Cornucopia Farm Policy Analyst
The Wall Street Journal opinion piece “Organic Farming Is Not Sustainable” published May 15, 2014 by Dr. Henry Miller misrepresents the industry and is riddled with factual inaccuracies. Dr. Miller attempts to discredit organic agriculture’s environmental benefits on the basis of pesticide use, lower yields, groundwater contamination, and greenhouse gas emissions. The author displays a clear bias and incomplete knowledge of these subjects throughout the piece.
Dr. Miller states that one problem with organic farming is the use of pesticides, including nicotine sulfate and rotenone. Although natural, nicotine sulfate is listed as a prohibited substance in organic production. Rotenone is not licensed by the EPA for use in the United States and the National Organic Standards Board voted to prohibit rotenone in international organic commerce.
The more commonly used organic natural/botanically-based pesticides like pyrethroids, although safer to the environment, are considered “restricted” under organic regulations and only used as a last resort after cultural and biological preventative measures are exhausted.
These materials are very expensive compared to synthetic pesticides giving growers tremendous economic disincentive to use them. Instead, disease and pest prevention practices are routine in organic production and eliminate the need for chemical inputs.
Skeptics of organic agriculture frequently point to the use of natural pesticides, but fail to understand they are highly scrutinized to assure their safety for human health and the environment and are only last resort materials and thus used in very limited quantities. Conventional agriculture, on the other hand, sprays highly toxic and carcinogenic agrochemicals because they are cheaper than practicing disease prevention. The use of plant diversity, crop rotation, enhanced soil fertility, and a pest prevention program are all required under an Organic Systems Plan for farm certification.
Nothing is more misleading in Dr. Miller’s argument than the assertion that organic agriculture has lower yields. The U.S. is rich with financially viable farms using organic practices on small acreage precisely because of increased yields. However, as the demand for organics has expanded many industrial farmers, principally in California, have jumped on the bandwagon to obtain premium prices for their products. They have sometimes done so with the same industrial agriculture mindset (monoculture farming with a focus on chemical inputs) without adapting the many organic techniques that make organic farming so productive. Prodding the USDA to do a better job in enforcement and promoting the required organic practices, will improve yields on the larger operations.
A growing body of public research indicates higher yields in organic production systems, especially in drought conditions, due to the water-retaining capacity of soil organic matter. Likewise, the United Nation’s Environment Program reported higher yields throughout the world from organic and other low-input techniques in the ecological, social, and economic conditions commonly found in developing countries.
Dr. Miller goes on to claim that nitrate leaching into groundwater is tied to the use of composted animal manures as fertilizers in organic production. Applying animal waste to fields is a common practice among both conventional and organic farms although only organic farms have strict requirements for how manures are to be handled.
Organic regulations require that “producers must manage the incorporation of organic matter in a manner that does not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water, by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, or residues of prohibited substances” (7 CFR 205.203(c)). This oversight is missing from conventional production which frequently uses contaminated municipal sewage sludge (a practice banned in organic production), in addition to manure.
Furthermore, giant “factory farms” and synthetic fertilizers contribute to a large percentage of nitrate contamination of surface and groundwater. In contrast, organic operations are based on grazing and mixed crop and livestock systems that return nutrients to the soil slowly and mitigate the need for synthetic, petrochemical-based fertilizers.
And finally, Dr. Miller also references greenhouse gas emissions from composted manure. This is a misrepresentation of the facts. All soils emit the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. These same gases are released in much greater quantities if these otherwise waste products are not returned to the soil. Research shows that soils on organic farms capture nutrients and emit these gases more slowly, contributing to climate change mitigation. The addition of organic matter also eliminates the need for synthetic fertilizers produced by the energy intensive, fossil-fuel burning, Haber-Bosch process. Soils with higher organic matter are more resistant to drought and pests, reducing the need for further inputs.
The best way to feed the world into the future will continue to be debated. The World Bank and the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization released a three-year study in 2008 engaging over 400 scientists from around the world on precisely this question. Their conclusion was that the future of agriculture lies not in patented biotechnology and chemicals, but rather “agroecology.”
Much like organic agriculture, agroecology builds resilience and health in communities by relying on natural systems to increase productivity and combat pests and disease. The overwhelming collective scientific consensus is that agriculture that mimics biological systems is more sustainable and resilient to changes.
It should be noted that the Hoover Institution, and many other conservative think tanks that have worked over the years to denigrate the reputation of organic agriculture (including the Hudson, Heartland and Competitive Enterprise Institutes) and have a history of receiving funding from agrochemical and biotechnology interests.
Defenders of industrial agriculture should stop characterizing the organic movement as elitist and inefficient and accept that it is a productive and environmentally sustainable form of agriculture not only in third world countries but here as well.
Linley Dixon, PhD
Dr. Dixon, a plant pathologist, is a farm policy analyst at The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group.