Organic Agriculture is Inevitable

Eventually it's many problems will overcome conventional industrial farming.

by Colin Graham

It is becoming stunningly clear that conventional, chemically based agriculture faces a grim future. Organic farming, on the other hand, seems to have blue skies popping up all over.

Typifying the news in store for conventional agriculture are conclusions recently reached by Don Tilman and nine other agroscientists at the University of Minnesota. "The environmental effects of agriculture" they claim, "are on a trajectory soon to rival climate change."

Just as an excess of carbon dioxide is destabilizing the earth's atmosphere, so a surfeit of farm nitrates is, in their view, threatening to destabilize global ecosystems. Nitrogen and pesticide runoff from farms is creating algal blooms in lakes and rivers to such an extent that biologically dead zones are appearing around the estuaries of fifty of the world's rivers. It is poisoning wells and aquifers and in gaseous form is rising as ammonia and coming down as acid rain. A well-run organic farm, of course, produces very little excess nitrogen.

Nor is the outlook good for the chemicals on which conventional agriculture depends. A critical component, for example, is rock phosphate. The main global deposits of phosphorite rock lie in the USA and North Africa. Those in the USA will be exhausted by 2020. Ten years after that the North African reserves will be gone.

Oil and natural gas provide the feed stock for many of chemical agriculture's fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Both the US Geological Survey and Colin Campbell, advisor on oil to the British parliament, agree that the amount of recoverable oil still in the earth is in the range of 650 to 700 billion barrels. The US Department of Energy predicts that the world's current annual oil consumption of 25 billion barrels will rise to 40 billion by 2020. Simple arithmetic tells us that by the latter date there won't be much oil left. Natural gas will extend the life of some oil products by a few years, but it is clear that the price of farm chemicals will soon rise and rise until their extinction. The options for chemical agriculture are closing down while those for organic farming are proliferating. Fresh examples of successes are reported almost daily.

In northern India, where the corn borer devastates crops, farmers have been planting alongside the cornstalks a weed which is even tastier to the borer. The latter forsakes the corn for the weed. Result: a 70% rise in yield.

In northwest China the preferred "sticky" rice succumbs easily to a fungal disease. But when fungal-resistant types of rice are planted alongside, losses are reduced by 94%.

These are simply two examples among many. The University of Essex' Jules Pretty studied more than two hundred organic-type projects and found that the average rise in yield was 73%.

Economists describe as "externalities" the costs to society that are not incorporated in the market price of an article. A recent British study found that the externalities attached to agriculture, such as the cost of cleaning up nitrates in drinking water, came to $377 per acre for conventional agriculture and only $130 for organic.

Another of conventional agriculture's externalities is the loss of wildlife consequent on a money-driven ethos which gets rid of anything, such as a hedgerow, which stands in the way of maximizing arable areas. In Britain's case the results have been appalling. Farm flowers have declined 92%. Butterfly species are declining at the rate of 40% per decade. There has been a 3 million decline in the skylark population and a 50% loss of farm animal breeds. Six hundred species of fungus, many of them essential for some ecosystems, are in decline.

But as soon as organic farmers begin to replant hedgerows and leave strips of wild grasses around the edges of fields, those areas begin to teem with life again. In its promotion of biodiversity organic farming is also the antithesis of corporate-scale industrial farming which promotes a dangerous reliance on monocropping.

Industrial-scale farming promotes continual growth in farm size, pushing the small farmer increasingly to the wall. Yet in terms of productivity it is the small farmer who wins hands down. A startling study by the US Department of Agriculture has found that in America the per- acre value of produce from farms of more than 2000 acres was only $21.40, whereas that from farms of under 10 acres was $1902.00. Clearly, when it comes to making the most fruitful use of land it is the small organic farmer who really produces.

And when it comes to conservation of energy, the laurels also go to the small farmer. As many people now know, heavily subsidized corporate agriculture is energy-wasteful to an extravagant degree as it ships food around the world to the point where the average morsel of food reaching the North American dinner plate has travelled 2300 kilometres to get there. By contrast, the organic farmer who supplies his nearby city with fresh rather than travel-stale produce is a paragon of energy conservation.

With Tilman's group predicting that the current methods of industrial farming can only lead to more frequent epidemics of the foot-and-mouth and BSE kind, and with Europeans becoming increasingly panicky about today's agricultural technologies, it is hardly surprising that Germany's new agriculture minister, Renata Kunast is planning to push her country's policies strongly in the organic direction, with the emphasis on quality rather than quantity. Initial responses from the European Community have encouraged her to believe that she can swing other ministers in her direction.

With so many trends stacked against conventional agriculture and so many new ones favouring the organic, and with sales of organic produce growing exponentially year by year, the time may not be distant when supporters of organics are numerically large enough to demand, and get, a switch of some of the huge subsidies currently enjoyed by conventional agriculture to the largely unsubsidized organic sector.


[From WS August/November 2001]

5 Issues/yr — $25 print; $15 digital