How land-inefficient is organic agriculture?

It is a truth universally acknowledged – amongst my friends and relations at least – that organic agriculture is better for the planet. Environmentally-conscious consumers typically are prepared to pay a hefty premium for organic meat and vegetables, whilst baby foods are nearly all organic these days – reflecting the equally widespread belief that organic is healthier due to the absence of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers. Everyone wants the best for their young children, and the best must surely be the most natural.

These beliefs are remarkably persistent, despite strong scientific evidence which refutes them. That natural necessarily equals more safe than artificial is a fallacy. In 2009 a major study for the UK Food Standards Agency found that there was no nutritional or health benefits to organic. Indeed there is strong counter-evidence, as relatives of those who died from eating organic bean sprouts in Germany last year can attest – as I understand it, the bean sprouts likely harboured toxic e-coli bacteria passed on via animal manure added to the parent plant. This use of manure rather than synthetic fertilisers is celebrated by organic proponents, but likely caused dozens of deaths and thousands of injuries in this instance. (Imagine if the sprouts had been GMO!)

I got into an argument on Twitter about this at the end of last week, because I retweeted a document discovered by David Tribe (a.k.a. GMO Pundit) revealing the funding sources behind the proposition for mandatory labelling of GMO foods in California – Big Organic and Big Quacka (‘natural health’ types) have poured $100,000s into the campaign, far outspending the biotech and grocers campaigns who oppose the proposition. The idea that consumers have a ‘right to choose’ and therefore GMOs should all be labelled irritates me – so I tweeted that organic should be labelled with an environmental warning due to its relative land-use inefficiency. This was picked up by Simon Singh, whose tweet was called “pathetic” by the Soil Association’s president Monty Don. (Simon has now blogged about this, posing two important questions for Monty Don to answer – no response as of yet.)

Lots of organic enthusiasts tweeted back at me that I had my facts wrong, or was not considering wider issues. I asked for references, and one proponent sent me the link to a piece in Nature by Verena Seufert, Navin Ramankutty and Jonathan Foley (Nature 485, 229-232, 10 May 2012, doi:10.1038/nature11069) – which I had just tweeted myself as support for my own proposal. The paper is entitled ‘Comparing the yields of conventional and organic agriculture’ and is a meta-study looking at the relevant published literature on yield comparisons world-wide (typically evidence is cited from a single farm). Here is the major conclusion:

The average organic-to-conventional yield ratio from our meta-analysis is 0.75 (with a 95% confidence interval of 0.71 to 0.79); that is, overall, organic yields are 25% lower than conventional

This is just the overall average, however: as the figure below shows, there is considerable variability amongst different crops.

Figure 1: Influence of different crop types, plant types and species on organic-to-conventional yield ratios

As Seufert et al write,

The performance of organic systems varies substantially across crop types and species. For example, yields of organic fruits and oilseed crops show a small (−3% and −11% respectively), but not statistically significant, difference to conventional crops, whereas organic cereals and vegetables have significantly lower yields than conventional crops (−26% and −33% respectively)

This largely seems to be because organic perennial systems do better than annuals, perhaps because of nutrient shortages in systems with a higher turnover – indeed, the authors conclude the nitrogen limitation in organic systems is probably the key factor. The study also shows great variability amongst soil types and water management strategies – for the latter organic yield is -35% compared to conventional for irrigated systems, but only -17% under rainfed conditions.


when only the most comparable conventional and organic systems are considered the yield difference is as high as 34%

Even then, I was concerned that this might be understating the case. In conventional systems nitrogen is captured from the air via synthetic fertilisers, whilst in organic systems additional nitrogen must either be grown in situ with leguminous crops – thereby forgoing a fruit or cereals harvest on the land for part of the time in rotation – or imported from elsewhere via animal manures. Were these indirect land footprint issues considered?

The question did not seem to be answered by the Nature paper, so I emailed Jonathan Foley (who I know; Jon then shared with his co-authors) to ask directly. His reply, and that of lead author Verena Seufert, is worth quoting in detail:

Jon Foley (Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota, USA):

– The original study in Nature did not consider the *land* requirement for growing organic and conventional crops.  Only the yield differences on the two different kinds of farming systems.

– Farms also have a “shadow” amount of land use, which is associated with the inputs they use — whether it’s the land used to generate nutrient inputs, biocidies, energy, etc.  Just think of the footprint of land needed to make the stuff you use on the farm.

– As you already figured out, the organic systems probably have a fairly large amount of “shadow” land, particularly if they use manure from other fields as an input on their own fields.  That is extremely hard to quantify right now, as we often do not know (at larger scales, especially) where the organic nutrients are coming from.  Further, the organic nutrients might be a mix of cover crops (legumes), compost (from on farm wastes — but this is a mostly closed material cycle), and manure from another field or farm.

– You can imagine that, for manure based systems, that the amount of shadow land is quite large indeed.  Perhaps even larger than the organic farm field itself.  But for other organic nitrogen sources, it could be far smaller.

– Compared to industrial nitrogen, organic nitrogen sources are probably much more land intensive — although of course they are less energy intensive, probably better for the environment in other ways, etc.

So it is fair to say that organic systems use more land than their conventional counterparts:  some of this has been quantified (the *direct* land use difference, which is roughly 20-30%, but varies by crop) and some of this has not (the *indirect* land use effects, counting where the nutrients ultimately came from).

We have been thinking about this, and hope to address this in a future paper.

Verena Seufert, Department of Geography and Global Environmental and Climate Change Center, McGill University, Montreal, Canada:

We did indeed so far only look at the direct land use, i.e. the productivity per unit area, not accounting for indirect land use to produce nutrient inputs (e.g. animal manure) for organic or conventional systems. What we did account for (at least to some degree) is the influence of non-food crop rotations in organic systems (e.g. a rotation of alfalfa in between cash crops to provide nutrients and to incorporate as green manure). Our study showed that organic systems that had a longer period of non-food crops in their rotation compared to their conventional counterparts (e.g. when an organic corn-soybean-alfalfa rotation was compared to a conventional corn-soy rotation) had a similar yield difference to conventional systems (i.e. yield ratio) as those organic systems that had a similar length of non-food crops as the conventional system (e.g. when an organic wheat-sunflower rotation was compared to a conventional wheat-sunflower rotation).

We conclude from this result that the yield of organic systems does not depend on whether they use longer non-food crop rotations than conventional systems or not. It thus appears possible to design productive organic systems without needing longer periods of non-food crops.Of course if organic systems do not implement a non-food crop rotation they need to get their nutrients from other sources, e.g. cover crops (which have no additional land costs), animal manure (which has additional land cost for growing animal feed) or compost (which could come from on-farm recycling or from municipal waste and does not necessarily require additional land).

The question how much land organic or conventional agriculture would require is an interesting question and a natural next step to the yield analysis. So far a couple of studies have discussed the issue, e.g. Badgley et al. tried to quantify the nutrient availability from leguminous cover crops, arguing that these could provide sufficient nutrient inputs; or David Connor, who criticized the Badgley analysis in a 2008 paper in Field Crops Research 106, 187-190, arguing that the main cost of organic agriculture is the additional land it requires to grow organic N inputs. But both of these papers have I think not yet given a satisfying answer to the question of organic land requirements.

But as Jon pointed out, any comparison of total organic and conventional land use also needs to take into account the land needed to produce conventional inputs. If we discuss indirect land use we need to be fair and assess this for both systems we are comparing.

So I think my case is made. Organic agriculture is significantly less efficient in land-use terms than conventional. (And the picture could be even worse than -34% in comparative terms, given that indirect land use was not taken into account in the Nature study.) On the other hand, there is no compelling scientific evidence that GM crops are in any way more dangerous than their conventional alternatives, and therefore they do not require labelling.

Having said that, starting a fight between organic enthusiasts and those who care about land use is not the point – we need to avoid zero-sum, black-and-white thinking, and take the best from both systems. Moreover, we need to bear in mind trade-offs in all the ‘planetary boundary’ areas – including water, greenhouse gases (emitted by artificial nitrogen production), eutrophication of water ecosystems due to chemical fertiliser overuse and so on. Verena Seufert puts is very well at the end of her email reply:

In any case, I think that the question of total land required to feed the world conventionally or organically also somehow risks leading into a polarized either-or debate. While in fact I don’t think there will be a one-size-fits-all solution. We try to argue in our paper that instead of looking for a ‘winner’ in the organic vs. conventional debate, we should learn from the successes and failures of both systems. Thats why we try to emphasize the results of our categorical analysis rather than the overall yield difference in our paper. It’s much more interesting to learn that organic systems have a relative yield advantage in rainfed systems or that they are often nitrogen limited than to know that overall the yield difference between organic and conventional is around 25%.

This allows us to learn that organic management and increased soil organic matter can be beneficial under rainfed conditions or that we need to improve organic nutrient management to increase organic productivity. By learning from these successes and failures of the different farming systems we can improve organic and conventional management or we can create hybrid systems that can potentially balance the benefits of organic & conventional management.

Update: 17 July 2012

The third co-author of the Nature paper discussed above, Navin Ramankutty – Canada Research Chair in Land Use and Global Environmental Change at McGill University in Canada – has also sent me an email response, reproduced below. I am very grateful that all three co-authors have contributed to this post, and also to those who have posted comments below the line.

