In September, Stanford University’s Center for Health Policy released a controversial report called Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives? The study—a meta-analysis of more than two hundred studies—concludes that there is “little evidence of health benefit from eating organic food.” The researchers found that, according to vitamin and mineral content, organic products were no more nutritious than conventionally grown meats and vegetables.
The media offered a bewildering array of reactions. New York Times opinion columnist Roger Cohen disparaged the organic-food “fad,” calling it an “elitist, pseudoscientific indulgence shot through with hype,” and claiming organic food offered “no obvious health benefits” over cheaper, conventionally produced foods. The Los Angeles Times, on the other hand, published an editorial noting that the study largely ignored the ill effects of pesticides on conventionally grown produce, along with the hormones and antibiotic-resistant bacteria that taint factory-farmed meat and poultry. The study also failed to examine processed foods, the health effects of the chemical additives, dyes, preservatives, and genetically modified foods that are allowed in conventional products but not in those labeled “organic.”
But what most of the media responses to the Stanford analysis ignored is the most compelling argument of all for organic growing—the environmental impact of its opposite, the chemical-intensive agriculture that dominates the American landscape and much of the globe.
My own appreciation for organic agriculture dates to a conversation I had years ago with a cotton grower from the Central Valley of California who told me about his switch from conventional to organic growing. We talked about the benefits to the water, soil, and ecosystem of farming without toxic chemicals, but what struck me most was his sheer boyish enthusiasm for a line of work that in my urban arrogance I had envisioned as backbreaking, mindless, and numbingly routine.
Thanks to the switch to organics, he said, farming had become for him a labor of love—and also an intellectual challenge that required him to think out new approaches to controlling pests and maintaining soil fertility, rather than depending on standardized applications of toxic chemicals and petroleum-based fertilizers.
“When I started out farming,” he told me, “it was like showing up at an assembly line day in and day out. You work with heavy machinery—combines, planters, sprayers and harvesters—and can spend an entire growing season without actually getting any dirt underneath your fingernails.”
Going organic, on the other hand, had forced him to pay attention in a whole new way to what was actually happening on his land. “It is not like playing a pre-set score. It’s more like jazz; you improvise, you respond to the world around you.” Organic growers, he explained, are constantly innovating, trying out new locally adapted seed varieties, rotating crops, plowing back stalks and other organic residues, planting cover crops, and experimenting with a variety of natural approaches to controlling weeds and insect pests in response to changes in the weather, in insect populations, and in soil vitality.
Organic farming can be tougher to get right than conventional agriculture, he conceded. But precisely because it is far more “hands on,” it also tends to be more rewarding. “It brought me back in touch with nature,” the cotton farmer effused. “I rediscovered what farming is all about.”
I remembered those words when I read about yet another study, this one conducted by McGill University in Montreal and the University of Minnesota, a statistical synthesis of sixty-six studies that compared organic with conventional agriculture. The conclusion, published in Nature: Organic is not as efficient as its rival—at least when judged according to yield per acre.
No surprise there. If all that matters is the sheer volume of food that can be produced on a given plot of land, then chemical-intensive farming will win. For big cash crops like corn, soybeans, and wheat, conventional agriculture produces over 25 percent more than organics per acre. Yet when it comes to certain fruits, legumes, and leafy vegetables, the yields of the two methods are essentially equal.
Nobody disputes the fact that modern agriculture is fabulously productive. A single acre of farmland in Iowa produces one hundred seventy bushels of corn. Yet even though industrial agriculture produces more “calories per acre,” that doesn’t mean it’s more efficient than organic, if efficiency is judged by the full environmental costs. Farming machinery and petroleum-based chemicals require huge amounts of fossil fuels. Industrial farming depletes the soil of nutrients, and uses water less efficiently than organic methods. Toxic pesticides and herbicides harm pollinators and pollute the groundwater. All those factors must be weighed when assessing the efficiency of our dominant agricultural system.
Still, can small-scale organic farming ever hope to meet the world’s food needs? Development experts say that feeding the hungry is not simply a matter of growing more food, but of producing the right kinds of foods in the right places, and finding ways of getting it to those who need it.
That’s where the current system is failing. A typical acre of Iowa farmland produces one hundred seventy bushels of corn. Most of that is fed to cattle. Yet meat production is highly inefficient. The ratio of fossil-fuel energy required to produce one unit of food energy is 35:1 for beef production, compared to 3:1 on average for all other agricultural products. The Brazilian rainforest and other areas of the global south are being cleared to grow soybeans to feed beef cattle in the United States. In many places thousands of small farmers are being forced out to make way for large-scale industrial agriculture. Farmers in developing nations cannot afford agro-chemicals, patented genetically modified seeds, and the latest farm equipment. For the rural poor, low-cost farming methods may be a better way to get food to their families and neighbors who need it. That’s why in 2008 the UN and World Bank’s “International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development” called for “food sovereignty,” an approach favoring small-scale sustainable agriculture over the export-driven factory farming being pushed by large multinational corporations.
The question is not whether organic or conventional agriculture can better feed the world. Modern agriculture is here to stay. But it does need to change. Underground aquifers are drying out; bees and other pollinators are dying; the climate is getting hotter and drier in many places. Desertification is encroaching on huge swaths of Africa, China, and elsewhere. Arable land is declining worldwide.
This means that farmers need to learn to grow food more sustainably. The trend toward increasing the acreage devoted to meat production must be reversed. Neither organic nor conventional agriculture can do it alone. We have to develop an approach that combines the best in industrial production with organic and sustainable practices. Only then can we hope to feed the billions who will be born in the coming decades, and preserve the planet and its irreplaceable farmlands for generations to come.
Related: An Economy of Care, by John Schwenkler and David Cloutier