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Can organic farming feed the world?

Organic gardening statsOne of the rallying points of conventional agriculture is that organic farming can't feed the world.  They argue that we have to use chemicals and genetically modified crops if we want to feed folks who can't afford expensive organic produce.

The Rodale Institute begs to differ, and they carried out thirty years of side by side trials of conventional versus organic corn and soybean crops to prove their point.  According to Rodale's recent report, yields were similar for both organic and conventional crops, but organic crops had the benefits shown in the graph --- more profit for the farmer combined with less energy input and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Organic corn is more drought tolerant
The result I found most intriguing is the Rodale Institute's claim that corn yields were higher in the organic field during drought years than in the conventional field, even though the farmers had planted GMO "drought tolerant" seeds for the latter.

Rodale's website mentioned that they had also run tests on the difference between organic crops fed by manure and organic crops fed by legumes, as well as comparing both organic and conventional no-till techniques to tilled soil.  I was intrigued to see the results of these trials, so I dug deeper, looking for numbers.  And was surprised to find no data except for a few pretty graphs on the whole website.

The lack of data felt a bit fishy to me, even though Rodale listed 46 peer-reviewed articles about their trials.  The Rodale Institute is one of the oldest supporters of organic farming, and I have to wonder if they chose not to go public with their data because there were some bad results they didn't want to share with the public.  Are there negative aspects of their organic trials that they simply chose to sweep under the rug?  I hope not, but a more fact-filled website would go a long way toward setting my mind at ease.



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I don't know much about Rodale anymore, but back in the day when Gene Logsden and Robert Rodale were there, their research was impeccable. I'd say their lack of raw data on the website only says they don't use the website for that purpose. Why don't you ask them for more information? Has their study been published in peer reviewed journals? That would tend to validate it.
Comment by Errol Wed Oct 26 08:25:20 2011

Bits and pieces of their study are published in peer reviewed journals, but with a study of that magnitude, I'd expect to see a lot more data on their site. Things like graphs with standard deviation bars, p values, etc.

Even though we agree with what Rodale's saying, in a way, taking their word for it is like taking the word of Monsanto that their studies show no problems from GMO crops. Perhaps it's not a fox guarding the hen house, but it's like me guarding the chocolate jar.... A definite conflict of interest.

I probably should email them and see if I can't get more data.

Comment by anna Wed Oct 26 08:45:30 2011

I really like seeing this type of information come out. But like you, it is unsettling to not see the actual raw data. I'm VERY suspicious of any corporation anyway. Not sharing the data doesn't sit well with me.

In my mind, there are 3 reasons for not sharing the raw data.

  1. The data sheds a negative light on some aspect of their argument.
  2. They are putting together their documents to be published and this is just a teaser.
  3. Someone "got to them." (i.e. pay off, blackmail, threats, etc)

I hope it is #2, but knowing the practices of corporations like Monsanto, ...

Of course I've been told that I'm paranoid. But just because you are paranoid, doesn't mean they aren't out to get you.

Comment by Fritz Wed Oct 26 09:00:56 2011
I believe that organic farming can feed the world, if only we can figure out a way to stop wasting 30-40% of the food that is produced. Each family can do their own part to stop food waste, but the real issue is at the production level. I believe if more care is put into our food production (aka organic farming, home gardens), then we will waste less of it because it will have more perceived value to us.
Comment by Jessie@Jessie:Improved Wed Oct 26 09:09:14 2011
One area I can see a problem with would be profit - the more people produce organics the more competition there would be and more competition means lower prices. The profits might decrease to the point where they are equal or perhaps even lower and that would not be a good selling point. Also is the cost & hassle of being officially certified organic considered anywhere? Lastly the energy input - if that is only counting fossil fuel fertilizer and fuel for equipment then it leaves out the energy of people workers. Doesn't it take a few more people or effort to produce organic? For instance if the graph is not including the costs of importing manure then it isn't accurate. But who knows without more data.
Comment by Stephanie in AR Wed Oct 26 10:23:44 2011

Of course without details about the methodology of their study, and the actual measurement results it is impossible for anyone to impartially evaluate their study. So I wonder if any of their research been published in peer-reviewed journals? Surely there have been more studies done into organic vs conventional farming?

