Organic, locally grown food: Better for your family and for our hungry world – right?
Heading to the farmer’s market in the warm spring sunshine, it’s easy to feel like you’re doing everyone on Earth a small favor. But like with so many things in life, it depends.
The truth is, there is no silver bullet when it comes to solving food security and environmental challenges in a world that will count 9 billion people by 2050.
So rather than asking which system comes out ahead, we must focus on how farms perform. In some cases, conventional methods will have higher yields as well as a smaller environmental impact.
That’s why we can’t afford to shut the door on either strategy. Let me explain why.
Optimal yield? Location, location, location.
In agriculturally developed regions such as Europe and North America, research has shown a 20-percent reduction in yields for organically grown food, compared with conventional – although the drop could be just 13 percent when best practices are used.
In parts of Sub-Saharan Africa and some other landscapes, however, products that can help maximize yields aren’t always available or affordable. This, in turn, leads to big food production gaps.
Where access to chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides is limited, using organic sources of nutrients – animal manure, in particular – along with non-chemical pest and weed control methods can significantly boost crops.
Growing methods must and will vary, depending on whether the food is produced in Malawi or Montana, Belgium or Brazil.
Pesticides, fertilizers boost production. Or not.
Conventional farms that use synthetic herbicides and pesticides inefficiently can contribute to climate and water pollution. If used efficiently, those same herbicides and pesticides can make it easier for farmer to adopt no-till and other practices that bring a net benefit to the environment when soil gets healthier, erosion slows, and water and air quality improves.
Likewise, when organic farmers turn to mechanical weeding, they can inadvertently harm nesting birds and other animals – while contributing to erosion and fuel emissions. And while manure is beneficial to soils in organic systems, it can also pollute waterways and lead to health problems if not properly applied.
We need to change the conversation about sustainable agriculture – rather than focusing on which production systems are good or bad.
This is why we need to change the conversation about sustainable agriculture to talk about performance – rather than focusing on which production systems are good or bad. And instead of pointing fingers at bigger, conventional farming operations.
Performance is a better paradigm for sustainable agriculture.
Our challenge and opportunity now is to help all farmers, everywhere, pursue practices and innovations that protect the land, while ramping up yields for a growing population. We need everyone, organic and conventional, to step up to the plate.
Hi Robbin and thank you for sharing your thoughts. I share your concern about harmful herbicides and pesticides, and absolutely agree we need to limit or prohibit such products that harm human health and the environment.
The challenge of securing sustainable farming practices globally demands taking into account a complexity of factors from soil health and water quality to productivity and worker health. EDF’s sustainable agriculture program is focused primarily on fertilizer efficiency and soil health, because inefficient fertilizer use creates greenhouse gases, algae blooms and contaminated drinking water. A lot of progress is being made in this area.
There are, however, many more important questions – including the ones you raise about health impacts – that must be answered as we work to feed our rapidly expanding population.
In reply to So, it's ok to poison people by Robbin Jones
EDF is a politically compromised environmental organization. Do your research on them with respect to the corporate funding and corporate collaborators they have. For example, they don't call for an end to fracking in alignment with climate science instead they are ok with the expansion of fracking and propose using "clean tech" to capture emissions from sources that are incredibly leaky using regs that go unmonitored, unenforced with little consequence. It's called market-based environmentalism.
In reply to So, it's ok to poison people by Robbin Jones
Hi Barb and thank you for taking an interest in our work! EDF does not accept corporate donations from businesses whose activities contradict our environmental mission. For more information, please consult our donation policy page: https://www.edf.org/approach/partnerships/corporate-donation-policy
In reply to Robbin, EDF is a politically… by Barb Parnell
I wrote a paper in 1999 expressing a similar perspective, in which I examined tradeoffs between different agricultural systems.
Abstract: All systems of agriculture practiced today can be seen as having a potential for improvement and contributing toward a more sustainable agriculture. The major differences in approach and in the types of services needed to serve the development of sustainable agriculture are between industrial and ecological systems rather than between organic and conventional systems (defined by inputs).
Support services offered by private and public institutions are adequate for industrial systems, but not for ecological systems.