Navin Ramankutty writes:

Here’s my 2 cents on your question, to add to what Jon & Verena have already said. As they said (and as Monty Don did in his tweet), our paper only looked at a small piece of the puzzle on the role of organic. To perform a rigorous study, using 100s of data points, we could only focus on a narrow question for which data had been painstakingly collected by various studies. But it is certainly not enough, we need to compile more data/information on a variety of other factors.

One way to think about it is that we have an agricultural production system which receives a lot of inputs such as land, water, nutrients, energy, labor, etc. It produces stuff we consume (yields per unit area), but also modifies the environment (biodiversity, water quality, carbon emissions, etc.), contributes to the economy, provides livelihoods, etc. In comparing different types of farming systems (organic, conventional, GM,..), we eventually need to look at all of these various factors, and their efficiencies. You have picked up on the indirect land use effect. But we also need to consider water-use efficiency, labor efficiency, the environmental impacts, the influence on price, livelihood impacts, health, etc.

We have really only scratched the surface so far, there’s a lot more work to be done. Our meta-analysis benefited from the various scientists around the world who spent years designing and conducting field experiments. We don’t have many such experiments yet for most of the other questions.

Update, 14 August 2012: I have received a response from Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association – the primary organic certifier/lobby group in the UK. Here it is, in full with no editing:

Dear Mark Lynas,

You say your family and friends believe that ‘organic agriculture is better for the planet’ and that, like them, everyone assumes ‘that organic is healthier due to the absence of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers’. However, you know better because you know the scientific evidence, and you cite a 2009 study that found ‘there was no nutritional or health benefits to organic’. In fact your friends and family’s view is supported by more recent science, so maybe you could learn a thing or two from them.

In a major review paper published in 2011, Brandt et al (Brandt, K. C. Leifert, R. Sanderson and C. J. Seal. 2011. Agroecosystem Management and Nutritional Quality of Plant Foods: The Case of Organic Fruits and Vegetables, Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences, 30:1–2, 177–197) concluded that ‘A meta-analysis of the published comparisons of the content of secondary metabolites and vitamins in organically and conventionally produced fruits and vegetables showed that in organic produce the content of secondary metabolites is 12% higher than in corresponding conventional samples’ (a statistically significant difference). The argument had been over whether differences between organic and non-organic (conventional) food are significant – the fact that there are differences, and the scientific explanation for these differences, are well known. As Brandt et al state: ‘Organic and conventional crop management systems differ in terms of the fertilisers and plant protection methods used. Ecological and agronomic research on the effect of fertilization on plant composition shows that increasing availability of plant available nitrogen reduces the accumulation of defense-related secondary metabolites and vitamin C, while the contents of secondary metabolites such as carotenes that are not involved in defense against diseases and pests may increase. In relation to human health, increased intake of fruits and vegetables is linked to reduced risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease. This benefit may be primarily due to their content of defense-related secondary metabolites, since most other constituents of fruits and vegetables either are not unique to these foods or have been shown to not provide health benefits when the intake is increased’.

Your discussion of the land needed by organic farming is confused by two false assumptions. First, you seem to assume that the land on organic farms growing legumes to fix Nitrogen for subsequent crops (using the sun’s energy rather than fossil fuels to manufacture Nitrogen) is only fixing Nitrogen, Wrong. Fields of alfalfa (Lucerne) or red clover fix Nitrogen and feed livestock, fields of peas and beans fix Nitrogen and provide human or animal food. Second, you assume that organic systems must produce exactly the same quantity and type of food (and crucially animal feed) as non-organic systems. Wrong again. Intensive and industrial chicken, pig, beef and dairy systems are not permitted under organic standards, nor possible under organic systems, as they generally depend on widespread, prophylactic use of antibiotics, and on systems that have lower animal welfare and higher incidence of disease than is acceptable in organic farming. These animal systems consume huge quantities of grains and protein, otherwise consumable by people, and convert it very inefficiently into meat or dairy products. Half or more of our wheat crop in the UK goes for animal, not human consumption, so even with a 30% lower yield, more not less grains could be available for people to eat. True, our diets would change, to a far healthier balance of more fruit and vegetables, and less but better quality meat and dairy products. Your family and friends may be ahead of you here too, if they think that meat and milk from all or mainly grass fed beef, sheep and dairy cows (as is the case with organic systems) is healthier. A report just published by Compassion in World Farming says just that ( They conclude ‘The industrial farming model is unsustainable and relentless in its exploitation of animals, land, energy and water. An urgent move from intensive to higher welfare farming is required to improve animal welfare, as well as to reduce environmental pollution and waste. Higher welfare farming produces healthier meat, eggs and milk than similar products from factory farms. Switching from factory farmed animal products to higher welfare meats, eggs and milk could contribute to improved consumer health, especially if consumed in moderation within a balanced diet, rich in fruit and vegetables.’

The ‘truth universally acknowledged’ that you dismissed is, I am happy to say, generally true after all. This is for publication, and I hope you will add my comments to the others you have been sent

Yours sincerely,

Peter Melchett
Policy Director
Soil Association


  1. @EdGibney

    A quick google search of “harm of GM crops” shows plenty of reports that call into question your following assertion:

    “On the other hand, there is no compelling scientific evidence that GM crops are in any way more dangerous than their conventional alternatives, and therefore they do not require labeling.”

    Here are a few of those links:

    Harm to wildlife diversity (which is one of your planetary boundaries):

    Evidence of damage to liver and kidney:

    A rather overwhelming list of 50 harms of GM foods:

    It seems to me that not all of the objection to the use of GM foods is from an uninformed hysterical mob. I appreciate the balance you bring to this debate and the demand for real scientific understanding, but as I think we hardly have a clear answer yet, I think labeling foods is still in the best interest of the consumers who have a right to be informed.

    (As another general objection, I would say that land use “efficiency” is not even the most important issue. It is quite easy to naively optimize a system only to have the resulting monoculture become more fragile than a robust diversified system would be. Which one is more “efficient” in the long term when so called black swan events occur?)

    1. Mark Lynas (Post author)

      I shouldn’t have to point out that the Daily Mail is not a scientific source. Nor is the BBC. Nor is the Institute of Science in Society, which is ‘whacko’ of the first order. Ideally you’d be able to come up with a meta-study in a high-impact peer-reviewed journal to make this point. Good luck with that one.

    2. @EdGibney

      Oh come on, people, I’m not quoting reporters from the BBC or Daily Mail. These are clearly just the easiest links to find that reference work from actual scientists.

      BBC was actually a “£6m UK Farm-Scale Evaluations (FSEs) of genetically modified (GM) plants have been described as the biggest ecological experiment in the world and a model for measuring the impact of new farming techniques on the environment.”

      ISI was actually about “three-year farm scale evaluations (FSEs), results of which were published on 16 October in the Royal Society’s house journal, which examined three spring-sown GM crops – oilseed rape, beet and maize. They were undoubtedly the largest experiments of their kind, involving over 200 plots.”

      Even the Daily Mail were figures “released by Monsanto and examined by a French researcher from the University of Caen” and “Monsanto released the raw data after a legal challenge from Greenpeace, the Swedish Board of Agriculture and French anti-GM campaigners.”

      So, do you have an actual rebuttal or would you prefer to continue shooting the messenger? I don’t mean to be rude, but you should know that this is why your arguments are not convincing – even though you, as an advocate for adding new ingredients to our food are the one who actually needs to provide the proof that what you are doing will absolutely not cause harm. To return your wishes, good luck with that one.

      As for your point that GM crops may only be 10% of the world’s cropland, it is now 90% of the corn and soy product in the US and those are two of the most common food ingredients, especially in processed food. This is a big deal.


    3. Les Rose (@Majikthyse)

      Sorry, but anyone who replies on Joe Mercola for evidence must be truly desperate.

    4. Les Rose (@Majikthyse)

      Oops, I meant relies not replies (curse that auto-correct).

    5. Mark Lynas (Post author)

      I was just about to make this very point, and to note the supreme irony that is the biggest funder of the GMO labelling proposition in California. This is what is meant by ‘big quacka’ – total quackery, with homeopathy, chiro and the rest of the ‘natural health’ package. Great citation!

    6. @EdGibney

      This really saddens me. Who is in fact the desperate one here? Where is your peer reviewed long-term meta analysis proving that your GM products are safe? You don’t have one? Then maybe you should get off your scientific high horse and agree that there is still an open debate on this issue and that consumers should have the right to choose whether they take part in your long term experiment or not. I am as pro-science and pro-rationalism as they come, and you are giving that crowd a bad name. I leave this debate unconvinced by any of your claims, irritated by your dismissive attitude that continues to ignore evidence put in front of you, biased against anything else you are purporting to “prove”, and unlikely to engage you in the future. Well done you! You will continue to convince the convinced.

    7. Pekka Taipale

      There’s plenty of data about safety of GM food. As Anne Glover, chief scientific advisor to EU president Barroso said: Eating GM food is not without risks. But it has lower risks than other food.

      You are putting *way* more strict requirements for the healthiness of GM foods than other foods – which, for many crops, have been created with random mutagenesis induced by radiation and other carsinogens. It is mind-boggling that you don’t require the same kind of testing for foods whose genome has been altered randomly and which doesn’t go through any kind of testing programmes.

    8. Tom Keen

      “GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.

      I’m quite happy to accept the World Health Organisation’s assessment on this.