The photos struck me as odd as well. The results look too good. At least in my experience it is pretty hard to get such unequivocal results from experiments. E.g. the photo of the conventional bed next to the organic bed that you also show in the post. Wouldn't nutrients and other stuff leak from one bed into the other? There doesn't seem to be a separation between them.

The booklet is remarkably low on facts, especially given their claims. Given the hugely increased profits and similar yield, I would think that farmers would be jumping to try it!

In their place I would make sure to offer ample evidence that this is not a case of confirmation bias!

Comment by Roland_Smith Wed Oct 26 11:23:13 2011

Fritz --- I know what you mean. I feel a bit paranoid distrusting their pretty graphs, but that's the whole point of sharing data --- so we can all analyze it and decide whether we agree with their analysis. I did go ahead and send them an email, so hopefully they'll give me more information, which I'll report here.

Jessie --- I agree with you, but I'd go a step further and say that we should all be growing our own food. Integrated homesteads which mix row crops with livestock and orchards are more sustainable and produce more food than monocultures, whether they're chemically or organically fed. So, in a way, I consider it a moot point whether large scale organic farming can feed the world, but it is interesting to read about.

Stephanie --- Good points about lower organic prices if the processes become more mainstream --- I think Rodale put the profit part in there as a way to entice mainstream farmers who are afraid to make the shift. I also tend to agree with you about the hassle of being certified organic. Personally, I consider certified organic food in the grocery store to only have a 10% chance of being much better than the conventional food beside it. Instead, what's important to me is actually knowing the farmer and seeing how they raise their livestock (since meat is one of our remaining large food purchases.) The organic label has been watered down so much by the certification process, which means that only certain farmers are large enough to bother jumping through the hoops, and by my definition are too large to produce truly great food. But that's another kettle of fish... :-)

Roland --- Bits and pieces of it have been published in peer reviewed journals, but who knows how they cherry-picked those bits and pieces? They do mention one other study that parallels their results, but I have to admit I didn't dig into the scientific literature to see what else is out there.

I have to agree with you on the photo being too good to be true. There are so many factors of farming to be considered, and it would be so easy to plan your trial in such a way that factors other than simply the seeds chosen and the fertilizers and pesticides used differed. After all, you could argue that mulching is an organic farming method and not a conventional farming method, which would make your organic fields do a lot better in droughts without really testing the organic vs. conventional hypothesis. (That's not what I'm seeing in the photo, but there are lots of other possible differences that I simply can't guess at since they didn't list their methods.)

And I agree about leaching between fields so close together. I don't actually think you could certify that one strip as organic in the U.S. if it has conventional crops grown that close, but it's been a few years since I looked into the certification process, so I could be wrong.

To be honest, I think that Rodale merely published the website they did because they hired some marketing people who told them that Americans are too dumb to understand real data. Those marketing people might be right, but if that's the case, I would expect Rodale to have a sister document that gives more information for folks who can understand it.

Comment by anna Wed Oct 26 18:48:38 2011
Awwww...It's true that Rhodale seems to be more of a popularizer of organics rather than a hard-core technical source, but here's hoping they have integrity. My money says they have the hard data to back up their claims.
Comment by Jackie Fri Oct 28 01:14:39 2011
Yeah, that's probably it --- that they're just so stuck in popularization mode that they can't see that many people want real information. Still sad, though. And I'm still waiting for a reply to my request for more information.
Comment by anna Fri Oct 28 08:39:13 2011
I emailed Rodale and it turns out that Fritz's suggestion number two is the answer --- they just haven't written up the scientific report yet. They emailed me a few of their earlier studies, which I haven't perused in great depth yet. I'll report back if I find anything interesting in the documents.
Comment by anna Mon Nov 7 18:36:43 2011

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