etc.

Note that researchers do not mention explicit bans on things such as GMOs, use of irradiation, etc. This raises the question of whether, in actuality, farmers growing to true organic standards would, in fact, experience the yields these researchers claimed.

Now the Center for Global Food Issues of the Hudson Institute has come out with a comment entitled, “Organic Abundance” Report: Fatally Flawed:

The recent report from Catherine Badgley et al., at the University of Michigan (Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, July, 2007) claimed that “organic agriculture has the potential to contribute quite substantially to the global food supply” and said “organic methods could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base.”

This claim is simply not credible given the following internal fatal flaws:

  1. Claiming yields from non-organic farming methods as organic;
  2. Comparing “organic” yields to non-representative “non-organic” yields;
  3. Double, triple, even quintuple counting of organic yields from the same few research projects;
  4. Omitting non-favorable crop yields while using favorable yields from the same studies;
  5. Misreporting yield results….

In perhaps the most brazen example of research misrepresentation in decades, 105 to 119 studies claimed as “organic” by the University of Michigan group were not organic. Only 11% to 21% of “developing world” yields cited were from studies actually using organic farming methods. Some “organic” examples even used GMO crops; many (if not most) used synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The researchers did not provide enough detail to determine the exact number of misrepresented studies, but their main source (Pretty and Hine, 2001) stated clearly in their reports that only 14 of 208 studies in their database are “organic.” The Michigan group relied on 70 of these for their paper. They also labeled as “organic” 49 yield ratios from the “System of Rice Intensification” which is not organic. Combined, these represent 79% to 89% of the 133 “developing world” yield ratios included in the study.

As an example, Badgley et al. claim organic methods increased Argentine maize yields by 37%. (Source: Roberto Pieretti in “Pretty and Hine, 2001”) In fact, this statistic comes from Argentine farmers using herbicides to kill weeds, growing GMO herbicide-tolerant soy (~98%) and GMO insect resistant maize (~25%), and extensively using synthetic fertilizers and organic-prohibited herbicides and pesticides. To label these yield gains as “organic” is absurd. (Source: Mr. Roberto Peiretti, past president of the Argentinean No-Till Farmers Association: sdrob@idi.com.ar)

Another misrepresentation is China maize yield increase of 38%, reported from the East Gansu project run by the Chinese government. The primary source (Pretty and Hine, 2001) reports that “Grain output and food per capita [in the project area] have increased greatly because of improved crops varieties, runoff harvesting and water-saving irrigation, and fertilizers and pesticide use.” [emphasis added]

These facts are made clear in the research reports used in the Badgley et al report, so their ignoring the non-organic reality of these projects is hard to explain. It is especially hard to explain given supervising author Ivette Perfecto’s clear statement in a press release issued by the University of Michigan that “My hope is that we can finally put a nail in the coffin of the idea that you can’t produce enough food through organic agriculture.”…

Both the press release and the response are more extensive and we’ve linked to both so anyone can read them in their entirety.

There is another line in the University of Michigan press release that bothered us:

“Corporate interest in agriculture and the way agriculture research has been conducted in land grant institutions, with a lot of influence by the chemical companies and pesticide companies as well as fertilizer companies — all have been playing an important role in convincing the public that you need to have these inputs to produce food,” she said.

One thing that was certain is that all this stuff was outside the scope of the study. A careful researcher, seeking truth rather than confirmation for pre-conceived notions, wouldn’t speak that way.

In all of Keats poetry the most important lines are these from Ode on a Grecian Urn:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” — that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

The world would be a most ugly place if we allow our prejudices to blind us to the truth.

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