  2. Pekka Taipale

    Good piece, thank you. The premise you mention: “the best must surely be the most natural” is indeed common but when you think of it, it does not make sense at all – where does it come from? What is “natural”?

    What we eat is not “natural” in the sense that both domesticated animals and plants – even if farmed “organically” – are quite different from what they are “naturally”. They’re not the same stuff at all. They have been selected and modified, first by generations of experimentation, and during last 100-200 years by a more scientific process involving much more radical methods than most people can think of.

    In nature, plants try not to be eaten, except when they are eaten in a way that advances their possibility to pass on their genes and helps to grow new generations of the plant. Same goes with animals. Natural plants develop toxins, thorns, they try to taste bad and be difficult to collect. Domestication modifies this unnaturally.

    I’ve done my part of growing organic food, thank you very much. With my father, who still had the skill to do it in the traditional way, the way he did it for living in the 1920’s. Grow a crop of rye, fertilize it with genuine and pure cow dung, cut it down with a scythe, have the sun dry it up in sheaves, thresh it by hand, have it ground up to flour by the local miller. It was both immensely satisfying and educational, but for getting food to eat, I very much prefer industrial agriculture, fertilizers and non-natural plant variants

    Preferably plants that are developed with genetic engineering instead of the randomly induced mutagenesis method preferred by silly environmentalists Modern GM avoids the processes that traditionally have involved taking a bunch of seeds with some favourable properties, and letting it grow while exposing it to poisons and radiation that causes mutations. Countless mutations happen; once in a million the result is a good one that actually improves the plant instead of killing it or making it sterile or making it worse for eating. This is how you got your “organic” seeds.

  3. Mark Lynas (Post author)

    Just received this via email from Jon Foley:

    An important point for the comments you’re getting on the blog:

    Certified organic agriculture is still very small, roughly ~1% of the world’s farmland and agricultural production. GM-based agriculture is bigger, but also a small fraction of the world’s cropland, about ~10% (and mostly in four crops: maize, soybeans, cotton and canola). So the majority of agriculture in the world is conventional (the lion’s share) or subsistence. Some folks assume the world is either organic or GM, but in fact most food is neither.

  4. StayAtHomeSci

    Fascinating read, thanks for writing this. It’s great to see the actual numbers here (as I know I am guilty of the black-and-white ‘organic is better for the environment’ thinking from time to time).

  5. MarkB

    You wont’ get anywhere debating this topic, because for the true believers, it has taken on a magical nature. The commenter above, citing the Daily Mail(!) is a classic example. I’m a backyard gardener, and follow gardening forums and YouTube videos to pick up tips. It has reached the point that commenters warn against using domestic water grade PVC pipe for watering vegetables, and question the use of rain water that comes off shingles. There seems to be a race to find the latest threat from man-made products. And they still talk about Cold War paranoia! This contemporary ‘organic’ paranoia is far beyond anything existing during the Cold War – and I’m old enough to remember nuclear air raid shelters. ‘Duck and cover’ seems perfectly rational compared to today’s chemo-phobia.

  6. Jeff

    A useful summation of the evidence for those of us who aren’t experts but want to understand the actual (not Dailymail) science. Thanks.

    Still think your ‘anti-labelling GMO foods’ argument is something of a non-sequitur though. Just becuase there is no evidence of harm doesn’t mean people might not want to avoid GMOs – for any number of reasons, whether or not one agrees with them or thinks them sensible. I seem to recall that some years ago many people were concerned over the corporate ethics of firms involved in producing GM seeds. I don’t know if these fears were well founded or whether the practice is still ongoing, but for the sake of argument lets assume they were and it is. As a consumer I would find it helpful to know what the product I am buying is, so that I can choose whether or not to encourage a particular corporate behaviour. Much legislation and voluntary corporate behaviour is undertaken for similar reasons.

    Ultimately I think the market will decide this – in the absence of labelling laws and what I imagine will be an increase in GM agriculture over time, firms may find it useful to differentiate their products. If non-gm foods, labelled as such, make money, then voluntary labelling will become the norm.

    1. Mark Lynas (Post author)

      I couldn’t disagree more. The reason Big Organic is pulling out all the stops to fund this proposition for mandatory labelling is that it is like putting a skull and crossbones on their competitors’ produce – and every decent red-blooded capitalist would want that!

      Also your defence of labelling on the basis of some vague-remembered accusations of corporate malpractice don’t really cut it – you could demand labels on everything on these lines. GMO labelling involves separating food and processing chains etc and involves considerable cost, all of which makes food and growing food more expensive to real people.

    2. Mary

      If you want to label based on your personal philosophy, that’s fine–but it wouldn’t even be wise to let the government mandate that. Whose philosophy would be next?

      Kosher label, or halal, or I-hate-GMOs, I-hate-chemtrails perhaps, should be established and maintained by those who care about it. And if there are breaches of these rules, that community ought to be the one that tracks, monitors, tests, and addresses it.

      So let Joe Mercola lead non-GMO labeling–let’s see how that works out! Heh. But there is a group now that is doing that, for a premium, and that’s the way it should be. Those who want that should pay for it.

  7. Les Rose (@Majikthyse)

    Apologies if this was answered in the full paper, but I can’t get beyond the paywall. I am puzzled as to what the denominator is for this figure of 34%. We can see that the actual figures vary widely according to the crop. How is this 34% derived from such a variable database? Has anyone for example rendered it into land area per calorie grown, or per gram of protein? Or even per day of a balanced diet? What really matters is how much more land we would need to feed the world entirely on organic food. I have seen a figure of 100% somewhere (I think it was in The Geek Manifesto).

    1. Janne

      This is also my question. When I mention the lower yield in organic farming to pro-organic people (also scientists), they usually tell me yield is not the most important thing; we should look at the nutritive value of the food grown. They tell me “organic food has more dry matter (so less water) in it. Besides, there are suggestions that organic food would contain more micronutrients. But especially about the first point (more dry matter, so more calories and nutrients per volume of product) I would be interested to hear more.
      Also important: if conventional agriculture has much higher yields and can feed much more people, so we need less land at the moment, how will this be in 20 years time? Will conventional lands be saturated with pesticides, overgrown with superweeds, eroded and salinised by wrong irrigation methods, etc., so that we loose those lands forever for agriculture? In other words, are these higher yields of conventional ag sustainable?

    2. Leo G

      Janne, if I had millions invested in my Factory Farm, do you really believe that I would let the land degrade to the point that it became useless? Remember, I AM GREEDY!

    3. Scott

      If you are greedy then you certainly wouldn’t factory farm. That’s a certainty. The one thing a factory farm is sure NOT to do is pay the farmer well for all his hard work.

      Oh sure there is money to be made. But the money to be made goes to everyone EXCEPT the farmer.

  8. Leo G

    Funny, in my little backyard vege patch, I incoporate both styles. A good wallop of composted horse manure,straw/kitchen scraps tilled in first, then as the wee plants start their journey, some man made fertilizer to give them a boost. Then allow the slow releasing compost mixture guide to the mature state. When an abundance of flowers appear, another specific MMF to help them keep and develop more blooms.

    I like to think that Mankind is part of nature so whatever we develop is natural also.

  9. GG

    One aspect that has not been considered in the debate around the GM labeling proposal in California is the fact that most organic producers may actually lose economically from the measure.

    Labeling could indeed result in food companies shunning away from GM ingredients, losing market shares, but the market winner will not be organic producers, but most likely conventional growers and pure “non-GM” labeled product marketers. This is because a food company that wants to avoid GM does not need in any case to buy organic: it can go for conventional or to avoid any ambiguity to non-GM. Furthermore the organic share of the market will lose an edge: they will not provide the unique “avoid the GM” option since all non labeled products will be de facto non-GM and that the labeled “non-GM” option can satisfy consumers that do not trust the label. Thus one can expect that the loss in market shares of GM ingredients will be almost entirely won by this middle section of the market, and that organic may even lose customers that wanted to avoid GM and had only organic as an option… It is a little like an extreme left party attacking the extreme right one and ending up losing to the middle party.

    Note that, even without GM labeling, the move from organic to “non-GM” labeled is already being seen, especially since natural grocer Whole Foods has taken non-GM as its default standard. A number of organic soy growers in the US have converted back to conventional with non-GM seeds, thereby saving labor and other costs, while getting similar price premia.

    The only economic gain for organic farmers of the decline of GM crop production may be for those concerned with the cost associated with coexistence, i.e., those that want to farm following organic standards in an area with GM crops around them, and have to adapt to it. But given that GM crops are largely commodity grains and crops, and that organic is mostly focused on produce, there is not much gains to be expected in most case (alfalfa being the possible exception).

  10. James P

    I could give some consideration to the land-use efficiency argument if there were not such a thing as ‘set-aside’. Surely better to use more of the land we have got, than to farm less of it more intensively?

    1. Les Rose (@Majikthyse)

      Probably wrong. There is a strong argument for much more intensive farming of less land, which improves biodiversity in the rest.

    2. Scott

      The best intensive models are organic (or mostly organic) and often even more diverse biologically than set aside.

      For example:

      MIRG (Managed Intensive Rotational Grazing)
      SCI (System of Crop Intensification)

      They also usually out produce conventional models per acre.