Interesting thesis. How come you didn't bring these topics up?
1. Biodynamic farming. These farming practices employ best practices that improve the soils fertility, encourage holistic practices and judicious use of all resources in the process. They also don't poison the food chain and our ecosystem with harmful herbicides, pesticides and GMOs.
2. Food waste. It's appalling how much food the United States wastes. Food supply calculations need to address the amount of food waste that is generated in most American family meals. That is a critical area to focus on when it comes to food sustainability. We must change our value systems around food and where it comes from, and how it made it to your pantry and dinner table. Focus on educating the population and encouraging them to stop wasting food (they will all take it for granted until they don't have more food.)
Don't you think its problematic to have a thesis that encourages conventional farming as a "sustainable" practice for world food supply? It's a slippery slope to GMOs.
I recognize organic farming alone isn't the silver bullet, but its a great start. Conventional farming is about profit, not growing food and feeding the planet sustainably. There needs to be a shift in the values system in order to effectively address the negative externalities of the Western world's food production, consumption and waste cycles.
Thanks so much for your comments, JT.
Biodynamic farming and food waste are both really important issues. EDF is primarily focused on fertilizer efficiency and soil health, but there are many important an unanswered questions, including questions surrounding the issues you raise. We need additional resources and research into ways to feed the planet sustainably.
I’m encouraging us to explore all avenues and keep doors open as we search for solutions and improvements. That includes making conventional agriculture more sustainable, because we need all solutions and all hands on deck.
In reply to Interesting thesis. by JT
What is your definition of sustainable? How is agriculture “sustainable” if it injects toxic chemicals into the soil on a regular basis, with potential runoff into our dwindling water supply? How is it appropriate for farm workers to continue to work in a toxic chemical environment?
I find it surprising that you would say performance trumps, whether a food production system is good or bad.
Yes, we all eat. But to live with a healthy body, we need healthy food. Otherwise, we poison both the soil and water. This direct relationship between the health of our bodies and the health of our food shatters your notion that performance is a “better paradigm” for sustainable agriculture.
Please remember that we have been fed the lie that GMOs are “the way to feed the world”, because they produce higher yields. Evidence has proven otherwise.
Until our food production system was changed forever by the so-called Green Revolution, small-scale peasant farmers around the world did the job of feeding us. Therefore, we need to stop big companies that steal land from peasants. We need to speak up for these people.
We also need to stop wasting so much food, as a reader has reminded us. We need to stop eating super-sized portions; they are madness! And more of us need to grow food, even if we only have an apartment balcony. Overall, we need to become more mindful about our food production systems, what we eat, and how we eat.
Focusing more on higher yields is a sure-fire way to perpetuate the business-as-usual practices of big ag colluding with chemical companies -- practices that are about higher profits, at the expense of our planetary environment and the health of all who eat.
It would also help if far more city people grew vegetables in their backyards and if municipalities converted more empty lots into community gardens. Compost programs include all kitchen waste and are therefore richer in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK) than leaf-based compost. The product could be distributed to citizens so they rely neither on manure, nor on synthetic fertilizer.
I strongly suggest reading the book title "Organic Crop Production." Well-researched and very comprehensive focusing more on organic farming practices, not the science.
Much of what you say here is supported by a recent paper by Clark and Tilman (Environ Res Lett 12  064016). I quote: "Our analyses show that dietary shifts, towards low-impact foods and increases in agricultural input use efficiency would offer larger environmental benefits than would switches from conventional agriculture systems to alternatives such as organic agriculture or grass-fed beef."
I am discouraged that this conversation includes such enthusiastic continuity for our toxic Big Ag system and not a single mention of slowing or stopping the growth of the human population on Earth. [Earth] Overshoot Day was August 1 this year. Do we wait until it happens on February 1 to reduce human population?
So, it's ok to poison people and the environment if it means more food? I never thought I'd hear this from EDF. Today, Glyphosate is being acknowledged as a carcinogenic and a contributory factor in hive collapse, and pesticides are killing off any insects including pollinators. I don't know about anyone else, but I'll less food that doesn't actually kill me or the rest of the ecosystem.
Robbin JonesMay 5, 2016 at 8:33 pm