Rethinking Public Dollars To Promote Organic Adoption

  • Published on January 31st, 2011

There was a news story this week about how there are $1.5 million of Federal funds available to help farmers in Nebraska convert to Organic.  This is part of an Obama administration initiative to promote the expansion of Organic agriculture.  Frankly, this is a token effort that will have little effect, but there is an absurd dimension of this that is worth considering.

In case you haven’t noticed, we are well on our way back into the sort of food crisis that sparked riots back in the 2007/8 timeframe (see graph above).  Population growth, economic development in the Third World, Climate Change, increasing energy costs, and biofuel demand are all combining to strain food supplies and to raise food prices in ways that will severely hurt the poor around the world.  This is a time when “bread basket” nations like the US need to increase their output of food, but to do so in a land-use-efficient manner.  It is this context that makes the small time promotion of Organic so absurd.

What About Organic?

The USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service conducted a first-of-its-kind, detailed survey of Organic crop production in 2008.  The results were released in 2010 and I just finished an analysis of those data in comparison to data on all crops. I posted this analysis in downloadable form on SCRIBD.  What that study showed is that the Organic harvested area is extremely small (0.52% of US Cropland).  It also showed that Organic is much less productive on a per acre basis.  How much less productive? For 2008, to have produced what US agriculture produced all Organically, we would have needed 43% more harvested land.  That is more additional cropland than in the 6 biggest crop states combined.  This additional land demand represents a land mass the size of France or 77% the size of Texas!

The Husker Context

Since the article was about promoting Organic in Nebraska, lets take a look at what Organic means for the Husker state.  Organic makes up less than one quarter of one percent of the acres devoted to Nebraska’s seven major crops (see graph above).  Organic yields range from 90% of the state average for the tiny, 176 acre Organic dry bean industry, to 29% of state average yield for the 5,174 acre Organic, Proso millet industry.  Overall, to have produced Nebraska’s total crop output in 2008 at Organic yields, it would have required 8.5 million more acres – a 50% increase.  Obviously, $1.5MM isn’t going to move Organic from <0.25% of Nebraska ag to 100%, but even the slightest change is in the wrong direction.

Bottom Line

So here is the problem.  The world is facing an increasingly daunting task of feeding itself in an age of climate change, peak oil, and growth.  Food shortages and high food prices drive not just human suffering but also political instability.  Organic farming is clearly a lower productivity option.  So, why exactly would we use dollars borrowed from future generations of Americans to encourage farmers in Nebraska (or anywhere) to do less than they could to help feed humanity today?

You are welcome to comment here or to email me directly at feedback.sdsavage@gmail.com

Graphs by Steve Savage based on USDA data





About the Author

Born in Denver, now living near San Diego. Agricultural scientist for 30+ years with a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. Have worked for Colorado State University, DuPont and Mycogen and for the last 13 years consulting for all sorts or companies, universities and grower groups. Experience in biological control, natural products, synthetic chemicals, genetics, GMOs and agronomic practices. Have given multiple invited talks on the interaction between agriculture and climate change (both ways)
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  • Tim,
    The USDA data has details of time in Organic, and the vast majority of the acres going into these values is long-term. The values are also only “harvested acres” so it does not include things like green manure crops or crop failures. Proponents of Organic always say that their yields are good, but objective data says otherwise. Also, the old line that conventional depletes the soil is also false. The average yields of virtually all crops have been going up steadily for decades. Conventional growers who used reduced tillage, cover crops and controlled wheel traffic are building soil carbon even better than Organic. I encourage you to follow the link and look at the amazingly detailed USDA data. They made no effort to compare it to conventional even though they had the data to do that. All I did was to connect the two sets – there is no “lying” involved

  • Steve, Once again figures lie and liars figure. While your figures MAY be accurate (I have no idea if they really are), you present one small facet of organic vs. industrial ag production. You omit factors such as:
    1.It has been shown that farmers transitioning to organic methods typically see a drop in yield for the first 3 years, then experience positive yields thereafter. After years of conventional production the land is depleted. While, overall yield may very well be lower as acreage is regularly taken out of crop rotation to rejuvenate the soil, if you compare apples to apples, well established organic farmland to conventional, organic will out perform conventional. The question to ask of your study is, “How long have those referenced organic acres been in organic production?”
    2.It’s not just about quantity, it’s also about quality. Plantings from nutrient deficient soil produce nutrient deficient crops. There is little doubt that net nutritional yield is higher from organic plantings.
    3.What about the billions of gallons of petrochemicals that go into conventional farmland in the form of pesticides, herbicides and “fertilizer” that DON’T go into organic cropland? It is a proven fact organic soil improvement plans using cover crops and green manure can provide outstanding weed control and soil fertility without spending a single dollar on petroleum. Organic methods also provide for healthier plants making them less susceptible to pest attack.
    4.What about the incalculable costs of conventional farming in sickcare, environmental cleanup, and exported dollars for petroleum?

    While I could go on, I think this illustrates your gross oversimplification of the issue and your one-sided approach.