      Most people think set aside is good for healing the land but in reality without the herds of millions of Bison (or other grazers) migrating through and the associated other life that follows like birds and predators, grasslands heal at least 100 times slower than properly grazing that land. Same goes for forests. Every ecosystem is slightly different, but the knowledgeable organic farmer can mimic the biosystem he farms and easily out produce even the best conventional, with or without GMO’s. AND heal the land at the same time. Sure it might be cattle instead of bison, might be a chicken instead of a prairie hen, he might cut some trees instead of letting them burn in a forest fire, but he knows how to fill the biological niches.

      It takes some disturbance like animals or fire or whatever, to allow the diverse biology to heal the land. The idea is not to just let the land sit, but to mange it in a way that mimics the best and most productive conditions in nature.

      The problem with Mark Lynas’s comments on this issue is that he isn’t a farmer. He reads some study that includes all forms of agriculture that isn’t using pesticides or GMO’s as “organic” without regard to understanding that the modern organic farmer does use science and technology.

      For example: If a farmer simply doesn’t spray pesticides, technically he may be considered “organic”, however pests will hurt his crops, reducing yield per acre. Another farmer may also refuse to spray pesticides, but instead of just watching pests reduce his productivity, he may spray Bacillus thuringiensis, entomopathogenic fungi, or any other number of organic integrated pest management (IPM) programs. There are a huge number of methods available, some better than others. The second farmer using that organic integrated pest management (IPM) program combined with an organic System of Crop Intensification, will nearly always beat ANY conventional model hands down. Usually by more than double. It takes a few years though. Land doesn’t heal overnight.

      Maybe you never heard of these farmers? One very famous one is Joel Salatin at PolyFace Farms. He produces on average 5 times more per acre with his MIRG system than conventional grazing. Another one would be Sumant Kumar from the state of Bihar in Northern India that produced the world record of 22.4 tons of rice per acre without any pesticides or GMO’s by using SCI. (SRI) (a normal high yield by conventional methods would be 8 tons per acre)

  11. Wayne Parrott

    Hi Mark, I actually did the math on shadow land needed to get Nitrogen for the US 2009 maize crop.

    If my math is correct, assume 9 T/ha yield of maize, and 35 Kg of N per T of manure, half of which is mineralized and available the first crop year. It works out to 12 T of manure/ha to meet the maize N needs.

    Next, 1 cow gives 11 T of wet manure per year = 1.3 dry tonnes/cow/year. Thus, need 9 ha of pasture to get enough N for 1 ha of maize. Thus, the US 2009 maize crop would need manure from some 200 million head of cattle-just imagine the associated methane emissions! Also, to put that number in perspective, the US had 8 million dairy cows in 2010.

    Note these figures do not account for the land needed to produce the botanical pesticides needed to control insect pests.

    1. Scott

      There is a huge problem with your calculations. The maize crop is primarily used to feed livestock in CAFOs. Switching to organic livestock production would not involve spreading manure on maize fields. It would involve not growing maize for CAFO livestock production at all.

      Those fields growing conventional maize are actually the shadow of the CAFO business model.

      So a proper comparison is to calculate acres required to raise those animals in the field, compared to raising those animals in a CAFO. Turns out since fertile pasture is far far more productive than any maize field, and typically doesn’t need any outside inputs at all, the most efficient use is organic. To top it off, the methane issue you brought up only applies to the CAFO model. Pasture raised animals do not impact the net atmospheric methane budget negatively. In fact, if you graze them properly, you end up with a negative methane budget. How? Methanotrophs in the pasture soil, which hugely outnumber the remnant populations of methanotrophs in a highly degraded conventional maize field, actually feed on more methane than is produced by the livestock. You end up with a net reduction in atmospheric methane. That’s why properly grazed pastures smell sweet and don’t stink like a CAFO does.

  12. Brendan Hoare

    I read your piece and comments with interest…and sigh. Not much new in an old argument, kind of frustrating that the discussion is still all about size, yield, good, bad and ‘how dare a mature market lobby’.

    One of the things the modern Organic movement has succeeded in doing over the last 70+ yrs. is offer an alternative to the industrial agriculture paradigm. It has forced the world to have the very discussion and evoke the response we read to Mark’s opinion piece. There is a lot more to come.

    I believe humanity is struggling to come to grips with the fact that the industrial age is over, because we still cling so dearly to its mythology. This is no more evident than the basis behind the proposition of which the argument and research is held; no mention of personal, socio political or environmental improvements…mostly a focus on the things that ‘industry’ likes to measure.

    Just observe how the world shudders as the USA drought deepens and grain supplies look to potential destabilise food supplies, around the world. Some already speak of potential socio-political unrest. Who suffers the most?

    Organic systems approaches, theory and practices have never supported this approach to unstable and unsustainable food culture. The progressive conversation has moved way beyond ‘production’ and even ‘food security’ to now include food ‘sovereignty’ and ‘equity’. The Organic community supports and participates in this evolution.

    My sense is that just as humanity struggles adjusting between ages of our own evolution e.g. from agrarian to industrial cultures, we are all certainly struggling now. We ignore (particularly the industrial food sector) substantive reports e.g. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and IAASDT’s conclusions and recommendations that:
    • Confirm the industrial ‘global orchestration’ and ‘order from strength’ approaches were the least likely to provide humanity any real results.
    • Suggest ‘adaptive mosaic models’ based on regional watershed-scale ecosystems should become the focus of political and economic activity.

    Neither international reports support, “Continued reliance on simplistic technological fixes — including transgenic crops.” It reports that this approach unlikely to address persistent hunger and poverty globally. In general, “The IAASTD found little evidence to support a conclusion that modern biotechnologies are well suited to meeting the needs of small-scale and subsistence farmers, particularly under the increasingly unpredictable environmental and economic conditions that they face.”

    I’d suggest that the ‘biological and ecological consciousness’ approach is part of our species co-evolutionary process. It’s what responsible genetic research continually shares with us, we are connected, interdependent. Just so happens that the Organic principles are ecology, health, fairness and care. It’s also what many are wanting, and global studies demand from their food systems today.

    1. quokka

      “The industrial age is over” is a fact? My attention started to waver at that point.

    2. Brendan Hoare

      I understand how easy it is to ‘waiver’ over the notion that industrial age is over. You are not alone. It’s the same sensation the industrial leading nations (mostly in Europe and Nth America) have trying to rescue their economies. Even though it’s broken, loyalists to the age will do anything to ‘keep the wheels of industry going’. More mining, more energy, more of the same science, more status quo and then there is that fixation on size…that model is broken.

      We are what we measure…and industrialists are stuck on size…Why the fixation on hectares? Try to measure other indicators. Why not number of producers (they are human) and or number of sustainable livelihoods per km2 (that’s a real economy), or even that the Organic food sector is still the fastest growing one? People actually want it and like farming that way.

      Those in the sector (not novices) will tell you that standards and certificates are a minor indicator and or measure of what Organic is /does. Just as your driver’s licences provides little indication how good a driver you are, or knowledge you possess, only that you passed a set of standards.

    3. Pekka Taipale

      Why the fixation on hectares? Try to measure other indicators. Why not number of producers (they are human)

      We don’t want the number of humans working on agriculture to grow. Not growing the number of people working while growing more food is called productivity and it is a good thing. It means that fewer people have to work the fields, and they can do other things – things like inventing the Internet and writing rubbish in there.

      and or number of sustainable livelihoods per km2 (that’s a real economy),

      That is indeed a useful metric (the smaller area is needed for food, the larger area can be used for other purposes, or left alone to be preserved as truly natural area).

      or even that the Organic food sector is still the fastest growing one?

      Not really. Relative growth is fast of course, because it is easy to double from 1% to 2 % or even 8 % to 16 %. But in absolute terms, I suspect that conventional agriculture produces most of the production increase in world agriculture.

      We should also note that growth figures of “organic” or “natural” agriculture are currently high in developed countries because of phenomenon so aptly used as a metaphor by economists: producers are “picking low hanging fruit”. I mean that if a producer or marketer can easily achieve an edge against competition by getting an “organic” label, and getting any other kind of an edge in an open world market is difficult, then that may be a commercially good option, even if it has nothing to do with health, efficiency or preserving nature. These producers who switch to produce “organic” are most likely those who possess the land areas and other facilities most suitable for the certified production. This is why such production grows. If everyone were using same production methods, people would have to apply them also in places where they are most disadvantageous (e.g. land areas where pests are naturally abundant or soil is deprived of some ingredient which can easily be improved by commercial fertilizers).

      To be a bit nasty, I’d say that “organic” farming is for farming what Steve Jobs fans are for computing, in a world that largely has to produce its own abacuses. It’s a luxury that allows you to flout yourself as being better than others.

    4. Scott

      I strongly disagree with almost that entire post. The solution is people on the farm. Those farmers are the ones that actually develop the methods that improve productivity. They develop over time the knowledge of their unique micro climate and local conditions of soil etc.

      Yours is the arrogant prejudice that assumes the farmer cant make innovations. Not only does he make those innovations, they are now and always have been the innovations that actually improve productivity.

    5. Leo G

      Um, you do realize that organic is not what it appears to be right?

      I mean really, carrageenan, DHA, ARA, etc????

      Quote – “Bear Naked, Wholesome & Hearty, Kashi: all three and more actually belong to the cereals giant Kellogg. Naked Juice? That would be PepsiCo of Pepsi and Fritos fame. And behind the pastoral-sounding Walnut Acres, Health Valley and Spectrum Organics is none other than Hain Celestial, once affiliated with Heinz, the grand old name in ketchup.

      Over the last decade, since federal organic standards have come to the fore, giant agri-food corporations like these and others — Coca-Cola, Cargill, ConAgra, General Mills, Kraft and M&M Mars among them — have gobbled up most of the nation’s organic food industry. Pure, locally produced ingredients from small family farms? Not so much anymore. ”

      Quote – “Many consumers may not realize the extent to which giant corporations have come to dominate organic food. Then again, giant corporations don’t exactly trumpet their role in the industry. Their financial motivation, however, is obvious. On, for instance, 12 six-ounce boxes of Kraft Organic Macaroni and Cheese sell for $25.32, while a dozen 7.25-ounce boxes of the company’s regular Macaroni and Cheese go for $19.64. ”

      Quote – “As corporate membership on the board has increased, so, too, has the number of nonorganic materials approved for organic foods on what is called the National List. At first, the list was largely made up of things like baking soda, which is nonorganic but essential to making things like organic bread. Today, more than 250 nonorganic substances are on the list, up from 77 in 2002. ”

      and on it goes…..

      This is the reality. Organic is not a niche market, but a seductive advertisement. If foods sold in the grocery need to be labelled for GMO’s, then the organic food should be labelled for non-organic content also. You may get lucky with some fruit and veges, but for any processed organics, very doubtful.

    6. Scott

      I would be in favor of that.

  13. Mark HB

    A query Mark.
    Why are you trying to skew the debate by calling organic, (which is 1% of global agriculture yet encompasses 1.4 million small farmers) “Big Organic” when GM crops cover 10% of global agriculture and are dominated by large

    1. Mary

      Because the sepia-toned veneer of organic as Ma & Pa Kettle bears little resemblance to the US organic industry. I don’t know what yours looks like, but here is a recent piece that explains ours:

    2. Leo G

      Yeah Mary, I posted the same article just above, but you know, if we keep our eyes covered, then it’s not true.

      So Sad……

  14. Jeff Kilgore

    While the arguments for and against organic will continue to be made, there is no doubt at all about the effect of row cropping on the soil as in the Midwest it washes down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf Delta. The chemicals used have made a kill zone that becomes larger every year.

    Your one use of evidence in Germany is simply one piece of evidence and not entirely convincing.

    A great source for you to read or watch is the youtube video about the phenomenal Austrian farmer Sepp Holzer. He has made permaculture the way to farm. Also, read up on Wes Jackson of the Land Institute. These are wildly successful new pioneers.

  15. MJ

    Which is the bigger ‘villain’ in demand for extra land: organic crops or demand for meat? I don’t have any figures to hand to compare to the estimate of ~1% organic crop production, but my guess is that more manure is created in the world than is consumed as organic fertiliser. Of course it won’t all be necessarily in the right place. But while demand for meat remains high, and indeed is expected to grow substantially as people in developing countries get richer, then it might be unfair to (double) count the land footprint of the manure used to fertilise the organic crops.

    This in no way invalidates your main argument, just calls for caution about how it is expanded to consider the wider footprint. I certainly look forward to hearing of Seufert, Ramankutty and Foley’s conclusions when they incorportate these additional variables. I also concur with your conclusion: organic certainly has its place in the world, but the global environment and health would almost certainly be poorer if everyone were trying to farm in this way.

  16. Tore B. Krudtaa

    People which try to convince you that organic is not the way to go, is either payed by the pesticide, fertilizer og GMO industry, or they have something to benefit from non-organic farming.

    One important factor here is that toxic chemicals in food and the environment is never a benefit. It is not a benefit to the plant, it is not a benefit to the soil and the microorganisms living there, it is not a benefit to the environment, it is not a benefit to the animals and consumers that eat it, and most certainly not a benefit to insects.

    The only ones that benefits is the industry which only think profit… money… dollares. Well, the industry and these profit-only-thinking people is the one that has given us food which is now packed with not one toxic chemicals, but a cocktail of chemicals in many of the agricultural products.

    Not in is many of these products packed with chemicals, but for many years now this hyper-industrial-production-method has given us consumers food with less and less nutrients and vitamins.

    So when we consumers go to the shop, we see colorful, large foods. But many of these foods are missing nutrients in large quantities compared to food produced many decades ago.

    Now to those frankenstein GMOs…
    Not scientist in the world are able to control the genes in a plant. They have no idea of all the unintended changes in the plant genome that happens at the time the transgenes are inserted, and not a single scientis on earth are able to prevent genes from bacteria and virus, in e.g. a GM-corn-plant from spread to conventional or organic crops, to related species, or to microorganisms in the soil.

    And is really the risk assessments on those GMOs really worth anything, when the package of patented genes ARE UNSTABLE?

    The so called technology behind the living GM-plants are best described as FRAUD. It is not a technology, it is messing with DNA. And there is no control. Period.

    And there are plenty of examples which show that several of the GMOs on the market are a health risk to animals and humans.

    Food is life. We do not need patent on life. We do not want patent on life. Patent on life do not benefit anybody on this planet, except those greedy, unethical companies and scientists which want to mess with our foodsecurity. Patent on life only give us food with less genetic variation, and raised food prices. And what will these empty promises of food with more nutrition and vitamins ever contribute in relation to food security and food production, when the GMO scientist and GMO companies are not able to control the genes. Pretty utterly irresponsible way to promote food production!!!!

    Here is a few examples:

    GM-Soy linked to health damage in pigs – Danish Dossier:

    GMO eggplant confirmed to be toxic:

    GMO Risk Assessments Based on Bad Science – You the Guinea Pig:

    Dr. Huber on how Glyphosate and GMO destroy soil quality – affecting health of plants, animals and humans:

    The Future of Food:

    Seeds of Freedom:

    Genetically modified food – NOT needed to ensure food supply

    Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup linked to birth defects in Argentina’s agricultural areas

    1. Pekka Taipale

      People which try to convince you that organic is not the way to go, is either payed by the pesticide, fertilizer og GMO industry, or they have something to benefit from non-organic farming.

      I, for one, am someone who tells you that trying to “go organic” (i.e. force a large part of agricultural production be done in ways that satisfies certain corporate interests and ideological criteria) is not good. I am not paid by fertilizer, pesticide or GMO industries. I don’t get my income from farming in any way. I have nothing to benefit from non-organic farming – except as consumer.

      Of course, as we all live in the same world and to a certain extent we all consume the same resources, I do have a vested interest to have the best agriculture possible, and in my opinion that means using fertilizers, and GM crops.

      I think this is really the problem: agriculture is an ideological thing for you, possibly approaching religion, and you need an explanation for having people like me who you consider to be heretics. They have to be paid by someone, or evil.

      But I am not. I simply have a different view of what is good for us as people and our planet as an ecosystem. I think it is better to use better engineered crops and other innovations.

      Some of the things we have in the definitions for “organic” or “natural” are downright silly. Some of the practices in organic farming make sense and are good, of course, but the exclusion of other doctrines is actually harmful.

    2. Les Rose (@Majikthyse)

      Very well said. Similarly, I have no vested interests in arguing for science instead of the irrational beliefs of the organic `religion’. A few years ago Lord Melchett, then head of the Soil Association, said that no matter how much evidence accumulated on the safety of GM, he would never stop opposing it. That pretty much defines a religion.

    3. Scott

      “Of course, as we all live in the same world and to a certain extent we all consume the same resources, I do have a vested interest to have the best agriculture possible, and in my opinion that means using fertilizers, and GM crops. ”

      Interesting opinion. Now ask yourself why do you have that opinion? Because what if your opinion turned out to be just wrong?

      “40,000 lbs. beef

      30,000 lbs. pork

      10,000 broilers

      1,200 turkeys

      1,000 rabbits

      35,000 doz. eggs

      off of 100 acres

      and at the end of the year

      there is more biodiversity, not less

      there is more fertility, not less

      there is more soil, not less.

      This is NOT a zero-sum system!”- Michael Pollan speaking about PolyFace Farms

      “The main crops on this farm are solaneous crops. Basically we don’t have to market at all, because solaneous crops are hard to grow in Montana. That’s the reason I do it. Egg plants, tomatoes, green and red bell peppers are the main crops here”-Helen Atthowe BioDesign farm

      Both those farms OUTPRODUCE conventional methods with higher quality food in places that conventional methods were not even an option. The soil or climate was so poor you couldn’t even attempt to produce that food crop by conventional methods. Both those farms on marginal land are beating the prime land with their fertilizers and pesticides and GMO’s.

      One could only wonder how much they could produce in prime land.

      So let me ask you again. Why do you have such a low opinion of organic?

    4. Pekka Taipale

      I think it is really rather strange to push for the opinion that crop yields are better when using “organic” farming only, than when using whatever methods you find are working out best.

      It’s a bit like insisting that everyone must do their running by jumping on their left foot only. *Some* people do amazingly well if they jump on their left foot. *Some* people have have no choice because their right foot is amputated. But most people will use both feet when running.

      Likewise in agriculture: in some places, all methods you effectively have available are practically “organic”. Like in subsistence farming in the poorest of places, or luxury farming for those who have enough purchasing power to insist – and pay for – that their food is farmed by people who jump on their left foot from one place to another, instead of walking like the rest of us.

      But most of us are better off if we are allowed to make out minds up ourselves, without coercion or enforcement of left-foot-running-only rules.

    5. Scott

      Interesting that you say pushing or coercion, because that is exactly what is going on, but not for organic. Federal subsidies and regulatory policy are what are using “coercion” to “push” for conventional factory farming. I can’t “push” for anything.

      Most the cost for the so called “luxury” foods as you put it are actually due to this. Believe me, most organic producers will simply say either leave us alone or give us a level playing field.

    6. Pekka Taipale

      Scott, I wonder what federal coercion you mean. I don’t say it doesn’t exist, but I don’t know what you’re talking about. Most of the attempts to coercion I see are about things that are supposed to make using genetically engineered crops more difficult.

      Things like trying to make it mandatory to label GMO foods, and thus increase the logistics cost substantially, when it actually would make more sense to label “organic” foods as health hazards.

    7. Scott

      There doesn’t seem to be a reply button on your last post to me. So I am replying out of order to this, “Scott, I wonder what federal coercion you mean. I don’t say it doesn’t exist, but I don’t know what you’re talking about. Most of the attempts to coercion I see are about things that are supposed to make using genetically engineered crops more difficult.

      Things like trying to make it mandatory to label GMO foods, and thus increase the logistics cost substantially, when it actually would make more sense to label “organic” foods as health hazards.”- Pekka Taipale

      A good example would be regulations to prevent spread of Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow) require very expensive individual testing of cattle slaughtered over 30 months old.

      Managed Intensive Rotational Grazing (MIRG) can produce up to 5 times or more than conventional models on the same land, but has the disadvantage of needing about 36 months or more, depending on the breed, to produce the high marbled choice and prime beef that consumers have come to expect. So an organic producer either has to sell his beef too young or pay the high price for testing. So he must choose between beef with much less marbling or beef that cost much more and pass the cost along. Which is of course ridiculous since grass fed beef is the only beef guaranteed NOT to have Bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

      So a regulation that was put in place supposedly to provide food safety against one of the inherent health dangers of stockyard cattle, actually makes organic beef seem either low quality or high priced. Also it has little to no effect on stockyard CAFO beef because the feeding of unnatural diets (including animal by products to a herbivore) fattens beef up before the 30 month deadline anyway. And it is those unnatural diets that are the cause of Bovine spongiform encephalopathy anyway. So it has little effect at making food safer. In fact it makes it more unsafe by hampering the ability to raise safe inexpensive high quality organic beef.

      Your comment about organic being dangerous is ridiculous. It makes me think you are just a troll or a corporate schill. Besides that, Organic is labeled and proudly so. So right there you shot your own argument down.

      Also consider this:
      According to Annals of Internal Medicine. Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives? A Systematic Review. Crystal Smith-Spangler,et al 2012 September;157(5):348-366.
      The risk for isolating bacteria resistant to 3 or more antibiotics was higher in conventional than in organic chicken and pork by 21% to 45%.
      The risk for contamination with detectable pesticide residues was lower among organic than conventional produce by −37% to −23%.

      So your spurious claims about Organic being more dangerous are ridiculous. Everyone knows it too. That’s why Organic is labeled and it commands a higher price at the market too.

    8. Pekka Taipale

      “A good example would be regulations to prevent spread of Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow) require very expensive individual testing of cattle slaughtered over 30 months old.”

      And because something is “organic”, it should be exempted from food safety regulations and testing?

      Do we really want to tell this e.g. to the 53 people killed by the Escherichia coli O104:H4 outbreak in 2011 in Germany, spread by organic bean sprouts? That they are not dead, because their food was organic, and it is all right to not have same safety requirements for organic food?

      Just think what your outrage would be if 53 people had been killed by GM food, even if the mechanism of causing deaths had nothing to do with the food being GM…

    9. Scott

      Here is the problem Tekka. That outbreak you mentioned was caused by CAFO not organic methods. It is an example of how dangerous CAFO really is.

      There are other examples of conventional farming poisoning organic too. In the USA there have been recalls of veggies both organic and conventional when CAFO overflow poisoned the water which was then used to irrigate fields.

      One big problem I have experienced myself is either hay or manure contaminated with Pyralid herbicides like Aminopyralid and Clopyralid. They are persistent in the environment for years and flow right though the cows digestive system and even survive composting. So I have learned the hard way to be very careful where I get my organic mulches and manures. If it came from a conventional source it can cause more harm than good.

      So the unwary organic farmer spreads it on his fields and the herbicide either kills or stunts his crops and/or diseases bred in the overcrowded CAFO stockyards contaminates his farm.

      I just posted to you where the harmful bacteria generally comes from in the scientific study I showed you.

      Let conventional Ag figure out what to do with their own toxic waste. They created it, let them deal with it.

      It shouldn’t be a surprise either. It has been well known for many years that living in overcrowded conditions provides a perfect breeding ground for disease. You couldn’t design a more dangerous system for purposely breeding disease than the CAFO model.

      Now that organic has proven to be capable of out producing even the “best” CAFO there is absolutely no excuse for it to exist anymore.

    10. Leo G

      Tore, can you follow the route of your organic fertilizers exactly? Are you sure that the composted cow manure that is applied tothe organic farmers’ field did not come from a feedlot? Can you assure me that the organic steer, who poop is being spread on my vege’s never had an innoculation? Can you assure me that that same steer ate nothing but virgin grass its whole life, and was never fed grains, which may not have been organic?

      Please read the article that I linked to above. Organic foods now allow over 200 non organic ingredients into the processing of organic foods, whilst still being able to call themselves organic.

      If food needs to be labelled for GMO’s, then I want labels on organic stuff, telling me what non organic food stuffs are in it, and where their “organic” fertilizer came from. Coz just saying, there aint enough organic cows to produce enough organic poop for organic farms.

      Wake up, it is a scam to be able to charge more for food, that’s all.

    11. Pekka Taipale

      What I find the silliest is how organic fish is sorted out here. In our language, what you call “organic” is called “natural-like”.

      We have an abundance of lakes where you can catch wild fish. Perch, pike, vendace, whitefish, even rainbow trout or salmon. But these are not “natural-like” fish. Because to be classified as “natural-like” (organic), fish have to be fed with fish food that is prepared in a certain way. Thus, “natural-like” fish are grown in bags and fed with factory fish-food, and “regular” fish are just wild fish that live in the nature. I find that setup really, truly twisted.

      And it’s the same for venison. A wild elk that roams our forests is not “natural-like” or “organic”, because as it wanders around, it just might find the rye field of a farmer who has not subscribed to the organic movement and has fertilized his field, so that the rye is not certified organic. Instead, the “natural-like” venison is produced by farming deer and feeding them with certified, factory-produced food.

      The idea of what is natural (for fish or elks) really has been turned upside down.

    12. Leo G

      Pekka, if true, that is way too funny! Just like the article that both Mary and I posted from the NY Times, in America, over 250 non-organic substitutes are now allowed in the processing of certified organic food.

      What A Crock!

    13. Scott

      It is a crock. Imagine how a real organic producer feels too. They feel betrayed by a government that allows conventional producers to steal the good name of organic to scam the public out of money without the food really being organic! AND at the same time give the scam artist conventional producer a tool to try and make it harder for the real organic producer to compete!

    14. Pekka Taipale

      Scott, there are no “real” organic producers for fish here. There’s only commercial fishing (which I like as long as it isn’t overdoing it), commercial fisheries (which have environmental problems), and then this industry that people start to call Big Organic. Wild fish in wild lakes is rubbish according to them; it is not controlled, and particularly, the Big Organic doesn’t get paid for it.

    15. Scott

      I noticed you and several others using the term “big organic”. Explain to me what you mean by that. I take it you are referring to conventional big Agriculture fraudulently using the “organic” label as a marketing scam.

  17. Claire James

    It’s a valid point to to talk about yield limitations in organic systems, but I feel that your article stops just as it might get interesting – with the mention of the disadvantages of conventional farming such as greenhouse gases from artificial nitrogen production and the comments from Verena Seufert that we need to ‘take the best from both systems’.

    There are also some very important points made in the comments to this piece – because yield, although important, is not everything – about the robustness of the system to external shocks and its long-term sustainability in terms of soil quality or even soil erosion. That’s even without getting into transportation emissions or the political and economic context – it’s not just about food production, but getting it to those who need it at affordable prices.

    I’m sure you enjoy provoking outrage among those who are dedicated to organic farming, but, this done, I wonder whether you will be pursuing this topic further to investigate and promote actual practical solutions to minimise the impact of food production on the climate, water resources etc. For example, will you be urging less meat consumption?

    Finally, have you read Defra’s report from last week and some of the comments on it? Views?

    1. Pete Shield

      I think that’s an interesting point you make about soil management and long term sustainability. Living in Les Corbieres region of the South of France, an area that has had its soils so badly mismanaged since the French Revolution that we are now reduced to a monoculture of vines, I would be interested in any research that has been done on the the impacts of the various agricultural systems- GM, industrial/conventional, subsistence and organic on soil quality. Could anyone point me in the right direction to find what has been published?

    2. Pip Howard

      Soil management is now at the forefront of French research (via Cemagraf) regarding their & the rest of Europe asides the UK, use of the ELC in a landscape specific approach. A quick reccy on the Cemagraf website as well as looking into the PDD scheme (now in PDD 2) will provide you with the information you seek. Of course it is necessary to get one’s head around the real notions of Terroir, which be definition ensures site specifics and recognition of all elements in a landscape which contribute to a final product – something this blog and subsequent comments just don’t acknowledge.

      And to Pekka Taibale: Fertilisers by the way are non renewable – therefore to advocate their widespread usage in agriculture is to ignore sustainability and particularly the needs of future generations – which is simply selfish! I am no huge of fan of organics, but work daily on situations where both natural and chemical additives added to the soil have destroyed it. Many seem desperate to create technosols in a rural landscape rather than bother to understand the incredible complexity of soils – this again is selfish and simply a means to make money.

    3. Pekka Taipale

      Fertilisers by the way are non renewable

      Actually, some fertilizers are, some are not. Over here, wastewater processing plants produce renewable fertilizer products (as an alternative source for mineral phosphorus). As do agricultural factories (like poultry facilities), of course, although they are not certified “organic”. On the other hand, some substances allowed in “organic” farming (such as copper sulphate products as fungicide) are also non-renewable. Using renewable materials is a good idea, but its really a different issue from believing in Big Organic.

  18. Graham

    Dozens of actual scientific studies showing GE crops to be safe can be found here:

    Monty Don believes in Biodynamics:

    which disqualifies him from any evidence-based discussion (as does any tolerance for homeopathy of course.) Unfortunately the organics movement is pretty much full of this kind of woo.

    1. Tore B. Krudtaa

      How can GMO be safe when the scientists does not have a clue on how genes work, and do not have a clue on how to control how the patented genes work within the e.g. plagnt genome?

      Take a look at this revealing lecture by professor Gilles Eric Seralini

      GMO Risk Assessments Based on Bad Science – You the Guinea Pig

      And it is well known that no scientist on this earth are not able to prevent the patented packages of genes inserted in the GM plants, from spreading to conventional and organic crops, to related species and to soil microbes. It is also well known that the package of patented genes gets truncated and reallocates within the plant genome when the genes are spread via cross pollination.

      Add to the table all the uninteded changes that happens within the plant genome at the time of the insertion of e.g. transgenes.

      We are not dealing with a technology. GMO are FRAUDulent science. End of story. What Im referring to here is the use of living GMO outside closed laboratories.

      Scientists which claim GMO to be good enough tested are lying. This is not a technology. Life is not a technology. I highly doubt that scientists will ever be able to control genes. How can you claim to control life? Control something that change from one generation to another? To claim that one are in control here… is notihing else than the biggest scientific scam ever!!!

    2. Pekka Taipale

      How can GMO be safe when the scientists does not have a clue on how genes work

      I have a surprise for you: there are genes in all plants and animals. Not only GMO ones. You have even less of a clue how genes work in the non-GMO plants and animals. The ones engineered with modern technologies are actually both analysed on gene level and go through extensive testing. The ones engineered with old methods – induced mutagenesis through carsinogens and radioation – are the ones you use in “organic” farming, and there is much less scrutiny about their genomes.

    3. Les Rose (@Majikthyse)

      “How can GMO be safe when the scientists does not have a clue on how genes work….”

      We have been learning how genes work since 1953.

      Life is not technology, but it is understood by science. We know how life works, we can construct a living organism from inanimate chemicals. You seem to have a vitalistic view which was abandoned by science centuries ago.

      Don’t think that the louder you shout the more truth there will be in what you say. Irrational rants get less attention that carefully researched evidence.

  19. Gordon Glass

    Industry’s ability to get more yield out of the same metre squared isn’t news. Nor is squeezing more out of a small space automatically desirable.

    In the case of meat we know we can grow animals faster and bigger using fast bulking corn and soy feeds, limiting their movement, adding steroids to build muscle bulk and antibiotics to keep disease at bay. Because of the ‘efficient’ use of space (meaning animals are sardined together) antibiotics are a must. And so meat production is going the way of agricultural post war production – UP – from 71 million tonnes in 1961 to 284 in 2007.

    On all sides you’ve got the same mechanical ‘take no prisoners’ approach – researchers have found that British fish stocks are down 94% since 1937.

    There have been 250,000 reported suicides amongst Indian farmers over the past 15 years, bonded to GM production and the related debt for herbicides and single use seeds with attendant worries.

    World grain production increased by 250% between 1950 and 1984 with the rather amusingly named ‘Green Revolution’. This, I think, is a matter of historical fact.

    But it’s not rocket science. It’s corporate industrial thinking. You take cheap abundant oil and gas and make it an energy input for agriculture in the form of fertilisers (natural gas), pesticides (oil) and hydrocarbon fuelled irrigation (draining colossal and excessive amounts of water in the process). If that’s not enough, to push your yields a bit further its simple. Run an engine. Feed the exhaust to your tomatoes. It’s CO2, they love it. Badge it green whilst you are at it, why don’t you – everyone else is claiming green credentials…

    The Green Revolution increased the energy flow to agriculture by an average of 50 times the energy input of traditional agriculture. The energy for the Green Revolution was provided by cheap gas and oil. So, the notion that today’s agricultural practices are somehow stupendously efficient (at least in terms of CO2 and energy) is rather comical don’t you think?!

  20. Graham

    No evidence that farmer suicides are caused by GE:
    it’s propoganda

    1. Gordon Glass

      I think we could probably agree that “Rapid increase in indebtedness is at the root of farmers taking their lives” – there is ample detailed evidence that this is the case…

      What Vandana Shiva argues makes sense to me… why ditch renewable seeds that have been nurtured over 100s of years and are productive under rain, with one crop only seeds which rely on heavy inputs of fertilisers and pesticides and precious water (from wells etc)?

      The following shocker in Vandana’s article speaks volumes:

      “Cotton seed used to cost Rs 7/kg. Bt-cotton seeds were sold at Rs 17,000/kg”

      Given this kind of shift in input costs I think it’s reasonable to surmise that not all India’s non-subsidised farmers have been able to comfortably absorb the GM input costs, hence their bad debts, hence their despair.

    2. Graham

      Response to Shiva re suicides and seed-saving here:

      Shiva is ideologically committed to keeping farmers poor. The way out of poverty always involves improved technology. Farmers do not generally rely on saved seed- unless they are poor. Seed-saving is a specialized activity; farmers are not stupid and generally find it more productive to buy the best quality seed to maximise yield. Plenty of other reasons for farmers debt leading to suicide are given in the link I provide here.

    3. Gordon Glass

      Perhaps it is worth reminding ourselves that a sense of control over our lives and destiny is a fundamental human need. Without it, we get depressed, in extremis suicidal.
      I rather think this is the point missed by the pro GM lobby here. GM makes third world farmers dependent on a third party for their means of production. When the GM approach doesn’t work out (and clearly it doesn’t in some unfortunate cases) farmers find themselves in frightening debt relative to where they’d have been if they’d suffered a crop failure using old less intensive farming methods.
      Perhaps farmers feel under pressure to sell their heritage (for that read their parcel of land) to pay off that debt. So they go from being self sufficient land owners to, at best, low wage earners working for a larger land owner. This isn’t a recipe for delight. It’s the kind of thing you’d kick yourself for and feel ashamed about.
      So maximising food production in less developed countries is not the be all and end all. An area of self-sufficient small landowners with a sense of self-determination and independence and community and low enough costs to ride out a failed crop or two ought not to be confused with poverty.
      Could debt forgiveness or ‘no win no fee’ GM packages be the right middle way to allow GM to deliver its promise without the attendant farmer death toll. What say you Monsanto?

    4. Gordon Glass

      Hopeful Guardian article here on how farmers in Bihar have found a way to achieve record rice yields with ‘no GM, and no herbicide’…. called System of Root Intensification:

  21. Bry Lynas

    I am a very small scale organic grower and I have, over the years, become more and more irritated by irksome organic regulations. For example, I think that GM should become incorporated, bit by bit, into organic systems so that we can achieve vital things like blight-resistant potatoes and nitrogen-fixing crops other than legumes. I know the latter is the Holy Grail which is proving difficult to achieve.

    There can be no doubt that organic growing is less land-use efficient for one obvious reason: rotations require part of the land in use to be non-productive for one year because it needs to recover fertility by use of N-fixing green manures. From a biodiversity viewpoint, this is a problem because humans need to use existing agricultural land as efficiently as possible to produce more food if remaining forests and other wild places are not to be further encroached upon (along with their diverse organisms). But it has to be said that organic inefficiency pales into relative insignificance when you consider the land cost and gross inefficency of producing meat and dairy products versus eating veg and fruit directly. Boring maybe for meat-eaters but an inescapable truth!

    1. Leo G

      Bry, My father parents came from the poor of Italy to Canada. They were peasants and lived as such. My father learned how to plant his vege garden from his father. Now of course I am only talking about maybe 250 square feet, so I am not intending this to be a comparison to what you do. But he did everything organic, and WRONG! He never rotated his planting scheme, corn goes here, tomatoes there, etc. He would put fresh chicken manure into every hole or row and plant/seed directly onto it. Etc. From my reading of all types of gardening books I know that his garden should have failed. Well let me put it to you this way,I couldn’t eat corn for about 20 years after moving out, because during the summer, every second dinner was corn! He sold the over production of his tomatoes, cukes, corn, etc to the local grocery store.

      I get this may have been a fluke of nature. Wharever. I have followed in his footsteps, except the direct planting onto the raw manure, and the use of chemical fertilizer as a boost, and so far, my success has been almost as good as his.

      Just a story, nothing more.

    2. Scott

      You need to look at living mulches. That will solve your production inefficiency problems. You could also consider a very controlled and closely managed incorporation of animal husbandry into your methods. That actually solves many problems of which you speak. A weed or a pest is no longer a weed or pest if it becomes forage for a chicken. (or whatever)

      “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted & thoughtful observation rather than protracted & thoughtless labour; & of looking at plants & animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.”
      Bill Mollison
      co-founder of permaculture

      No doubt CAFO is ridiculously inefficient, but not all animal husbandry needs to be. There are solutions. For example: If you grow a legume like alfalfa as a between the row cover crop, then mow that as hay, it fixes a slow release of nitrogen and at the same time feeds an animal which produces manure that in turn can be composted added to the soil during the dormant season. Now suddenly you pumped up the production of your veggie crops and added additional food production on the same exact amount of land, and eliminated the need to run your fields fallow.

      Once you start looking at your fields this way, as a whole micro managed ecosystem, instead of a one dimensional crop, you will find many many many possible ways to easily out produce any conventional model. To be honest there isn’t any conventional model that even comes close to a properly managed organic farm that approaches these problems in this manner. It takes skill though. You really have to think about what you are doing.

      Please understand I am not trying to be critical of your methods. You are on the right track by producing food organically. But I am simply trying to open your mind to possibilities you maybe hadn’t thought of before.

  22. Richard


    Why does the idea of labelling irritate you? Should people be compelled to eat GM produce whether they want to or not? I can quite see that the arguments about safety are complex and speculative, and that organic farming, if it occurred on a much larger scale, would bring disadvantages as well as advantages, but I don’t see how the complexity of these questions justifies withholding from consumers this basic information about what they are eating. Why not try to win the argument openly? That’s what we are supposed to do in open democratic societies, isn’t it? You are in effect saying that people you presume to be more irrational or less well-informed than yourself should have no choice over what they put inside their bodies. Would you extend that principle of secrecy to other political questions?

    1. Chris S.

      “Badgley et al. (2007) estimate OA productivity by applying OA/AG yield ratios calculated from the literature to national food production statistics from the FAO database…The conclusion is wrong because, quite apart from the error in the yield ratio itself, food production in developing countries is not achieved by OA. Agriculture there is dominated by conventional methods that currently consume 70% of total world fertilizer use (IFA, 2007). In other words the authors have applied an overestimate of the relative yield of OA in developing countries to a gross overestimate of its productivity there. If crop production by organic methods in
      the developing world were even 70% of current recorded value,
      then that combined with an yield ratio (1.74) that is substantially greater than a defensible maximum (=1), would lead to an overestimation of 250% in that calculation of productivity of OA.
      So much for arithmetic, but there is another serious agronomic misunderstanding. The authors have failed to realize that any significant increase in OA from its current small base of world agricultural area (0.3%) will increase competition for limited organic nutrients. That in turn will
      reduce the beneficial impact of OA on the low-input component of agriculture in developing countries and increase the current disadvantage of OA in developed countries. Crop yields and/or cropped areas will fall as an increasing proportion of land is devoted to biological regeneration of

      A critical analysis of the nature and use of OA/AG yield ratios does not support the proposition that large-scale OA productivity would be sufficient to feed the world or that legume cover crops could replace N fertilizer use without disrupting current food production. There is, therefore, no newly established production frontier for OA so that those who use the conclusions of the study by Badgley et al. (2007) to promote or support OA will have been misled and limited resources for research and development would be misallocated. The biggest losers are likely to be resource-poor farmers in developing countries.”

  23. Marky Mark

    If the bean sprouts were contaminated with e coli, because of the use of manure – does that mean the problem is with the organic food or with the actual procedure to make the food?

    And consider this: the problem at the moment is not inefficient agricultural use but rather inefficient distribution of the food, which you can see in any food-selling establishment: why do a western european need to choose between I don’t know how many variations of say, coffee, just to take one example? The last time I looked there was 22 shelf metres of just that one thing. And it is just the foodstore around the corner in the centre of a small town (60000 people).

    I think the very real problem is that we need to think about how and why we do things. I don’t see driving electric cars or eating superefficient GMO food in pill form is going to make life on the planet as a whole any better. That we can’t go on like this – radical change is needed and it is going to cost us some things we take for granted.

    1. Pekka Taipale

      “does that mean the problem is with the organic food or with the actual procedure to make the food?”

      I think we should say the problem is that there is a risk (of E. coli) in a procedure used in making “organic” food — a risk that you don’t have in food that is grown with mineral fertilizers only.

      That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t allow making “organic” food, but it means we shouldn’t allow claims that “organic” food is always healthier and lower risk than food produced by other industrial methods. Because it isn’t. There are various risks and downsides with each method. As economists, tend to say, life is not just about rights and wrongs; it’s mostly about trade-offs.

    2. Scott

      That is completely ignoring the fact that the breeding ground for these diseases is CAFO. Since CAFO is non organic and horribly destructive to the environment, how can you blame organic on a problem caused by conventional? Pretty hypocritical don’t you think? It has been well known for generations that overcrowding is the perfect breeding ground for disease. You couldn’t design a more unsafe agricultural model than the current conventional factory farming model with its overcrowded unsanitary conditions for the animals and the sewage lagoons full of toxic waste, supported by monocrop fields susceptible to rapid rainwater runoff causing floods.

      Having said that. Sure there are good and bad farmers in every agricultural model. Some know what they are doing, others not so much. But as a statistical general rule, the chances of getting a nasty bug or toxic chemical residue is far more likely in conventional agriculture than in organic agriculture. I already posted to you the proof in a scientific meta study, and that study included so called “industrial organic” which is barely better than conventional!

      If you were to study actual modern organic models the risk is much less even than the study shows.

  24. Chris S.


    David O’Connor has weighed in on the paper in the OP – in short he thinks it’s pretty poor, partly for the reasons you’ve highlighted…

  25. J.B.

    Land required using Organic Biointensive Agriculture to produce (sustainably) enough food to sustain one person for a year – 4,000 square feet. (based on John Jeavons research –

    Land required using Petrochemical Industrial Agriculture to produce (sustainably) enough food to sustain one person for a year – Not Applicable

    Not Applicable because mono-crop industrial agriculture does not produce the biodiverse foods necessary to sustain a human being (Can’t live on corn and soy alone). Not applicable because Petrochemical industrial agriculture is not, nor will every be, sustainable in any sense of the word.

    1. Scott

      Well put but it would have been nice to actually include yields per acre and show that organic can actually produce more food per acre and sustainably too!

  26. RealityCheck

    Sorry but it is time to take harsh look at reality, coming from someone who makes a living in agriculture VS studying and hypothesizing on it. Organic farming is a great concept, and I encourage many to try it, however, the reality is it is not sustainable. On a small scale its great, feeding a world population of billions it is impossible. To begin with, libestock get sick and hurt. Reality sucks but its a fact. Most organic operations do one of two things, dont treat and pray. If it dies, “thats life”, if it lives thats great. These animals are not wild, they’re domesticated and not doing everything in your power to treat them right is deplorable. The other option is treat them and sell them as non-organic.
    Were over the first hurdle, now lets talk about where to keep them. The best in the US, requires at least 2 acres per unit. If we farm 2 acres, we can usually get about 5+ tons of alfalfa from the same acre. So, lets think through this logically, lets take our cattle to land that cant or shouldn’t be farmed and put our cattle on it, run it lower than maximum capacity (we graze it at capacity and we will destroy it during a drought), then, take the offspring of our pasture herd and put them into a feedlot, use our alfalfa and other grains, and finish them to make an appealing final product. By the way, the USDA allows for organic cattle to be fed in confinement when required to conserve range conditions or for animal health and welfare.
    We forgot about the hormones! The evil hormones from monsanto and other companies that are going to kill us all. The average amount of hormones a cow received in its lifetime is equal to about two daily doeses of womens birth control. What! You mean the hormones that are encouraged for women have more than the nations food supply?! People talk about how much hormones are affecting everyone, lets think on this. Hormones are difficult to remove from waste water. Maybe all the hormones are in our water system as result of the judicious use of hormones in our everyday lives.
    Heres the point for anyonr still reading, is modern agriculture perfect? No, lets be realists. Is organic the answer? No way!! How about both sides spend time working together and look for real solutions. Remember how many people work in agriculture to. We have to consider employment in this process as well as profitability. There has to be money on the table. Reality is a bitch but until we all consider these elements this will never be more than academic and will go nowhere.

  27. Scott

    @ RealityCheck
    You want a harsh look at Reality? You think it is just academic?

    Every single one of you guys from Mark Lynas who thinks that Organic is land-inefficient, to Clyde Davies who thinks without Haber Bosch nitrogen 1/2 the population would starve, to you who think CAFOs are more profitable and efficient than pasture raised. Here is a real farmer, that farms full scale commercial, who out produces you all in both productivity, efficiency calories per acre yield and profit. AND has done it by shifting from a chemical/GMO based system and gradually added step by step organic technology in order to do it. No BS here. This is reality! All you skeptics’ fallacious arguments are smashed to nothing by a real working farm using Holistic Management.


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